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Focus on filling minds, not chairs, with outcomes-based training

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Fill in the customer satisfaction surveyThe average annual tuition (not including expenses) at a private four-year college approximates $35,000.  Imagine inquiring about their programs and learning that course selection was randomly pulled from a catalogue, all classes were taught in one long extended session, and that there was no time for practice, labs, or homework.  It’s doubtful that you’d be writing that $35,000 check, isn’t it?  Yet, Corporate America writes checks like this daily: checks for non-targeted, non-outcome-based training that provides no opportunity for practice, feedback, and true learning.

This article outlines a learning strategy successfully used in different client companies over the last five years.  This approach has structure yet allows for flexibility and tailoring to fit the culture and operating tempo of the company.  Further, measurement of the learning outcomes proves that this approach is both efficient and effective.

Where it Works

As outlined in the examples below, this training philosophy has been successfully leveraged at organizations as diverse as a regional trucking company, a local 911 responder group, and an international consumer products conglomerate.  While the particulars of each differ, the core fundamentals remain constant.

The Trucking Company:  For many high potential supervisors at this regional trucking company, the best path of advancement was perceived to be moving to a competitor.  In an effort to reduce this undesired attrition and keep high potential supervisors involved, the company started a management training program.

Participants in this program were mid-level supervisors who had the potential to be promoted and were nominated by their manager.  Once nominated, they were required to complete a ten-course on-line sequence before being eligible for entry into the series.  This requirement showed both commitment to the company and a willingness to invest in one’s own development.  It also gave the facilitator a base line of knowledge from which to teach.

Once eligible and selected, a cohort of 14 managers completed the program.  They met for a full day kickoff, two weeks later for a full day, and then every other week for 12 weeks for a half day session.  They also worked on an actual business issue identified by senior management and presented their solution as part of their final day session.

The 911 Responders: A company that provided 911 response in the northeast was experiencing high rates of turnover in their supervisors and less than commendable customer service.  They identified weak supervisors as the root cause of this issue, with two specific underlying causes.  First, the supervisors became supervisors because they were highly proficient technically.  They had not, however, received any kind of training in supervisory skills and thus relied on being more and more technical while ignoring the people side of the equation.  Secondly, they did not understand or live up to the company values program.  This created a lack of alignment and poor customer service, since the supervisors tended to pay attention only to performance metrics they were directly measured on such as response time.

Based on operational requirements, they met all day once a month for six months.  One of the days was dedicated to “know the company” with senior staff presenting their functional areas and the CFO spending half a day going over Profit and Loss and Balance Sheets.  The final day was dedicated to a presentation by each participant on what they learned and how they were applying it at work.

Consumer Products Group: The CEO of this international consumer product group was concerned that many of his high potential people were leaving to accept positions in competing firms.  A perceived lack of investment in training or mentoring of managers was determined to be one of the drivers of this attrition.  To address this issue, a program was designed to engage the high potential managers and to give them skills they could apply once they got promoted.

Selection for the program was by manager nomination and then a selection board of senior managers.  The pilot program involved 15 managers from corporate headquarters.  Participants met once a week from 8:00 – 1:00 for eight weeks.  When the program was subsequently expanded to include international participants, the schedule was modified to 8 AM to 8 PM for three days, a four-week break, and then an additional three days.  In both the pilot and the expanded version, participants were given a real business case problem to solve and then provided a solution briefing to senior management at the end of the program.

The Commonalities

What made each of these programs effective were three common factors:

  • A needs assessment was done for the group of participants.  Both 360 behavioral assessments and personality based tests were used.  The results shaped the content of the training program.
  • A group of peers (cohort) went through the training together.  This built group cohesion in the group and created performance pressure for the participants to prepare and participate.
  • Action learning methods were applied.  Each participant was involved in a real-world problem that was briefed to senior management as part of the program.  These varied in scope and complexity but included, for example, a review of time and attendance policies across the company and a new product launch.

Needs assessment:  Far too often, training is based on the “flavor of the month” or a gut assessment by the training manager or someone else.   In each of these cases, both a behavioral and personality based assessment was given to each participant.  This allowed the company to make a rational decision about where training gaps existed.  To further support the analysis, a quick pretest of the topics proposed was prepared and administered to participants and their managers.  These items also served subsequently as the basis for a post test ROI analysis.

Cohorts:  Learning in groups has a long history dating back at least to Plato’s academy.  A cohort normally refers to a group of learners going through the same material at the same time (i.e. “lock step”).  It is, however, more than just an administrative grouping because it creates camaraderie and a commonality of purpose that is lacking in episodic training (that is training that is event centered and not program centered).  The form and structure of the cohort is also critical.  Through research and active experimentation with our programs, we have found that the ideal size for a cohort is 16 participants.  This gives us maximum flexibility in creating learning experiences.  It is small that everyone can participate in an open discussion, yet can be split into two eight-person groups or four four-person groups for the sake of exercises.  Cohorts also work best when the participants are at the same level in the organization and are cross-functional.

We have also found that cohorts work best when there is a founding event sponsored by a senior person in the company.  In the case of both the truck company and the responders, the senior HR VP kicked off the program and observed every session from start to finish.  Other senior officials in both were brought in to both observe and instruct but also to interact socially with the participants.

