This article first appeared in ICMI.
One of the things that managers regularly face is how to keep their staff up to date on current processes, technology, or business knowledge. Many businesses have established training departments designed to meet those needs; others have individual managers coordinate their team’s training endeavors. Regardless of the method used, there is an organized way to approach developing an effective training program.
Up-to-date training is vital if a business is to be successful, because a trained employee – one who understands how to do their job – is generally happy and productive. The first consideration in an effective training program starts with the mission and vision of the company. A mission and vision sum up the business strategy, with details about the ultimate goals of the business, and how it will go about meeting them. Any training plan must first clearly support that business strategy.
Let’s examine how different strategies could impact the type of training needed. Suppose a business wanted to be the low-price leader in their industry. In that case, training would likely focus on continuous process improvement methods, particularly LEAN, which targets the elimination of waste. Moving to a culture of continuous improvement is no easy task, so the training would need to be centered in actual projects, and it would require support across the entire organization.
This is different from a company that wants to present themselves to the market as unique and different, perhaps as a “high end” product. In this case, the training could focus on every employee being a brand ambassador, in building up marketing skills even in employees who are not directly associated with sales and marketing. The staff involved in direct sales would need constant education on product improvement and how their products may be different from the products from their competitors.
There are other things that can be done to assess the need for training. First, are there existing training plans? If so, they should be examined to determine if they address current needs or if there are gaps that need to be filled. Once this is done the plan can be updated to reflect the new material.
This also highlights an important part of building a training program – constant review and updates. A business has to change to survive, so the training materials should change with the business. Ask yourself, “Is my company’s training program properly aligned with the mission and vision?”
Some other questions to ask before building a training program might be:
In the months or years following the training, what should be different?
Are there specific competencies that should be examined?
What, if any, roadblocks exist that could prevent someone from being properly trained?
How do you measure success?
Like with any initiative with an associated cost, a training program needs support from the business leadership. To get that support, the training program must be able to clearly show a direct business impact. In other words, there should be a positive performance delta before and after an employee attends the training.
Once you have the necessary support, managers need to determine how to prioritize who should receive training. This is important since there are costs involved – the cost of pulling someone away from their job, cost of materials, facility costs, and the instructors’ time.
In order to prioritize the right staff, use a training priority matrix. Every employee has a different potential, and this can be mapped on the matrix. If an individual is having low business impact and does not have political support, they would map to the low potential box. Training dollars would likely be ineffective for these employees and should be invested elsewhere.
Popular employees are generally well-known and may have higher political support, but may not have a significant impact to the business. Because they have the political support, you may be able to leverage that into better or different training options.
High potential staff are rising stars - they may be very effective in impacting the business but have not yet developed political support. With the proper documentation of their work, a good case can be made for additional training.
Finally, there are the superstars - the employees who know the job inside and out, and are well-known and comfortable within the company culture. These are proven performers, and from a training perspective they may not fit into the normal training plan because of the familiarity with their job. However, they may benefit from other types of training, or could even potentially become mentors for others.
To have an effective training program, there also needs to be a cultural shift towards becoming a learning organization. This encourages a culture of continuous education, and is strongly focused on always improving the quality of training. There are a few key areas that help a company develop into a learning organization.
Performance-focused programs mean that HR and business leadership need to continually document changes and improvements in business processes. As the business improves and changes, the training program needs to adapt. There are different types and styles of training that should be evaluated. Some employees may need technical training; others may need soft skills. We can examine five types of training:
Communication training helps employees with comprehending written material. It also aids them in the best practices in writing, whether it be email, general writing, or technical writing. Each has a different approach and needs different skill sets.
Soft skills are interpersonal traits, such as getting along with co-workers, building positive relationships. Customer service training would fall into this category, as would instruction on conflict resolution.
Technical skills cover the use of technology. This could be basic training on a company’s IT systems, or data entry skills, or using the incident management systems. For some, it may mean hands-on training with PC, servier, or network hardware.
Problem-solving covers how to best make decisions. This could be training for potential or new managers, or refresher courses for existing leaders. Instruction in critical thinking would also fall into this category.
Cultural training has become increasingly important in business. This would focus on the business’ values and how they are applied. It would also involve training on diversity, or sensitivity to other cultures.
Knowledge management is also a key part of a training program. Systems that can catalog data about business and IT processes allow employees to quickly find and use information pertinent to their job. This is where a dedicated knowledge management team would be beneficial to assist in formatting, posting, and editing knowledge as it organically changes. Likewise, it is beneficial to encourage a culture of sharing, so that knowledge and expertise can be leveraged from skilled employees who are experts in specific subjects.
There’s no doubt that training can be expensive, especially if it involves outside instructors and travel. There are alternatives that can provide opportunities for training. For example, on-the-job training gives employees the opportunity to learn while doing. More experienced employees can provide on-the-spot feedback and fix any issues that may arise. The downside is that it may be disruptive because it ties up a high performer who could be focusing on their own work.
Some companies utilize the idea of job rotation, where employees cycle through different jobs. This can be beneficial because it gives each employee a broader experience and can allow the business to quickly provide cover in the case of unplanned absences. This method works well in very routine jobs, where the staff could get discouraged or bored. It has the potential to improve morale because it might open up new opportunities for some staff, and it allows the manager to observe what aptitudes an individual might have for different kinds of work. Like on-the-job, the downside is that it can be disruptive to the workflow as an employee learns new skills.
Another way to help educate staff is by developing a mentoring program. This takes an experienced employee and pairs them with someone with lesser experience. The mentor doesn’t do the work, but offers advice and instructions. This type of training tends to work well for supervisory or management staff.
However you construct a training program, once it has been put into place, it needs to be monitored. Have some types of training been more successful? Is it contributing to the business strategy? You can determine the answers to those questions by surveying the employees and getting their feedback on how they feel about the training they’ve received; or you can survey leadership to find out if performance or productivity has improved. A lot can be learned simply by walking around; the trainer can see for themselves if the training is being used.
In conclusion, training can make a big difference in the competitive advantage of the business. To enable that advantage, an effective training plan takes careful consideration, development, and follow through.
Michael Hanson has a broad background in information technology, and is an IT executive with 30 years of experience leading IT Operations, Service, and Support teams. He is ITIL, Six Sigma, and HDI certified, has a BS in Business Technology, and is a regular contributor to industry conferences and publications. His passion is building effective, happy teams and leveraging business and IT process improvement techniques to make processes more efficient, cost-effective, and reliable for both IT staff and their customers. Most recently, Michael was a Director leading IT Service and Support Operations at UnitedHealth group, where he led the global asset fulfillment and recovery teams as well as the national fulfillment center warehouse in the USA.