MTD In The Media – Quality World Magazine

Although the training budget is sometimes seen as a luxury and is often the first to be clipped when times are hard, training is, in fact, vital to the bottom-line. With courses costing thousands of pounds, there is much at stake, and it is vital to do your research before you invest in a type of training and the organisation that is supplying it. Amy Holgate talks to the experts and finds out what to look for.

Margot McCleary, director of a corporate training company, acknowledges wryly that, ‘the roof isn’t going to fall in if you don’t do your training course this month’. It’s a sentiment that could be heard echoing off top management boardroom walls last year. But times are changing, says Mike Gardner, MD of WMG Associates: ‘Organisations appear to have learned their lessons from the past. Every recession comes to an end and well-trained and skilled staff are then needed and difficult to get hold of.’

When all is said and done, observes Sean McPheat, MD of Management Training and Development, investing in people is the ‘most effective way to improve bottom-line performance because it: improves staff effectiveness; staff become more motivated which influences others around them; and management will be demonstrating that it takes an interest in its staff’s self-development. These factors lead to lower staff turnover.’ It’s all very well on paper, but too much unsuitable and wasted training has given the industry a bad name. So how do you go about choosing training that is suitable and a training organisation that fulfils its promise?

The buyer’s responsibilities

The organisation buying the training has a responsibility in the initial preparatory stages and can do much itself to pave the way for effective training.

Identifying a need

Organisations must be completely clear about what they want from training, and what skills gaps are to be filled. A fatal mistake when purchasing ‘off-the-shelf’ public courses is to merely purchase the course title, believes McCleary, rather than focusing on the outcomes and content of the programme: ‘If you just pick something off the menu, you’re not giving yourself a good chance. It might even be a good course but it’s bad training as far as you’re concerned because it doesn’t answer what you want it to answer.’

McCleary’s learning circle helps her with this. A business need arises (often a change, eg a promotion) which generates a skills need. A skills audit then takes place to identify which of the required skills the person already has; the skills need minus the skills audit gives a skills gap (between what the person has and what they need). From this, learning outcomes can be identified, and a learning plan formulated, and then delivered. Finally, the learning is assessed to see whether the skills gap has been closed and answers the initial business need.

Top management commitment

Obtaining the buy-in of the delegates’ line manager and cultivating a learning culture within an organisation are also absolutely vital, according to Gardner. No matter how effective training is, when a delegate returns to work – often filled with new ideas and motivated after training – and is expected just to carry on as before with no support from above, learning can never be transferred back to the workplace and reinforced. If this ‘shared vision from top to bottom’ does not happen, says Gardner, ‘you will not get the supportive and encouraging culture that is required to encourage employees at all levels to challenge what is the norm, and you will not get the learning that comes from both doing things right and from getting things wrong.’

McCleary recommends the involvement of the line manager from the off: rather than a supervisor sending off an email to inform a member of the team about some imminent training, she advises, managers should take the time to explain in person why the individual has been selected for the training and what the desired key things to learn are. Equally important is a follow-up discussion after the training to plan the implementation of the new skills. All this contributes to a much more motivated and receptive learner, and increases the value of the training.

Types of courses

So having made a skills gap analysis you know exactly what course you need to fulfil your needs, you have the support of managers who are working to improve the learning culture of the organisation and help to embed the newly acquired skills. Now it’s time to look at the kinds of training on offer – different types of courses will suit different organisations.

External, public

‘Off the shelf’ courses like these are less cost-effective than in-house courses, because of costs for accommodation (if it is a residential course), travel, venue hire etc. While such courses can’t be customised to the needs of individual delegates, McCleary believes that if needs analysis has been done effectively, as has detailed research into the content of a particular off the shelf course, there is no reason why they can’t be effective. Other advantages are:

  • taking delegates away from their everyday business routine and putting them into a fresh environment can be very stimulating
  • this kind of training also affords good benchmarking and cross-fertilising opportunities, as delegates will meet individuals from other organisations with similar aspirations

Tailored in-house

The fundamental downside of tailored, in-house training is that, as McCleary puts it: ‘Sometimes staff are too close to the coal face to be able to concentrate fully, and occasionally they can get pulled off to answer phone calls or client queries.’ However, she cites the following advantages:

  • training can either be run at any time, which sidesteps that age-old problem of releasing the workforce for a whole day
  • the team has the privacy to discuss day-to-day problems and sensitive, company-specific issues
  • there are notable cost savings with respect to accommodation and travelling etc. According to Gardner, if the number of participants is greater than four, for example, choosing in-house delivery is more cost-effective

Qualifications and Standards

Accreditation

Mike Gardner believes: ‘While the training you are arranging may not be accredited there is no reason why your supplier should not be. Organisations like the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) and Chartered Management Institute (CMI) have very stringent procedures for vetting potential suppliers in the courses they accredit. An organisation which has done enough in one area to reach the standard required by one of these organisations (or similar) will generally offer high standards across the board.’ McCleary says: ‘Increasingly organisations are interested in running training which carries an award.’ These can be NVQs, BTEC, ILM. Assessors from these organisations can contact delegates at any time to assess the effectiveness of the training organisation.

