The role of the training manager involves, among other responsibilities, identifying performance issues and determining whether training can address them. This process is known as diagnostics, and longitudinal research has found that it is one of the most important process capabilities in great training organizations.

What Is Diagnostics?

“Diagnostics is the intersection between listening to the needs and examining possible root causes,” says Dr. Theresa Horne, CPTM, a senior program manager working in leadership and talent development at the National Labor Relations Board.

Training Industry’s research identified several key practices involved in diagnostics, the most important of which are listening to uncover real business problems; identifying competency gaps; and recommending a variety of solutions beyond training, when it’s relevant to do so. As Kathryn Connolly, CPTM, director of global talent development at WEX Inc., says, “Listen to uncover the underlying needs, provide a systematic analysis to identify key objectives and metrics to prove success, talk to the front line … and develop recommendations that may or may not include training.”

Why Is It So Difficult?

“Just as a doctor must diagnose a patient’s mysterious ailment, learning leaders must have the knowledge of various barriers and root issues to properly diagnose the organization’s needs,” says Horne. A medical diagnosis can make or break a person’s health, and a performance diagnosis can make or break an organization’s health, she adds.

Too often, Connolly says, business leaders immediately assume that the cause of a performance problem is a lack of training or a lack of a formal process. Many times, though, it’s behavioral. “It is difficult for some people to change their ways and modify how they do things, because it is comfortable for them. If we conduct a thorough diagnostic at the beginning, we may be able to modify or simplify a process or practice to improve performance.”

Diagnosing Cultural Barriers and Boosting Outcomes

While working for a large federal agency in Japan, Horne was asked to diagnose the root problem behind the low results from a culture survey. “There was a unique culture dynamic in Japan,” she says, “that involved Japanese nationals, military personnel and civilian employees. Each group had their own culture and operated singularly from the other, which caused communication issues when tasks required joint efforts. These issues affected productivity, engagement and job satisfaction, which are all linked to retention problems, grievances and complaints.”

Horne examined the data, hosted listening sessions, met with unofficial leaders from each culture and adapted training models, a process that helped her “diagnose the real root causes of the cultural barriers and devise a multilayered plan to fix core issues.” Notably, the plan was not solely focused on training, but many of the items were aligned with the same goal: boosting cultural outcomes.

“By collaborating with other departments on the same goal as well as supporting the change through training and other engagement tactics,” Horne says, “I was able to effectively raise the culture survey scores by a whopping 47% in the first year.”

Diagnosis: Habits Are Hard to Break

Connolly offers an example demonstrating the importance of good diagnostics in a very different context. Wex’s contact center implemented artificial intelligence (AI) “to conduct basic common customer service requests,” she says. “In order for this technology to be successful, we needed the agents to follow new processes so we could capture the reasons the customer was calling in and to help ‘train’ the robot.”

Wex trained the entire workforce and organized a group of “champions” to support the agents. However, not all of the teams adopted the new process, the leadership team wasn’t seeing the reductions in average handle time and the number of calls that reached “live” agents, and Connolly and her team had to “take a step back and rethink our approach.”

They conducted one-on-one job observations in which they documented the reasons agents weren’t following the new process, recorded calls, reviewed the instructions and returned “to the original scope of the project to review key performance metrics to ensure they still made sense.” They also created surveys and a quality assurance process for each agent.

Their conclusion was that it wasn’t the process or the technology that the agents were having difficulty with; it was changing old habits. The solution they devised was a new coaching model. Each team lead would meet with each of his or her agents weekly to observe actions and provide immediate coaching feedback. The leadership team also implemented a reward system and started including a dashboard review during each of the team lead’s staff meetings to highlight top performers. Connolly and her team also recommended refresher training for the agents who were having the most difficulty using the new process.

The results, Connolly says, were “reduced calls to live agents, [the] ability to build out automatic processes for additional high-volume types of calls.” They are also able to provide a summary of customer problems to the product development team.

Scaling With the Company

Training Industry’s research found that training departments inside organizations with a large number of employees are not as good at diagnosis as teams in smaller organizations. This negative association, Horne says, may be attributable to a lack of effective change management: “When learning leaders are not brought into a change early, many times, the ability to diagnose an issue is lessened. Entering a conversation without background knowledge will undoubtedly put the learning leader at a disadvantage in providing the best response and impactful training.”

“We are working in an agile world,” says Connolly, “and, in many scenarios, moving lightning-fast to keep up with competition. Diagnostic practices take time, and the pressure to deliver doesn’t always allow for time.” Training professionals in large organizations must “think more broadly and strategically” and align their strategies “holistically to a human capital model” — one in which the training team partners with the talent acquisition team, human resources (HR) partners and the business to maintain alignment to the organization’s strategic plan.

The Role of Technology

Training Industry’s research also found that training organizations that excel at integrating learning technologies also typically excel at diagnostics. Horne believes that this relationship is due to the fact that learning technology integration is typically done through small sprints that create products quickly and efficiently through techniques such as agile methodologies like Scrum. Training teams that are accustomed to using these types of sprints, she says, tend to “have a diagnostics process that is much faster and lean.”

Furthermore, technology enables quantitative, analytical diagnostics using data such as retention numbers, assessment scores, and correlations between career stage or tenure and content access. “Data can explain so many root causes when you have accurate and reliable data collection tools,” Horne says.

One final tip from Connolly is to “build a framework and stick with it,” whether it’s a template that you use for conversations, job analysis or a job observation process. “Keep in mind that [your] recommendation may not always be training,” she adds. Regardless of whether your team can deliver the solution or can make recommendations and referrals to people who can, your job is to diagnose the problem — which is one big step toward finding a solution.