Meeting targets

How can L&D start delivering what the business really wants? Mike Straw provides some answers

Despite some signs that the economy is picking up, organisations of all kinds continue to operate in tough markets. Competition is fierce, margins are tight and buyers of products and services are still cautious and very price-led.

The employment market is also hard fought. The war for talent is still very real. Organisations are competing for the best talent, and people remain hesitant about changing employers in uncertain times. There is still a sense of “I’ll stick with what I’ve got”.

All of these factors combine to mean that L&D functions are under pressure to prove their worth. As companies can’t simply rely on going out and buying the best talent, maximising and developing talent internally is a strategic imperative.

But all too often L&D programmes fail to deliver what the organisation is really looking for. For the business, it is actually quite simple. They want a workforce that is better motivated and more highly skilled. They want more confident and more productive individuals, whose enhanced performance will help the company push beyond what they have achieved before. [pullquote]They want a talent pipeline flowing through the organisation which has the potential to develop high-potential individuals into new leaders[/pullquote].

And yet, according to one study by a UK business school, only seven per cent of senior managers believe their organisation develops leaders effectively.1

Different wavelengths

So why are L&D programmes perceived to be failing to deliver?

Essentially, it comes down to the fact that the L&D function and the organisation they serve are frequently on different wavelengths, as demonstrated in the graphic below.

The L&D function naturally focuses on the efficient delivery of a programme. They want to tick the boxes in terms of the programme design and the management of its delivery. For them, it’s about the technical aspects rather than the wider strategic fit. If the programme is well-structured and professionally delivered, then they have done their job.

The organisation, however, is looking for something more. They need the programme to be aligned with the organisation’s strategic aims and business plans. They want as many people as possible to go through the programme, to be truly committed and motivated by it – and, crucially, to see a real return on investment as a result.

Is this a case then of ‘never the twain shall meet’? No there are plenty of instances of L&D working with the organisation to deliver really transformational results. It can be done – but there are a number of key issues that need to be addressed for this to happen.

Making it real

The key thing to making L&D programmes truly effective is that they must feel real. We all know the experience of going on a training day and thinking: “This is all very well – but how does it actually relate to my real, day-to-day job?” The sense of sitting in a classroom discussing theoretical issues that don’t connect to real life can be frustrating and counter-productive. People switch off. Some feel alienated, angry even. It’s nice to have some time out of the office but if it isn’t actually helping and meanwhile the emails and the voicemails and the actions are mounting up, the effectiveness of the training is undone.

Programmes must take proper account of the context in which work occurs. They must be based on real work and real life. Otherwise, the learner has to do all the work themselves to make it real. Some people will do that and so will manage to get some value from the course but others won’t.  They will mentally give up on the training and will just sit it out, learning little, until it’s finished and they can go home. Hardly the ROI the organisation is looking for!

Part of making it real is recognising the power and the importance of the mind-sets that people have developed. These mind-sets need to be identified and discussed first. They are what people really feel, and if these are ignored, the training will lose its impact right from the off.

For example, a training course about better sales skills would be undermined if you found out that the underlying mind-set of many of the salesforce was “our product is not actually that good”.  That mind-set needs to addressed first, it needs to be aired and debated.

Or consider a course about putting the customer first/the customer value proposition. If you discovered that the underlying mind-set of the learners was “I just want to make a sale because that’s how I’m incentivised” then that too would need to be brought out into the open.

If you don’t address such mind-sets, the training will never actually connect. It will be hitting an invisible barrier right from the beginning and just won’t have the desired impact and effect.

You don’t know what you don’t measure

Getting these elements right will vastly improve the effectiveness of any training. But once delivered, it’s essential to be able to measure the impact that it’s had.

Indeed, a recent survey by McKinsey2 found that lack of credible metrics on the business impact of training was one of the top concerns amongst executives. Thirty-six per cent of executives ranked it as a top challenge, up from 22 per cent of executives in McKinsey’s survey
of 2010.

It is in fact quite surprising how little emphasis some L&D functions put on measuring outcomes. After all, it’s what they’re going to be judged on at the end of the day.  In many cases, the sole measurement of a programme is limited to a participant feedback survey.

For one thing, we all know that many participants skip through such surveys as quickly as possible (if they fill it in at all) so that the feedback is hardly comprehensive. And for another, it is only getting half the story at best. You need to be reaching the organisation itself – have line managers and business owners seen an improvement in team members who went on the course? In a sense they, not the individuals themselves, are the ultimate arbiters of whether a training programme has been successful.

So L&D functions frequently need to put more thought and more science behind how they are going to measure a programme.

The example opposite is a real example. It is the ‘balanced scorecard’ that we helped to produce for a major pharmaceutical company where we were delivering a significant training programme.

It shows how we used a mixture of specific measurable targets and softer attitude targets to measure success. We captured how many people had been through the training and the average feedback scores as well. But we also combined this with an assessment of whether the training was meeting certain agreed attitude shifts that we had agreed in advance with the business (and L&D) as being critical: moving from a silo thinking mentality to a business leader mentality for example, or from a disempowered attitude to an empowered ‘can-do’ attitude and so on.

We then put in place a framework for assessing the change in an individual’s capability against these measures and captured the actual vs
target results.

This then resulted in an overall ROI measure – that on this occasion far exceeded expectations!

Another way of capturing this is in the
chart opposite.

This shows the four levels of impact measurement. This ranges from feedback from participants themselves through to a measurement of the capabilities developed. This is a longer term measurement that comes about through the individual working with their line manager to build development plans and a management feedback loop. Level 3 takes this to the sphere of behaviour changes – again requiring the feedback of the business and line managers themselves, with the individual also self-evaluating. It’s vital of course to ensure that all parties are involved and have a stake – the individual, their line manager and the business area. That way, the programme ceases to be a piece of one-off training and becomes a planned process that can really yield dramatic results over time. These results are captured in Level 4, where the organisation can look back and reflect on the impact of the programme as a whole across the piece.

A partner to the business

There is no doubt that L&D teams are doing a lot of good work and delivering programmes that are highly competent and professional. However, there is so much greater impact to be gained. If programmes are structured and planned in the right way, they can become a powerful tool to
help the organisation achieve the breakthroughs they seek.

Once L&D and the business are properly aligned, the potential impact of a programme is hugely enhanced. L&D then becomes a real partner to the business, one that is strategically valued and respected.  All L&D functions can make this shift – it doesn’t require a massive rethink – just a recalibration of the approach and the measurements to ensure that they are tuned in to the organisational wavelength and delivering on key strategic needs.

A fully referenced version is available on request.


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