Employers either hire skilled workers or develop them. When economic conditions price companies out of the skills acquisition market, the remaining option is to develop employees in house. Doing so requires an effective training program. Anything less can spell disaster, as a workforce lacking the skills to perform safely and properly cannot maintain a sustainable advantage in today’s challenging marketplace.
“Training solves all problems” is a common but misused mantra. While training can improve performance and enhance safety, the truth is that a training program serves one purpose: to develop competencies connected to work.
The foundational element of a training program is the task, a breakdown of work into an action (active verb) and an object (equipment, facilities, procedures, personnel or documents). All work can be described as tasks, and all tasks can be assigned to people. For example, in “file a report,” file is the action, and report is the object.
Tasks can be categorized by business unit, discipline, compliance or a variety of other ways. They can be prioritized according to their importance in terms of safe and productive operations. This prioritization helps when deciding how to allocate limited resources to generate the highest return.
While tasks are the foundational element of a training program, competencies are the reason for the program. Competencies – skills, knowledge and comprehension – are the measure of a worker’s ability to perform a job. The objective is for employees to be able to perform a task safely and properly. Skill defines the ability to perform a task. Knowledge represents the ability to state a fact. Comprehension is the ability to explain a concept.
While these terms are common in training, they are too often developed in isolation, which leaves them disconnected from work. This disconnection defeats the aim of training and leaves a gap between the learning experience and performance. It also makes it more challenging to keep training in sync with the changing dynamics of the workplace.
For those used to thinking about competencies in terms of skills, knowledge and abilities, it is helpful to consider that skills, knowledge and comprehension are the actual competencies, while ability applies uniformly to all competencies and is best understood in terms of being the subject of an evaluation.
Competencies set the stage for creating learning objectives, also defined in terms of a “task-condition-standard” statement. This type of objective maintains the essential link between work and learning experiences, which traditionally appear in the form of classroom instruction, online training, simulations or on-the-job experiences.
The task is the union of action and object. The condition is the operational environment and the resources available to the learner. The standard is the level of quality for performance of the task. If the task is “file a report,” the learning objective might be “file a report with no assistance within 10 minutes of receiving the assignment.” The condition is “with no assistance,” and the standard is “within 10 minutes of receiving the assignment.” The learning experience should be designed to produce an individual who can meet this objective.
The “task-condition-standard” statement also serves in constructing the evaluation criteria, which define performance expectations and guide the development of effective evaluations. Observations, interviews, written tests and simulations traditionally function as evaluations.
A training program that aligns these elements is not always enough to raise performance to the level of sustainable advantage. Just as worker performance is impacted by conditions in the workplace, key factors that impact the success of a formal training effort include an effective authority and accountability framework, clear and honest channels of communications and feedback, a change management process, cultural awareness, and an objective analysis of whether providing employees a particular set of skills will actually produce the desired results. A training program operates most effectively in an already functional organization.
Training is not a cure for all organizational issues; however, when implemented and applied properly, it positions the training team as a strategic partner in the organization and contributes to sustainable profitability by elevating performance. That sustainable profitability can equate to a sustainable competitive advantage.