Understanding the Learning Process

Imagine you send an employee to a training event, and when they return they are unable to perform the tasks you need them to perform.  You fully expected that training would do what was necessary to make your employee able to perform their job and yet they can’t.

My first training manager used to impress upon me that it was important for a learning professional to stay current on learning trends and modalities, but not as important as learning how people learn.  As a new trainer this was a bit deep for me, but it always stuck with me, and over time I started to understand that it was at the core of what I needed to understand.

Too often we get hung up on the learning event.  Should it be an instructor-led classroom workshop, or online live event, eLearning self-paced course, a video, simulation, or a job aide?  It depends on who is learning and what they need to learn.  It depends on if this is knowledge they need to acquire or must they be able to perform functions?

I learned early on to always ask the Stephen Covey quote of “Begin with the End in Mind” to make sure you are focused on the outcomes.  This will lead you to how the learning needs to begin, and whether there are on-the-job components and/or if a mentor / coach could make a difference.

I like to consider the environment in which the employee will use the skills, and this tells me how best to develop the skill.  Would it benefit the learner to be learning in a peer group to exchange ideas and provide safe practice?  Would role playing be a good practice process, or not needed at all?  Depending on the topic you may be using a lot of different methods to engage the learner, and blend several different processes in order to make the learning stick.

If we fail to understand the learning process then we provide a very expensive learning environment to our companies.  It is costly because we don’t provide results, we just spend money.

If we allow a single training event to happen and we know up front it will not produce the needed skills, we are wasting time and money.  We are doing almost as much damage as the company that relies on the osmosis process of learning your job.  Just stand around and soak up what you need from those around you.  In other words, no training at all.

I’ve been called a purist more than once, because I do believe that if you are going to run a training function, or learning environment than you should do it the right way.  Otherwise you set incorrect expectations and create more leaders that see little to no value in training.  We have enough of those kinds of leaders already, we really don’t need to make more of them.

Are You Really Focused on Employees?

I admit that not every company goes out of its way to say that their employees are important and vital to their success, and for this discussion today I am only focusing on the ones that actually do say their employees are important and vital.  These company executives talk a lot about what their employees do and how success hinges on every single employee.

After studying and comparing a lot of different companies and industries I have found a key indicator as to if what is being said is true.  All employees present and future can use this litmus test to gauge if managers are walking their talk or just talking the talk.

Now you might think that it is all about compensation or the benefits package, and no these are not indicative of a value of employee retention.  They are often strategies used to recruit and bribe people into staying with the organization.  You may think it has to do with work environment, perks and parties, but again these are just niceties that last only a short time.

The real indication that employees are valuable to the organization, that the company sees their ability to retain people is whether or not they have a comprehensive learning strategy for all, and I mean all employees.  Short bursts of training or an eLearning catalog don’t count for much.  They are often window dressing and a façade for what they hope employees will believe is genuine development.

I work a lot with financial services and if I find an organization with a robust learning strategy, everything else is working well too.  Turnover is minimal and when it comes to recruiting the applicants are lining up at the door.  People stay longer than on average and that means customers do too.

Yet when I find an organization that either only does the required compliance training that the regulators require, or a quick down and dirty workshop ever so often, I make a note of what I have started to see as their pending demise.  They will either land up selling themselves or going out of business altogether. I have yet to see a single company avoid employee development and stay afloat.

I am a passionate learner, and a trainer at heart.  I know how many issues can be avoided with good learning environments, and I know too how proactive a good learning process can be to fix issues.  The reason I wrote The Training Physical was to alert managers as to what training ought to be focused on at a minimum and to learn how to operate and manage better learning worlds.

So if I was to tell you that Bank A just announced it is buying Bank B and neither bank has a learning environment beyond the bare minimum, how do you think this merger will go?  How will it affect the customer experience?  What will it do to the employees from both banks?  If you say that things are not apt to go well, I’d have to agree with you.  Bank B wasn’t successful without training and had to sell out.  Bank A will struggle to become successful unless they change their focus to what matters most.

So if you really want to know if your company values you and whether the company you are interviewing with will value you, take the time to see to what degree they will develop you as a person and as an employee.  Ask the hard questions early and avoid heartache later.

How Long Does Training Take?

We are conditioned to everything happening quickly.  You get a cold, go to the Doctor and are prescribed medication and you want to know how long before I get better?  Some things can be timed, but most things are only estimates.  When it comes to training someone, the expectation is that once training is completed, the person will be able to perform their job.  Wrong!

Training begins the process of learning skills, but as any learning development professional will tell you, the application of skills in the work environment is when training takes hold.  Practicing in the real world is how we humans really learn, and how we acquire the skills.

This is what perplexes me the most about training expectations.  Most managers understand at a conscious level that if they send their employees to a training event, there is still a lot of time that must pass before they are competent performers.  And yet I find myself in the role of an ER Doctor more often with the patient bleeding out and they want me to fix things overnight.  I just love when a company has been through one employee relations issue after another and the bell goes off that they should train management development skills.

While this is a good idea, it would have been a better one 6 months ago.  But we all know that hindsight is 20/20, and often we need to deal with the issue today.  So we fix whatever damage the manager has caused, and begin a treatment plan for the manager to prevent a recurrence of these same interpersonal issues.  Great, let’s develop our managers in performance management communications.

