Business Page – November 10th, 2002


Is Training Overrated?

Introduction

A few weeks ago we touched on the impact of the accelerated rate of migration on the country including employers. Some readers have reminded me that with the devastating crime wave we have been experiencing since the beginning of this year, it is not only employees, graduates and dependents who have been migrating but employers as well, turning human resource management on its head. Without this new element, we have seen businesses responding to rapid changes in their industries and within their workforce by collectively spending millions of dollars on training various levels of their staff, including managers, on an assortment of training courses mainly sold to them by training institutions more concerned with profits than the development of the trainees.

Human resources departments are often judged by their expenditure on training rather than by the quality of their hires or the training programmes for which they sponsor employees. Familiar themes such as management by objectives, business process improvement, business reengineering, total quality management, branding, leadership, change management, customer service and building customer loyalty continue to be presented in various incarnations. Without any reference to the broader objectives of the entity, staff and managers clamor for training and indeed for a short time after the training ends, the trainees are indeed charged up but with conditions at their place of work unchanged, they too soon revert to the status quo.

It would be wrong to suggest that the fault lies with the programmes or those who present them when the real problem lies in the failure by management to understand the objectives of training and to consider whether the choice of the programme is really relevant to the needs of the staff identified for participation.

Ineffective Programmes

It is doubtful whether any study has ever been done by any organisation including the group comprising human resources practitioners here in Guyana to determine whether the many seminars and training programmes that are held provide the much anticipated benefits. The empirical evidence suggests that regardless of the frequency, sophistication of delivery or quality of a training programme’s content, the impact on the organisation is not significant particularly in relation to the money and time involved and the specific needs of the employer and the employee. This is understandably often bewildering and frustrating for many business leaders or Chief Executives confronted with it but who nevertheless desperately continue in effect to squander resources on ineffective training programmes.  

Theoretical Presentation

The problem appears rooted in the fact that in buying training packages much of the focus is on the quality of the marketing of the service rather than effective execution or action. The person who appears smart and who can rattle off the latest jargon and catch phrases is often almost revered. The more complex the presentation, the more the stature of the individual seems to increase and it is not unusual for persons to leave seminars with little else but mantras and the latest popular buzzwords. What is often ignored is the purpose of training and unless this is clearly established and embraced, resources will continue to be wasted.

In practice, those who make the decisions regarding the selection of the trainers whether for in-house training or attendance at some external location, seldom ever turn up for a few minutes to obtain a first hand exposure of the programme or request a full report from the presenters and the participants. Do they insist that the programme carry some form of objective testing to determine how much their staffs have learnt? Do they monitor performance following the training and do they really know what was the expected result from it? To the extent that the answers to many of these questions is likely to be no, it would not be too bold to say that it was another almost useless but expensive exercise.

Fundamental Premise

While employees rightly regard training as a right which paradoxically make them more marketable, employers can benefit immensely from well thought out and properly executed training of their employees. The fundamental premise must be that training is intended to ensure effective execution of the organisation’s strategies by its employees at all levels. This implies that the institutional strategies must be known and that actions to support those strategies are taken in a structured manner. While this may appear to be an oversimplification, if decisions on training are taken with this fundamental principle in mind the resources allocated to training would be better utilised. Too often training is viewed as essentially a classroom activity and does not provide the means of converting that theoretical knowledge gained into productive activity. Executives who want better returns on training dollars must continuously ask themselves what are the expected results from training programmes and must also have objective measures in place to evaluate those results.

Simple Analysis

In order to ascertain the training needs of an entity it is critical that a determination be made of what the employees are capable of doing, what they are currently doing and what management expects them to be able to do both in their current jobs and over their near-term careers - hopefully with the same employer. This simple analysis will quickly help executives identify the gap between what is and what should be, highlight training needs and provide a sound basis for selection of a particular training programme and methodology. It should also be borne in mind that while anyone can attend a seminar, take copious notes and parrot all the catchy terms, the ultimate objective of the training should not be forgotten - effective execution of organisational strategies.      

Successful Methods

The challenge for management therefore is not only to identify training needs accurately but also to make sure that things learned during training sessions are translated into actions on the job. Two of the most outstanding instances of successful training are evident in the medical profession and in the military. Surgeries and medical diagnoses are carried out in real life situations where mistakes will result in serious harm, injury or even death (in addition to the multi million dollar malpractice lawsuits medical personnel are often confronted with). However despite the fact that mistakes are made, one must concede that the level of success achieved reflected in the lives saved or illnesses cured is indicative of effectiveness not only of the training but also of the training methods.

Reality

The second example of effective training programmes alluded to occur in the military where drills and simulated battles are an-ongoing part of everyday activity. Military operations are geared towards combat effectiveness and the only way to really ensure that this is achieved is by what could only be termed real world measures. Indeed, any war is fought twice, first in the simulation and then against the enemy. The reality of the situation in both the medical and military environment is that if training is not successfully translated into execution then more than likely the result will be death. The point therefore is for training to be directly correlated to what is normally done in the course of a regular day’s work or activities rather than based strictly on theoretical concepts. Unless this is clearly understood by management the most dynamic consultant with the most well-structured, sophisticated training programs will bear little fruit.

No Substitute

While people can learn about something by sitting in and listening to various theories concepts and ideas, there is no substitute for reality based, hands-on, on the job training. While on the surface this may not appear to be the most efficient or cost effective method of training, it is apparent that in the long run a greater depth of understanding is obtained if one is actively involved in a process. The practical method allows for learning through experience although there is some significant cost involved because of the mistakes or errors that are likely to occur in this situation. If mistakes are used as learning tools then they can serve be useful as part of the training mechanism but they must be carefully controlled so that the resultant damage is minimised.

Training is also no substitute for an effective hiring policy supported by regular assessments to identify needs of the particular employee. If the wrong person is hired any expenditure is likely to be largely ineffective if not wasted. Employees must also understand that self-learning is a major form of career development and the responsibility is not that of the employer alone.    

Conclusion

If an entity wishes to distance itself from its competitors it must prepare its employees to carry out its strategies with almost flawless precision. This can only be achieved if those employees receive the appropriate level of training that would ensure that the entity distinguishes itself by its execution. Traditional training methods will not cut the mustard and unless executives recognise this, frustration levels will rise proportionately with expenditures on training. Slickly tailored programmes in a vacuum will not do the job but must be linked to and integrated with those activities people are required to execute on a daily basis.

Theory is no substitute for doing and no matter how impressive the wrapping on the package results are what count in a competitive environment. The effective executive is the one who recognises this immutable truth and makes the decisions on training that will provide the most bang for the limited available bucks.