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Boss’s Tip of the Week #32: Training: How to Keep People Learning and Growing

The Boss's Survival GuideHere is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Remember the inevitable dinnertime question? “What did you learn in school today?” When’s the last time anyone asked, “What did you learn at work today?”
 
Somehow we get it into our heads that school is a place to learn and work is a place to use what we’ve learned. As a result, there’s almost no focus on learning in the workplace. That’s unfortunate. If employees are really our greatest assets, it only makes sense to invest in them. Training improves employee contributions. It creates better teams. It is also a tremendous retention tool.
 
So put training at the top of your to-do list:
 
Make an inventory. Before you offer to teach anybody anything, find out what they already know. That doesn’t mean you need to put together a complicated formal inventory. Just create a simple form that asks employees to identify their

• Computer skills (What software do they know? Are they Internet-savvy? Do they have specialized skills, such as familiarity with local area networks?)
• Language skills (Which job-related or computer languages are they fluent in? Consider writing and reading skills as well as speaking and understanding.)
• Equipment skills (Can they operate all the equipment in your office such as the telephone system, copier, fax machine?)
Ask employees to note whether they have any job-related certifications (such as being certified by the American Red Cross in first aid). Also ask them to list any training courses they remember taking in their current or previous jobs.
The goal is to get a sense of the general skill level of employees and to identify people who may be able to coach their co-workers.

Identify training needs. Determine specifically what you’d like employees to be able to do. A lot of training fails because it isn’t measurable or applicable; it’s a generalized knowledge dump. Suppose you think employees need better computer skills, for example. What do you envision? Do you want them to be able to open a word processing program, write a letter and save it, print the letter, and use a mail-merge function to print an address label? Or do you want them to be able to open a spreadsheet program, create a spreadsheet to use as an expense-report form, enter the expenses of an actual trip, and save and print the report? Develop specific, measurable training goals that will serve as learning objectives.
 
Employees may also have ideas of training they’d like. Solicit those ideas at staff meetings, during performance reviews, or through informal surveys. Don’t feel compelled to find a way to honor every request, though. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t and shouldn’t. Training should never be offered for training’s sake; it always should support a business goal.
If you think an employee’s request has merit, ask him to justify the training. The idea isn’t to intimidate or discourage people, but to have them think in business terms.
 
Look for cross-training opportunities. The receptionist is out sick and within minutes the awful truth is apparent: no one else knows how to use the phone system. Or you lay awake at night in terror that your system administrator, the person everyone turns to when they have computer problems, will resign.
 
No one wants to be in those situations, and training can help you avoid them. Take time to make a list of all the skills your department needs to keep functioning. Beside each one, identify who has the skill. If only one name is beside any skill, it’s time for cross training. Have employees teach each other. Then ask the employee who has just learned the skill to teach you. Teaching is often the best way to learn, so employees will reinforce the skills they just gained and you’ll learn, too.
 
Offer training before you have a problem. Don’t wait until you’re fighting a crisis.
 
Find out what training is readily available. If you have an internal training department (or an HR department that offers training), become familiar with what it offers. Are there courses your staff needs? Encourage employees to sign up. If you have a handful of people who need training, but not enough to justify a whole class, find out if another department is being trained; perhaps your staff can sit in on that training. In addition to teaching courses themselves, a training department may be able to recommend off-the-shelf training products or may have licensed certain training programs for company use.
 
If nothing currently exists internally to meet your needs, see if HR or the training department will work with you to develop and test a program.
 
Investigate outside resources. If internal training isn’t feasible, pursue outside resources. If the training you need is fairly generic and widely needed (computer training, for example), you may be able to contract with a local community college. Many colleges work with businesses, and rates are usually inexpensive. For training that is highly technical or specialized, or training you’d like customized, you’ll probably have to use a professional training firm. Such training can be expensive, but expertise usually is.
 
Choose a training package carefully. The most affordable way to use a professional firm is to choose an off-the-shelf training package. Such packages, written by the training company, provide instructional materials (to train the trainer), a training script, workbooks, and other support material. Most often, no one from the firm actually does the training.
 
How do you choose a training package? Find out which training programs are available by checking out Training or T+D magazines. You can see many of the products available and talk to training company representatives at the American Society for Training and Development’s annual conference.

