Making the case for training
Richard Griffin describes how he helped a high street retailer demonstrate the effectiveness of one of its L&D programmes
Learning and development professionals increasingly need to demonstrate that investments in training are efficient and deliver tangible benefits - hardly surprising given that UK companies invest nearly £50bn a year training their staff in the belief that it will improve performance and competitive advantage.
One of the most significant global markets is retail. UK consumers spent £229,089,000,000 in the last three months of 20121. One of the UK's largest retailers is Argos, with sales of £3.9bn in 2011/2012 and 31,000 employees.
This article describes the results of an independent evaluation I carried out between 2012 and the spring of 2013 of an accredited employee development programme run by Argos Retail called STEPS (which stands for 'Starter Step', 'The Business', 'Efficient Operations', 'People' and 'Service Excellence').
The STEPS programme and evaluation process
The STEPS development programme comprises 56 modules, each with the aim of developing staff to their full potential in their current role and also helping them to progress their careers. It supports both induction and succession planning. Modules adopt a blended learning approach (reading, reviewing, on-the-job activities and learning retention checks). Access to, and the completion of, modules is checked and signed off by managers.
The evaluation process began with a discussion between Argos Retail's L&D team and I about the expected outcomes of STEPS so that I could gather information that met the need of wider stakeholders, as well as the L&D team. It is essential, right at the start of any evaluation, to consider carefully who will be interested in the eventual results. The Argos Retail's L&D team had a clear vision of what they wanted the evaluation to address:
- STEPS' effectiveness as a training programme
- demonstrate the added value of STEPS to the wider business
- identify ways in which STEPS could be improved.
Because Argos Retail wanted to know not only what was happening but also the reason for the outcomes, we decided to use a mixed methods approach to the evaluation. Specifically, data was gathered using interviews and surveys. The surveys contained a series of statements about STEPS and the impact staff (called 'colleagues' at Argos) believed it was having in their job.
The statements were drawn largely from research into factors that are known to affect the transfer and retention of learning into the workplace (for example: "The content of STEPS was relevant to my job" and "My manager supports my learning"). Colleagues indicated whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement. Open questions were also included to allow colleagues to describe, in their own words, how they applied what they had learned and any other points that they wished to raise.
In total, surveys were completed by 900 colleagues such as stock managers and customer service managers. Interviews were conducted with six senior company stakeholders. Although Argos Retail commissioned the evaluation, I analysed all data independently.
While the evaluation found some minor practical issues that needed to be addressed in the organisation of some modules, such as ensuring that web links in the training material were always up to date and colleagues had access to PCs in the workplace (a challenge with many e-learning programmes), overall clear evidence was found that STEPS is an effective training programme and that it was adding value to the organisation.
We found that:
- colleagues were easily able to relate what they learned to their day-to-day work. They could, in plain terms, see the point of the learning
- it was clear from the evaluation that, as an organisation, Argos Retail has a strong and positive learning culture. There was consistent agreement, for example, with the statement: "Argos thinks that development is important for its colleagues". If employers think training is important, their staff are likely to as well. For Argos Retail, this was borne out by the fact that staff strongly agreed it was their responsibility to apply what they had learned in their job
- the modular and progression approach of STEPS meant that staff could get access to learning at the level appropriate for them. Most colleagues thought the training was pitched at the right level for them
- colleagues were able to quickly and frequently apply what they learned in their job. This is a measure of training transfer and retention.
The evaluation sought evidence for how the training was adding value to the business. Colleagues told us that they were easily able to provide examples of how they had applied what they learned and that they believed it was helping improve customer service. Colleagues described, for example, that following STEPS training:
- "I was able to look back on things I had done and how I could improve how I carried out tasks"
- "I could look back on offers I had made to customers and realise how I could improve them"
- "I am now aware of how 'add-ons' and replacement product care are important to customers"
- "It's really useful - it helps our daily tasks and our team development"
- "STEPS makes you look at things you normally wouldn't"
- "I learned to offer in a more positive way".
We also found evidence that STEPS had:
- increased colleague confidence
- led to a greater understanding of the business's aims and key performance indicators
- contributed to high levels of staff commitment
- led to team development.
The above means that as well as tangible benefits such as increased sales of add-ons, STEPS is also delivering indirect benefits such as improved customer satisfaction, better work processes and increased employee autonomy. It is providing employees with job relevant skills and knowledge and also increasing their confidence, which is likely to result in them being able to deal with unanticipated situations better and reduce their need to report to their supervisors. While we found no evidence that colleagues thought STEPS had improved their motivation, the high levels of organisational commitment we found (colleagues would, for example, recommend working for Argos to their friends and families) is likely to mean that motivation levels are already high.
The importance of managers
We broke down the survey results by region and found that there was some variation in colleagues' perception of STEPS' effectiveness. The open questions and interviews had raised an issue that managers in some stores could be more supportive of staff, for example by signing off modules more quickly. We looked at this a bit further. A comparison of the results for how effective colleagues thought the programme was and how supportive they thought their managers were suggested that there might be a link.
More widely, it is known that manager support for employee learning has a range of positive effects, including increasing engagement with the learning and encouraging application in the workplace. This is an important point and stresses that, sometimes, the effectiveness of training has nothing to do with what happens in the classroom (or on a computer) but instead with what happens back at work.
Argos Retail, like many companies, invests substantial resources (time, money and material) in staff development. The evaluation described in this article allowed us to identify ways in which STEPS could be improved, including the need to ensure that managers are engaged and supportive (as most were). The results also provided independent evidence that STEPS was delivering a range of direct and indirect benefits to the company.
One of the challenges L&D functions face is showing the contribution they make to corporate objectives. This can only be done through evaluation.
More generally, and because the evaluation was partly based on wider research findings, its results point to factors that can contribute to the effectiveness of any workplace learning programme:
- ensure training is job-relevant and pitched at the right level
- ensure employees know that the organisation values their education, training and development
- engage managers and supervisors
- make sure that employees have the opportunity to quickly apply what they learn in the workplace
- link training objectives to company objectives.
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