A great training manager would have this scoped out in a couple of days, drafted a solution and be ready to implement a training program within the month.  A good training manager might need a couple more months, but at least in the next 90-days we are striving to prevent another outbreak of foot in mouth disease!

So what happens when this project remains a project for months, or even years?  One excuse after another for delays, and ultimately you have training taking longer than it should because it has not even started.  We said that training takes time to work into the blood stream, and yet here we are taking months to even wave the checkered flag.

How long does training take?  I love this question because I always answer it with the amount of practice time I believe is necessary after the event has occurred.  So if it is 3 months, I will say, “about 3 months after training has completed.”  In other words, if we plan to wait 9 months to implement training, then the skills won’t be available for a year!

Delays in employee development are the number one cause of poor performance.  We want instant performance change, and yet when part of the solution is training, we sit on our hands for months and get frustrated with nothing changes.

I tell training managers to always ask their client, “how soon do these skills need to be in practice?”  And if like most situations the answer is as soon as possible then we need to move now!!  I also tell managers to always ask training “how long will it take after the event for the skills to be learned behaviors, and when will we implement training?”

Setting dates are often tough for anyone that wants to procrastinate or drag out a project.  Yet if you are a training manager, most of the time you got to the party late and need to move quickly.  Training often takes longer than what is ideal, but it doesn’t need to take longer because we delay the implementation part of the equation.

Learning That Unleashes Results

Most training and learning events are designed with what are commonly referred to as learning objectives.  After completing this workshop, course or simulation participants will be able to do the following.  A list of results are predetermined to elicit a connection between what we can do now and what we can expect to be able to do after this event.  Learning objectives are essential to a reason for learning specific skills.

What I have learned over the years I’ve been in the learning profession is that some programs go way beyond the learning objectives that brought the program to your employees in the first place.  I have discovered that with some training we do ourselves a disservice to limit the outcomes to the stated learning objectives, and that we should explore what could results beyond that list.

Now if you are training a rather straightforward set of skills, like how to use a particular software, or product training, there are probably a limited number of expectations.  However, if you are training something like interpersonal communications you could easily find the list of benefits from these skills being implemented goes on for pages.

I’m a master trainer in social style for a company called The TRACOM Group.  This means that I have not only trained many people in the understanding and use of social style in their interpersonal communications, but the company allows me to train other trainers in their program.  Master trainer status is reserved for the individual who understands the materials and concepts at the core level.  In my case, I fell hard for this material the first time I was exposed to it and incorporated it into my daily interactions with everyone I met.  Even today, when I am struggling with a particular interaction, without thinking I start to assess what style they are and what I need to do differently to accommodate their needs.

In this blog I have often cited the need to match learning events to particular skills you want to build and/or issues you want to repair.  Social Style training is often used to show people how to work and get along with people better, especially with “difficult personalities” when in fact we are all challenging to each other on some level.  Yet I often implement social style learning into management development programs before a traditional list of courses.  I find that once these skills become incorporated into a person, that we unleash unexpected results.

You see this demonstrated when people are asked 6 months later how management training has helped them become a better manager, and they go on to site situations where none of the curriculum ever directly spent time preparing them.  It is with this information that you trace back their abilities to a program like social style that indirectly provided them with skills and abilities they found a use for.  A tool in their toolbox that they used in a different way than it was designed to be used.

Learning should unleash results all the time, but what we should be doing more of is implementing learning that unleashes unexpected results.  Talk about a win for everyone involved!

Why We Don’t Need a Training Department

I was enlightened recently by a company that doesn’t need a training department and their reasoning is valid should they ever achieve their idea of reality.  They simply “hire only people with the right competencies, the right experience and the right attitude for the job.”  Simply huh?

While this may seem like a story out of the twilight zone, you have to admit that if you only hire perfect fits, you really don’t need a learning environment.  If everyone working for you is operating with the optimal level of skills, you have optimal productivity and no interpersonal human resource issues.  If only this operating theory could be replicated every company would be achieving 100% all the time.

Now if you have looked at a job posting of any kind recently, you may have wondered why on earth you ever gave away your shirt with the giant “S” on it away.  The list of competencies go on forever.  The list of mandatory, and desired experience goes on even longer.  And when it comes to what it takes to operate in their culture, they paint a picture of what heaven on earth looks like.  These list makers are looking for complete perfection and only recruit those that believe they bring everything to the table.

To further weed out the less than perfect people from applying, they design lengthy online applications that take hours to complete.  Applicants must use every key word in the job descriptions, or they won’t even get an automatic reply email that tells them your application was received.  Some of the most talented applications are often never received because they lack the patience or the time necessary to complete them.  Position vacancies go unfilled for months because the quest for the perfect fit has not been located yet.

Now the flip side is the company that hires any warm body they can get, provides zero training and like throwing pasta on the wall to see if it sticks, hopes and prays that they will stay a long time.

I do have to agree that minimal training is needed if everyone on staff is competent and able to perform their jobs up to and exceeding expectations.  Yet that is never going to happen without a training/learning function.  Sorry folks, but I live in the land of reality, and when people think they can hire perfection, they lack the understanding that humans are constant learners, and as the world changes and updates we all need to be learning the latest and greatest techniques and information.

So for those that read this blog posting hoping to discover how to succeed without having a training department, the short answer is that you can’t.