12 Strategies for High-Impact Corporate Training
For more than 20 years we have been developing and delivering corporate training programs, in a broad range of complex and competitive industries. We continually refined and improved our process, always looking for opportunities to improve both learner satisfaction and business impact.
Here, in no particular order, are the 12 key principles and practices that guide our development process today.
1. Align with Internal SMEs
Even when we are delivering one of our standard “off the shelf” training programs such as REAL Selling or REAL Communication we work with the client organization to identify individuals who already exhibit the competencies we are training to. This sometimes requires time in the field with a sales team, or interviews with individuals in the workplace to identify those who already possess the skills. We capture stories and ideas and “real world” examples from these people so that when we facilitate the actual training program we can deliver much more than just a theoretical model – we can point out how these skills are already being successfully leveraged in the business by specific top performers.
While this approach definitely takes more time, and is occasionally challenging to implement (when you can’t find any internal SMEs with the skills you are looking for) it is clearly worth the effort. Because the training you deliver is more accepted, more easily assimilated, and feels to the participants more like a cross-pollination of peer best practices rather than someone from the outside coming in and telling people what they have not been doing correctly up to this point.
2. Align with Business Strategy
A corporate training initiative should tie back directly to the organization’s overall strategic goals. No training should be developed or executed unless the goal is to drive specific business results. There should be explicit alignment between learning objectives and business objectives.
Of course this occurs in degrees, depending upon the breadth and depth of the training initiative. If you are developing a brief program to help receptionists answer the telephone more effectively, with minimal development and execution investment, then your tie back to business objectives can be understood, without extensive documentation.
But if you are planning a significant investment of time, money and resources into a training initiative, then the tie back to business objectives should be formal and documented.
3. Adults are Just-in-Time Learners
Adults inherently prefer to learn new concepts and skills are the point when they are most relevant, which means their attention is greatest when the skill is being (or about to be) applied is a real world situation (or a simulation thereof). And in the modern work environment where most employees have plenty of items on their task list every day, this preference for just-in-time learning is intensified. For curriculum developers this highlights the need for practical application of skills and concepts during the training, as well as detailed examples of specific application in the learner’s work environment.
Don’t assume that training participants will “connect the dots” and understand exactly how the skills and concepts will apply to their world; tell them, show them, engage them in discussion regarding near-term application. Also incorporate experiential exercises into the curriculum which require the participants to apply the skills and concepts immediately.
4. Adults are Problem Solvers
Adults don’t have to be spoon fed their training. You can present them with a business challenge, a bit of training regarding the resources available to them, then tell them to figure out a way to address the issue successfully. Give them the time, resources and and the support they need to solve the problem. They’ll do it, and stay totally engaged throughout the process.
For example,. imagine you need to train a group of people regarding how to use a particular software program. You could certainly follow the standard practice of sitting them all down at computers and slowly walking them through each element of functionality step-by-step.
Or you could divide them into a number of small groups; give each group a workstation and a task which will require them to understand the computer system on order to accomplish it. The group could be allotted a certain amount of time to figure it out, with the ability to access certain information resources such as online courses, quick questions to the instructor/facilitator, or attending brief mini-demonstrations that are scheduled throughout the time period. You don’t have to make it simple or easy. Let each group figure out which information resources they want to leverage, and then give them the time they need to solve the problem. They will solve it and most likely remain engaged throughout the event.
Some trainers make the mistake of thinking that they need to be the “fountain of all wisdom” regarding the training topic, and while sometimes this is the case (such as with the delivery of compliance training, where someone really needs to know all of the rules and regulations), most of the time this is just added pressure on the trainer which does not create a better learning experience.
So remember to give them a problem to solve. A tough (and relevant) one, not an easy one. This will keep them engaged and drive deeper learning that lasts longer.
5. Determine Your Expected ROI in Advance
Don’t wait until after the training program is complete to begin the ROI (Return on Investment) assessment process. You should know in advance exactly what behaviors you are trying to change, what no activities you are trying to drive, what capabilities you are trying to develop. And you should know the expected business impact. From there, it should not be hard to develop a good/better/best ROI model.
Training today is subject to the same measurements as every other business activity. It must show a return on investment, either in the long term or the short term. Though best companies realize that many training and development initiatives take years to fully achieve their goals, these time-frames are identified up front and the programs are re-evaluated on a regular basis in light of changing business drivers.
6. Adults are Competitive
We all like to win. And we all hate to lose, especially in full view of our peers. This trait is so strong that often even seemingly small “prizes” or rewards delivered during a training event can have a major impact on engagement and participation. Here are just a few ideas for leveraging our competitive nature during a training event:
- Announce at the beginning of a workshop that you have a limited number of “prizes” to be distributed to individuals who make productive/insightful comments during the facilitated group discussions. Clarify that you will be the sole arbiter of which comments are deemed “productive or insightful.”
