It was Winston Churchill who once uttered the famous phrase: “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.”

For most of us, our first experience of learning was at school where we were taught in a structured and methodical way, through a set curriculum over a set period. So is it any wonder we are conditioned to believe this is the way training should be done in the workplace?

Yet whilst a curriculum-style approach might be the easiest and most efficient way for many people to be trained, is it particularly effective? Does it improve our business performance and ultimately our profits, in a tangible or measurable way?

Efficient or effective: what does this mean?
I’ve always found it useful to ask myself this question after any training I have developed or participated in: was it efficient and was it effective?

• Efficient: did the training run smoothly in a well-organised and timely manner?

• Effective: did it improve individuals’ performances and that of the business?

A lot of generic training can be extremely efficient but is often ineffective. Ideally it needs to be both, but if I had to choose one over the other, it would be effectiveness. Ultimately, as with any other business investment, training must have a financial return in terms of customer satisfaction and/or profitability, otherwise where is the commercial benefit?

The world (and people) have changed
For many of us, our school years are those we look back on fondly. However, the real learning often took place after we left and we were exposed to a wider variety of developmental options.

We should also remember that the world and people’s lives have changed dramatically, especially since the start of the new millennium. There are so many new avenues open to learning for people, the internet and social media being just two obvious examples. People have less time, they learn differently. Some, of course, will still learn best being taught in a classroom, but most will prefer other methods.

A three-day training course might contain one or two golden nuggets of learning which can get lost among a mountain of other content. Think about the last course you went on. How much did you really learn and apply in your daily job? Wouldn’t it be good if we could just zoom in on the critical factors which would make all the difference?

Our staff seem to be getting younger and the millennial generation has a different learning style to one which many of their managers don’t favour – learning is active, mostly online or on phone and is a peer based exercise; they will trust their colleagues and a shared experience more than simply being told in a traditional training environment.

Training – or Learning strategies – getting a return on your investment
Your training, or learning strategy, will largely depend on the culture of the organisation. For example, if you work in an engineering/process-led compliance culture, the traditional curriculum approach is likely to be favoured simply because the organisation employs process-thinking people who will prefer a structured way of learning. However, the downside is a lot of generic courses may be delivered which have little or no measurable impact on the business. It may well be that there are some compliance requirements that are perfectly suited to be being delivered in this way so there is a consistent message given to everybody with little room for interpretation.

That’s not to say the learning hasn’t been useful but if a company is investing significant money in learning and development, there should be a defined ROI.

Often trying to convince people of other methods in this type of culture can be extremely difficult so why not look at it this way: just imagine investing £50k of your own money in some staff sales training and asking what was the payback. Would you be satisfied with the answer “Yes, we think the training had some impact but we can’t really measure how and where”.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for a curriculum-based approach because it can be useful to get everyone up to a certain standard, meet compliance criteria or provide a basis for background knowledge. But I’ve yet to be convinced that this approach on its own offers the best value from a ROI perspective.

It’s also easy for learning and development staff to hide behind this and avoid the scrutiny of having to present the actual impact. OK, there are the “happy sheets” but what do they tell us? How good the trainer was? Did they enjoy the course? Was the lunch good? However, the one vital bit of information we don’t get is – how did it improve the individuals’ performance for the financial benefit of the business?

The coaching/consultancy approach
In more creative cultures – media, recruitment, entertainment, for example – the approach can be very different, favouring a more individual, tailored consultative approach. Also consider small businesses which may not have the finances to send large groups of employees through training en masse.

One option is the coaching/consultancy approach. It might take a little while longer but it will often have a more defined and measurable impact on business performance and ultimately your bottom line.

5 Steps to Success
1, Start with the people
Rather than train large groups with a generic or pre-written course, instead start effectively with a blank sheet of paper. Working with small groups or individuals, together brainstorm and identify the key factors which will improve their performance and drive business success. You are in effect creating ‘the course content’ with the group as you go along, but in a way which is bespoke to them. You can make this a fun and motivational session which will create buy-in and ownership of the learning.

For example, in an automotive sales operation you might identify the following as the three main success factors. Be very specific.

• The amount and quality of prospecting calls
• The number and quality of vehicle demonstrations/test drives
• Accuracy of used car appraisals

In an automotive service operation, you might look at the following:

• Hours sold per job card – the ability of staff to upsell
• Workshop Recovery Rate – the ability of staff to retain your labour charge-out rate.
• Workshop Loading – is this being done in the most efficient and fairest way possible to reduce lost hours?

2, Establish current performance
Identify where the team or individuals currently are in terms of performance in relation to the above. Importantly ask the team how they rate themselves. There might be a gap between how they see their performance and what it is in reality.

Then identify the ‘blockers’ – the things that stop individuals performing as well as they could. What are the key skills, knowledge and behaviours, or indeed your management support, which will help them improve their performance?

Consider how they learn best? Some individuals might benefit from extra support working alongside a more experienced colleague; others might prefer to go online for some guidance.

Control the ‘controllables’ – always keep the individual focused on the things they can influence, not the things they can’t. We can waste a lot of time and energy worrying about factors which we can’t do anything about. A football team has an aim to win the match but that is a general aim not a training strategy – individual skills and individual understanding of team tactics are what the team needs to learn and execute.

3, Set targets
Set everyone some realistic targets which are action-focused, such as “using my improved prospecting skills, I am going to make three additional, better prepared/quality calls per week and secure one additional appointment per week”.

Don’t worry about the ‘outputs’ (increased number of sales), these will take care of themselves.

To use an example in a service operation it could be “using our improved selling skills, we are going to increase the average hours per job card from say 1.8 to 1.9. over the next month”.

Again, these marginal improvements will result in an overall output of increased service income.

4, Let them find the answer
Use a coaching approach with the team/individual – don’t train or tell them the answers – ask questions to allow them to explore the options and discover the solution themselves; adults will learn more effectively through self discovery.

Some effective prospecting coaching questions in sales and service could be:

• Why do you find it difficult making appointments by phone?
• What different approaches could you try?
• How could you improve the quality of these calls?

Remember, the answers lie within the people, it’s your job as a coach to help flush them out.

5, Monitor and review improvement
It’s always motivating for people to see their performance improving over time. Not only that, it provides them with the incentive to learn more.

It’s always a great idea to provide regular feedback, recognition, and encouragement as well as rewards and prizes to those who have embraced their learning. A league table showing how everyone is performing against each of the Key Success Factors really does work.

Another useful ROI technique is to measure the performance of staff against a control group of individuals who didn’t undertake the learning and see what the difference has been. You might be surprised by the results!

Do this effectively and you will find you have a group of staff who are always ready to learn and who no longer need to be taught.

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