In a September 2013 Forbes article, Ben DeMeter named the Pontiac Aztek as one of the five worst cars in history.” The car was manufactured in a way that presumably met GM’s manufacturing standards. In fact, one of the top employees on the project characterized it this way: “That was the best program we ever did at GM. We made all our internal goals.” However, the Aztek missed on other goals. There were signals: Early negative feedback from market research was ignored. It was priced well out of reach of most “youth buyers” of the day, and it included options that didn’t appeal the target buyers. It was ugly and poorly marketed.

This story points out an important distinction between how a product is designed and developed (manufactured, in the automotive world) and why the product is designed and developed (its purpose).

As research from Training Industry, Bersin, Brandon Hall and LinkedIn Learning continues to illustrate, there’s a considerable gap between business and learning. Is the gap there because the design and development processes aren’t up to snuff? It’s possible, but with the amount of energy spent in the training marketplace on content development, it doesn’t seem likely.

Instead, it may be that not enough emphasis is placed on the purpose of training. L&D holds an important position in an organization. Training professionals are often called on to help the organization achieve its goals or resolve its problems. The quality of the training that L&D creates must not only meet instructional design standards but also the standard of purpose, which we characterize as business or operational goals.

As we explore six ways to keep L&D’s focus on purpose or business goals, we’ll assume that the quality of the training development process is unimpeachable and that the L&D team has the resources, capabilities and capacity needed to produce great training products.

1. State the Problem or Goal in Business Terms.

Collaborate with stakeholders to develop a thorough understanding of the goal or problem and the gap they want to close. Develop a statement that describes the scope, defines the gap between current and future state, and explains the magnitude of the gap – all in business terms. At this point, it should avoid predisposing your team to a particular solution.

Developing a business-centric problem or goal statement:

  • Creates the space needed for L&D and its stakeholders to develop a nuanced understanding of the situation
  • Encourages dialogue, trade-off discussions, decision-making, and, ultimately, agreement
  • Demonstrates L&D’s understanding of the business context
  • Improves the stakeholders’ trust that the actions taken will address the right problem

2. Use Data to Frame the Situation and Guide Decision-Making.

A recent Training Industry article identified a variety of sources that are useful in making training decisions. To carry the concept further, training organizations can use data to clarify the magnitude of the situation and frame a reasonable response:

training impact and pervasiveness

Issues that occur infrequently (low pervasiveness) and have small-scale business impact (low impact) should be addressed with a different solution than those that are routine (high pervasiveness) and have a meaningful business impact (high impact).

You can also use data to predict, or at least anticipate, the size and impact of improvements. Work with experts to make calculations, or use tools to make sure the analysis is on point.

3. Find the Root Cause, and Focus on It.

Before focusing on any solutions, analyze the performance of the organization, function, process and role so you can clearly identify the root cause. Make use of financial data, organizational and performance data, and insights from top performers and their leaders. The goal is to uncover the actual root cause, not to identify a specific solution. In general, stakeholders want a cost-effective solution that, when implemented, creates the desired impact and is sustainable.

4. Recognize That Non-Training Solutions May Be a Better Alternative.

A performance problem does not automatically require a training solution. In fact, according to 1996 research, the vast majority (about 80 percent) of the time, a training response is not the appropriate one.

In simple terms, most non-training response options can be sorted into two buckets. The first includes responses that do not include a human element, such as technology solutions or process/quality improvements. When the response requires a human element, the second bucket includes a variety of responses outside of formal training. According to Robert Mager and Peter Pipe’s book “Analyzing Performance Problems,” these solutions include introducing or improving feedback, adding or altering consequences, and introducing additional opportunities for practice.

Use a performance consulting approach, and collaborate with internal and external partners from finance, IT, quality, or operations to evaluate whether non-training options will ultimately result in a better solution.

5. Select the “Least” Option That Still Achieves the Goal.

Work under the assumption that you should do the least amount of work necessary to achieve the desired business outcome. For some, that may be a counterintuitive assumption, but business leaders tend to get on board with the idea quickly.

6. Involve Business Stakeholders Regularly – and in Meaningful Ways.

Stakeholders have a valuable role throughout the project. Engage them at important junctures, and bring them into meaningful discussions, such as these:

  • Approving the problem statement
  • Contributing to the root cause analysis
  • Selecting the best response
  • Providing input at critical stages of solution development

Meaningful stakeholder conversations are important to L&D professionals’ credibility and, more importantly, to the health and well-being of the organization. Listen for subtle or noisy shifts in direction, and adjust as new information, feedback or direction come into view.

Training is often an expensive solution, and when it is misapplied, the real expense is compounded. It wastes money and time – and when the problem has to be solved a second time, it introduces organizational and political headwinds.

When only one in five performance problems requires a training intervention, L&D must take care to help the organization properly evaluate the implication of goals and problems and focus training interventions where they are most appropriate and valuable.

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