- In a negotiation skills workshop set up actual negotiation scenarios and notify participants in advance that their outcome will be announced to the entire group. Those who negotiate the best outcome will receive a prize or special recognition.
- Tell participants there will be a test at the end of the training event and that all scores will be posted publicly, sorted from high to low.
Note: Some training professionals are uncomfortable with overtly competitive tactics and some work environments are more sensitive to this than others. Salespeople and executive leaders tend to respond very well to competitive exercises, compliance and legal teams, not so much. So it is important to know the specific environment/culture within which a training event will occur, and make adjustments accordingly.
7. Don’t Train in a Vacuum
When developing an individual training curriculum it is easy to get myopic and focus only on the specific training event. But the reality is that every training event is executed with a CONTEXT of other training events, competing business priorities, departmental initiatives, etc. One common example that occurs with sales training vendors, if previous sales training events have occurred. If the vendor simply delivers their standard “off the shelf” training without reference to other programs or training events, participants may feel that there is no cohesive thought process involved in the overall training plan.
When training is conducted by an organization’s internal staff, remember that these may be the same managers who also perform evaluations, set performance objectives, and draft compensation and promotion systems for their employees. This will not go unnoticed by program participants and may impact their response (positively or negatively).
The important point to remember here is that it is important to understand the full corporate cultural context within which a training initiative will be delivered.
8. Adults are Practical Learners
Knowledge and skills that are acquired through training and development programs must be relevant and useful, both to the organization and to the individual’s work requirements. Employees only participate actively in programs that will add to their current or future work effectiveness while contributing to organizational success. Training should save people time, not add to their workload.
No one should ever leave a corporate training event thinking “that was interesting, but not really applicable to me.”
When true on-the-job training isn’t possible, you can certainly have employees perform “real” tasks and projects during experiential exercises or role play scenarios. Learning is built around action rather than theory. Instead of a theoretical discussion about strategic planning or project management, for instance, participants develop a usable strategic plan or create deliverables for their project. Employees learn in their own way and at their own pace through assignments that get real work done.
To the degree possible, identify opportunities for employees to get elements of their “real work” completed during a workshop while leveraging the new skills, concepts or resources which are the focus of the training.
9. Always Incorporate a Reinforcement Mechanism
If not used regularly, new skills and knowledge quickly atrophy. No matter how effective a training session may be, there is bound to be erosion of understanding and application in the days and weeks (sometimes hours) following the event. For this reason the maintenance of the new skill or knowledge once training has been completed is critical.
Follow-up performance tests to prove and sustain knowledge and skill gain can help. Reinforcement emails, videos and brief quizzes can also provide effective reinforcement. When working with a training vendor, don’t just assume that their training reinforcement strategy (or lack thereof) is the right approach. The training client should “own” the reinforcement strategy and direct the vendor to execute that strategy as needed.
10. Survey for logistics immediately. Survey for business impact later.
If your goal is simply to validate all the time and resources you have invested in a training initiative, then a quick feedback survey following the workshop will certainly serve your purpose. But if you are trying to objectively determine the degree to which the training had a positive business impact, you may need to take a deeper look.
In many cases you will not be able to determine the actual business impact of a training initiative until many months following the actual event. And of course many months later you will have moved on to other issues and priorities. So unless you plan in advance to conduct an assessment in the future, it most likely will not happen.
It can also be a little scary, thinking about the reality of conducting a survey or assessment 6 months following a training event. What if they don;t even remember the event? What if, in the end, they really aren’t applying any new skills or concepts? What if nothing has changed? If you are focused only on validating the value of “training” to higher ups within your company, these thoughts will cause you angst. But if you are focused on truly determining the business impact of training investments, these thoughts will drive you to conduct long-term post-training assessments.
11. Blended Learning PROCESS always beats a single training event
The most common form of corporate training is the 2-day workshop with little or no pre-work or follow-up. Why is this the most common type of training event? Certainly not because it produces the best results. The dirty little secret may be that it is the most common because it is the easiest for training vendors to execute. Facilitated workshops are (relatively) easy. Requiring (and monitoring) pre-work and post-training reinforcement is messy. Of course sometimes a facilitated workshop is all you need, if the skills and concepts being delivered are relatively straightforward and easy to implement.
But if you are driving any type of significant change in skills, habits, attitudes or culture, you should consider a blended learning approach such as:
12. Leverage Managers to Drive Accountability
One of the most effective (yet least utilized) methods for reinforcing a corporate training initiative is to pre-train all direct report managers/supervisors of the training participants. This involves providing a summary of training content plus specific direction regarding the manager’s expected role in reinforcing the training. Managers can be provided with a variety of reinforcement resources:
- Coaching discussion guides
- Quizzes (printed or online) for participants, proctored by the manager
- Reinforcement handouts
- Sample email message to send to participants at intervals
By actively engaging managers in the reinforcement process and clearly defining their expected role in providing post-training coaching discussions, you are much more likely to drive successful adoption of new skills, habits, attitudes, etc.