The consumer products company put even more senior emphasis into the program.  The CEO and his direct reports attended a two hour kickoff involving a “get to know you” activity followed by the CEO welcome and then an hour of socializing.  The program concluded with a graduation ceremony where the CEO gave each participant an inscribed book and a certificate.  It wrapped up with a cocktail hour attended by the C-level officers of the company.

Action Learning: The structure of the cohort lends itself remarkably well to action learning.  Action learning, also sometimes referred to as the experiential learning cycle, is a way to learn by studying our own actions and experiences and then experimenting in the workplace with new behaviors.  The most common citation for this and the source of our structure, is Kolb, Rubin and McIntyre, although many others have interpreted the cycle in their own words as well.  Basically, there are four steps:

  • Concrete Experience.  In most cases, the concrete experience is one that the participant brings into the session.  In other cases, a common concrete experience is created through the use of role-plays, exercises or case studies that require the participants to expand their knowledge by engaging in the activity.  In some of these programs, the concrete experience becomes the common business problem that the participants are working on.  These provide the context while the training materials provide the content.
  • Reflective Observation.  While concrete experience creates the base of the learning cycle, reflective observation through facilitated discussion is the mechanism by which new knowledge is gained.  Since the participants share common backgrounds, discussion is a valuable vehicle for them to learn from each other.  Reflective observation basically asks the question “what happened here and why.”
  • Abstract Conceptualization.  Learning is simultaneous with experience in this program.  The goal is to enable participants to generalize their classroom learning to new situations where the rest of the group is not present.  The basic question answered here is “how do I create a circumstance in which the outcomes of our concrete experience can be replicated”.
  • Active Experimentation.  Insanity may be defined as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Once new concepts are mastered intellectually, they must become new behavioral habits in the work place.  In this final stage, participants are expected to create plans to apply their new skills in their day-to-day work assignments, and to continue to learn through active experimentation, tailoring the new techniques and ideas into a leadership style that works for them and their organization.

The Results

The Trucking Company:  Within 90 days after the end of the program, three of the participants had been promoted.  A year later, none of the participants had left the company voluntarily.  Overall, reports were that they were more engaged and committed than they were prior to the program.

911 responders:  This program was so successful that we ran it multiple times.  Although participants did not do a long-term action learning project, one complete day consisted of a senior management panel that involved participants in a series of mini case studies around current issues in the company.

As a result of the program, the CEO noted that overall customer service improved, as did the engagement of the management group.  As an additional benefit, participants created networks of their colleagues and better understood how the different parts of the company functioned.

Consumer products:  Eleven of the original 15 participants were promoted within a year of the program.  A follow measure conducted 12 months after the completion of the training showed that ability to perform critical leadership tasks not only remained high, it actually increased.  At six months after the completion of the international program, 4 of the participants have been promoted.  Additionally, one of the four participant presentations was approved and funded to go forward.

Lessons Learned:

The following lessons help us create higher value for the client and the participants:

  • Senior involvement is critical.  Participants must know that the program is supported and valued by the senior management.  If this is not done, they may merely go through the motions in favor of doing their “real jobs”.
  • Management must realize that some high potentials may be at risk following the programs.  Approximately 100 people have gone through the programs described above.  Of this population, 2 have left involuntarily and 1 voluntarily.  Had they not been in the program and their skills examined closely, they might still be in their original positions.  On the other hand, 16 people have been promoted to date – a far higher proportion than their peer group.
  • Individual and group development must be balanced.  Individual assessment and feedback must be accomplished for the participant to receive maximum value, yet learning most effectively occurs in the small group setting.  Attention must be paid to both.
  • Follow-up is essential.  Alumni events that bring together multiple cohorts to share lessons learned and expand their network are critical in maintaining the gains made through the training programs.  As more cohorts complete the program, the events grow in scale – but participants expand their sphere of influence and stay committed to personal and professional growth.

Other Research

Our conclusions also appear to be well supported by academic research into the efficacy of action learning.  One three-year study at the Canberra Institute of Technology found that, as expected, action learning allowed participants to achieve the learning objectives designed into the program.  However, there were also some unexpected outcomes.  Primary among these was that learners reported an amazing level of personal growth during the programs.  Additionally, they reported that their confidence in mastery of the material as well as their general confidence in their ability to learn increased.

Simon Holder of the University of Minnesota found similar findings in a study where students were assigned to homogenous ability groups and mixed ability groups, and then further assigned to individual outcome responsibility or collective (team) accountability for outcomes.  Not surprisingly, the homogenous groups with collective accountability outperformed all other groups.  Now, in addition to the learning component, we have added a social factor of carrying your fair load.

Besides the cognitive and team effects, we also noted an attitudinal shift.  In the words of one participant, “When I found out I had to go through eight days of leadership training, I was ready to quit.  All I could think of was the wasted time I would have to make up.  However, now having completed the program, I believe it is one of the most enjoyable and productive things I have done.”  Participants too often enter training with a prisoner mentality (I have been sentenced to spend time here) or at best a “this beats doing real work” approach.  Episodic training tends to reinforce this mentality, while cohort action learning creates an attitude of commitment to learning and to peers.

Conclusion

Training, like all critical business activities, should yield a positive ROI.  That result can only be achieved through a structured thoughtful process, one that starts with clarity around desired outcomes and that is grounded in a proven methodology.  The proven combination of needs assessment, cohorts, and action learning, incorporated into a well-developed program with well-managed delivery, will both yield the value that our clients expect and create a new level of integration between business realities and learning and development activities.

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