Train the trainer

Of the approximately 200,000 full time training specialists in the UK, only 24 per cent have a certificate in training skills. The rest may have certificates in presentation skills, but it seems that there are benefits to training the trainer courses, which focus on both the technical skills required of the training environment and also the more generic soft skills. Mike Gardner advises new trainers to attend a course that examine how people learn, and discovers the different types of intelligences and the barriers to learning. Effective ‘train the trainer’ courses will also often lead to a recognised qualification either in its own right eg the Trainer Assessment Programme or one that is recognised by a body that deals with trainers ie Chartered Institute Personnel Development or Institute of Training and Occupational Learning.

Knowing what to makes effective training is useful when searching through the mass of training bodies. Testimonials are a useful way of finding out a training organisation’s style.

According to Sean McPheat good trainers should have:

  • in-depth knowledge about the areas being covered. A lot of trainers have to be a jack of all trades and master of none, and are asked to deliver a wide variety of courses and modules. A skilled and experienced trainer should be able to relate the learning to real-world examples that happen back in the office. For training to be beneficial it first has to be linked into proper development objectives of either the organisation, the individual or both. And it is vital to focus on learning rather than training
  • effective and flexible delivery: poor trainers believe that training is all about them rather than the course participants and fail to take into account the different learning styles of participants and providing training in only one format. Different abilities within a group also require a sensitive hand with split activities etc
  • personality: the personality of a trainer makes or breaks the training event. It’s vital for trainers to be constantly sensitive to whether the group is getting closer to the learning outcomes

Sean McPheat says that there are a number of criteria that should be considered when evaluating an outside supplier’s training content quality:

  • are the objectives stated as outcomes relating to workplace behaviour?
  • is the message at a level appropriate to the audience?
  • are the course material effective, user-friendly and modern?
  • is there sufficient interaction, stimulus and response?
  • are the exercises well-designed, appropriate and time-effective?
  • is the cost reasonable and affordable relative to the benefits?
  • are processes to maximise transfer of training built in?

The extra mile

Before making a decision on what training organisation to use, it is a good idea to find out which ones provide a robust support programme both before and after the training event itself. Gardner believes that the supplier ‘must have the client’s best interests at heart. If it has not dealt with a company of your kind before then it should make the time to come and learn about your sector and your business in particular.’ McPheat also believes that it is beneficial for suppliers to send out pre-course questionnaires to discover what delegates are hoping to achieve with the training course.

‘A post course follow-up service should be in place to ensure that training is actually transferred properly to the workplace. Have a look too at the methods it uses to evaluate its training effectiveness. A training organisation that is committed to continual improvement is much more likely to supply training that really adds value. Training organisations should be continually updating their courses, says Gardner, so ‘ensure that they are up to date with current trends and thinking. It is imperative that the results from exercises are analysed along with feedback from the course so as to ensure that courses and content are still meeting desired outcomes.’ A common tool used is engaging in short and random interviews with delegates after the course to gain feedback on a very personal level. An oft-used tool is the Kirkpatrick evaluation model, which tests:

  • reaction: focusing on delegates’ perceptions
  • learning: focusing on knowledge/skills gained
  • behaviour: focusing on workplace implementation

Meeting the training organisation

It’s beneficial to find out a bit more about the individuals involved in the training before the event. McCleary thinks it is important to meet with the account manager of the training organisation and also the trainer who will be running the programme. ‘If possible, allow a sample of the participants on the programme to interact with the trainer in advance as well. So often the training is booked between whoever is doing the purchasing and the account manager from the training company – but neither of them are going to be there. This way you close all the gaps and tie up all the loops.’

Sean McPheat has a simple checklist of things to ask before making the final decision to go with a particular training organisation:

  • has the course been run before and validated?
  • how much does the training organisation know about the subject you wish them to train?
  • have they worked with your industry/business before?
  • how will they measure the success of any programme they run with you?
  • can you work with them during the preparation stages to determine the learning points are relevant to your trainees?
  • how much of the material is off-the-shelf and how much of it is bespoke?
  • do you need a generic programme or does it need to be specific to your needs?
  • what guarantees do the companies offer in respect to the quality of the materials?
  • will you be charged for design work, or is it a complete package price?
  • will you require follow-up work after the programme? Can it offer coaching and telephone support to the trainees after the event?
  • what contingency plans do they offer if the programme doesn’t hit the mark?

When it comes down to it an effective and suitable training provider can be chosen with a combination of ‘gut feeling and common sense’, says McPheat. However, by isolating the precise skills need, getting the support of top management and then embarking on some extra research and asking a few questions there is much an organisation can do to narrow down the field.

Justifying the training budget

Sean McPheat gives some tips to help those in the training department to justify the money spent on training:

  • ask your directors what their expectations are for the next year, two years and five years
  • create a framework to work within that is built around the objectives that come from these expectations.
  • determine how the learning and development plans can contribute to these objectives
  • plan effective learning interventions to support these objectives
  • show how the organisation’s goals will be achieved by the training department
  • develop a consistent form of communication with the stakeholders to establish further credibility
  • be proactive in your plans so that the department is seen to be contributing to the business success.

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