• Ask for preview materials. Most training firms make material (such as videos or workbooks) available for preview. The preview period is usually limited, and some charge a preview fee. (When they do, the fee may be applied to the purchase if you decide to use the program.) Study the materials. Did you learn anything? Are the learning objectives clear? Is the tone appropriate? Does the amount of information seem appropriate?
• Ask for references and call them.
• Ask about the development of the material. What are the author’s credentials? Was the training pilot tested? If so, who was the sample audience? How old is the program? Is it current?
• Clarify costs. Are you buying the program outright to use as you like? Or are you licensing the program for a specified number of uses? Are ongoing fees paid per trainee or for materials? Are you entitled to any updates or revisions to the program?
• If your staff is large enough for it to make sense, do a pilot. Use the program to train a group and get their feedback. Did they learn anything? What did they think worked or didn’t work?

Choose a training firm carefully. Packages aren’t always the best solution. If you need training that is technical or customized, a training firm can work with you to develop a program, and then teach people in your company to deliver the training. Or choose a firm to design and deliver the training on a contract basis. How do you choose a firm?

• Review their promotional literature or visit their Internet site. What sort of work do they do?
• Ask for references and call them. Ask how well the training worked, but also ask about the client’s culture. You may wish to be very involved in developing a program, for example, whereas someone else may have wanted no involvement. Or the training company’s laid-back style may have worked well in the client’s Silicon Valley work-site, but raise eyebrows in your buttoned-down corporate headquarters. Try to find references with a culture similar to yours.
• Ask for a preview. See if you can attend a training session at another client, or ask if the firm will do a preview session for you and other stakeholders. Get a sense of the trainer’s style and how he presents material.
• Find out who’ll you be working with. Large training firms are like consulting firms and have many employees. Don’t assume you’ll be working with the first person with whom you meet.
• Find out how the firm develops curriculum. What are the principal’s credentials? What resources do they use? How customized to your needs will the training be?
• Explore the firm’s approach to training. Will trainers lecture, or will the training be interactive? What technique does the firm use to engage people who have different learning styles?
• Ask how the firm will evaluate the training. How will they know whether the training has been effective?
• Clarify pricing. Are you paying a flat fee to develop the program or a sliding scale? What control do you have over the final cost? Once the program is complete, who owns it—the training firm or your company? For the training itself, do you pay a set fee per session or is it priced per trainee? Who will pay to produce any necessary training materials?

Get outside the box. Most corporate training is methodical, highly structured, and even a bit, well, boring. It doesn’t have to be. Training can be fun if you let your imagination run wild. Ken Adelman teaches management lessons by having trainees act out scenes from Shakespeare. Dick Eaton, founder of the training firm Leapfrog Innovations Inc. has asked trainees to design and construct holes for a miniature golf course. Other trainers have taught management skills using clips from classic films and by having trainees organize an assembly line to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
 
Put the training in context. Once you’ve chosen a course of action, explain it to employees. Tell them why you’ve decided to offer the training, why you selected the program or trainer you chose, and what you expect them to get out of it. Without that, employees can easily dismiss the training as the flavor of the day.
 
Apply the training. People won’t remember the training any longer than they remember a fast-food meal if they don’t use what they’ve learned. Structure activities that give employees the chance to use their new skills. Suppose employees just received sexual harassment training, for example. Take time at a staff meeting to discuss incidents in the news or on popular television shows. If an employee has just learned a word processing program, give him the chance to create, store, and print documents.
 
Evaluate the training. Don’t ask employees how the training went and accept “fine” as a definitive answer. Write formal evaluations of any training programs. Look for commonality in the observations. Were some parts of the training confusing or especially helpful? Do people still have questions that haven’t been answered?
If you’re teaching difficult skills (such as computer skills), consider a post-training test to measure whether employees met the learning objectives.
 
Be serious about training. Procedures and technical skills (such as typing, or creating a spreadsheet) can usually be learned quickly. But significant adult learning – the kind that results in behavior change or expertise – takes time. Don’t try to teach something complex in two hours and hope that it sticks. Invest in follow-up training or coaching to reinforce the learning. Give employees time to practice and use what they’ve learned, and reward their successes. Anything less will be much less effective, and perhaps little more than a waste of time and money. Don’t squander an opportunity for genuine change.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #32: Training: How to Keep People Learning and Growing
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