The goal of any employee development initiative is to help employees become proficient. This is the stage where their performance is consistent, reliable, repeatable, independently productive and meets established standards. Such proficiency is measured at a job-role level and is concerned with producing noteworthy outcomes.
However, when it takes a long time to achieve that state, organizations could lose money while handling errors made by non-proficient employees. They have to continue to invest in employee training while losing revenue opportunities in the meantime.
By shortening that time, organizations can shorten the time to market for the products or services and improve customer satisfaction.
Training as the First Line of Defense
In a research study conducted by the author, a U.S.-based technology corporation hired several financial analysts for various business groups. Their job was to design, prepare, distribute, and present weekly financial dashboards. They were expected to use Excel software and build business dashboards. They would be called proficient if they sent reports each week on time and maintained a feedback score of at least 4.6 of 5.0 over six weeks. It was expected that they would take around two months to become fully proficient.
Upon joining, they were enrolled in a self-paced web-based training, followed by a five-day training class on using Excel software to create business dashboards. They received a 400-page printed manual, job aids, and online resources. After the training, their managers connected them to some senior peers they could contact in case of an issue.
For the first weeks, several financial analysts could not deliver dashboard reports by the deadline. Several of them did not meet stakeholders’ expectations. Most of them found it challenging to present and communicate the dashboard convincingly to the executives. While some of them achieved a feedback score of 4.6, they could not maintain it for long. On average, it took the entire group four months to reach a steady state of achieving 4.6 scores consistently while delivering dashboards on time.
The ultimate time to proficiency turned out to be double the expected time, despite getting the required training and support.
Training as a Speed Blocker
It might be hard for some organizations to understand why their best possible training design and other mechanisms do not help employees attain the required proficiency faster. In a research study with 70 best-in-class organizations from 42 industries, the author found that even the best-in-class organizations struggle to get the training right when the goal is speed. Most of them expressed observations that, contrary to usual expectations, the training programs themselves turned out to be the speed blockers that slowed down the rate of proficiency acquisition across the board.
The critical issue is poor training and learning design practices, coupled with a poorly implemented support structure. Four crucial inefficiencies inadvertently get inducted into training design practices, eventually leading to a slower proficiency acquisition.
1. Content-heavy Inefficient Training Design
Historically, most corporate training departments copied the instructional design from academic institutions and continued to stick to it. Such a design usually starts with a massive task analysis that defines performance objectives for activities and tasks. The result is primarily topic-based or task-based training programs stuffed with a lot of “just-in-case” content.
Even today, the training continued to be lecture or classroom style and instructor-centric in several corporate settings. Despite the induction of learner-centric approaches, training design relies heavily on traditional instructors to run the show. The complete focus is on just delivering the content. In most cases, training is supposed to have achieved its objectives when the instructor is finished covering all the slides.
Such programs become content-heavy and context-light. The learners take longer to master the skills required to produce better outcomes, even though they performed very well in training. Thus, training simply wastes time or slows down the learners instead of speeding up learners’ proficiency.
2. Out-of-Context Skills Delivery
When training solutions take the people away from the job and the context in which they are supposed to work, it takes much longer to become proficient at what they do.
For instance, in actual settings, the financial analysts in the previously mentioned example were trained in a safe environment in front of a computer screen, away from pressure and far from the job expectations. They probably learned all the skills and content to do tasks in excel software and passed the training assessments in flying colors. But that does not assure their proficiency in delivering outcomes in actual settings. No one taught them the survival skill: presenting and explaining the dashboard amidst the boardroom pressure to high-profile executives. They were not assessed for their ability to help executives make meaningful business decisions.
Unless we measure proficiency in training intervention in the same way as in real life, any amount of training will not help speed up proficiency. Mastering tasks or activities, or skills away from the context in which outcomes must be produced does not contribute towards speeding up the journey.
3. Poor Post-training Support Mechanisms
Managers’ involvement has a vast influence on the curriculum being taught in a training program. That involvement also helps managers decide how to deploy the individuals post-training to speed up the proficiency rate in what they learned in training. The time to proficiency suffers when managers don’t take full involvement in employee training before and after. Ironically, most managers leave it out to their training department and hardly specify measurable job proficiency expectations. In those cases, the training department delivers the skills to their best abilities, which is designing them for the course or learning objectives, rather than much-needed proficiency objectives. Such a design leads to the pitfalls highlighted under the first set.
Employees become proficient faster only when they work on the assignments that lead up to those proficiency goals while being supported by their managers on their journey. Employees might get excellent training but very poor post-training mentoring. When managers tell them, “Sit with Joe. And if Joe is not available, then sit with Jim,” employees are being set up to go slow.
4. Unclear or Poorly Defined Job Expectations
More often, the learning designers are not given the proficiency metrics for the job roles, or they are not given the exact time to proficiency reduction goals.
In the absence of those expectations, most training programs get designed to emphasize a preset body of information, constituent skills, specific behaviors, tasks or activities. These programs fail to make the employees proficient in delivering the actual job outcomes. Rather, the previously mentioned pitfalls get introduced in the design.
As an observation, training program designers are pressed to reduce the duration of the training program instead of focusing on a direct goal to reduce overall time to proficiency. Such objectives do nothing more than save some money. Learners may not yet be there in terms of proficiency to deliver the required customer satisfaction.
How to Get Training Design Right for Speed?
Models like 70:20:10 argue that people learn only a tiny part of the job from formal interventions like classroom training. Most of their learning either comes through social interactions or by practically experiencing it. Several studies also showed that the performance achieved in training is usually not an accurate reflection of the job performance.
Thus, while designing a training program for speed, keep two things in mind:
1. Focus on the Entire Journey
Focus on the entire journey of a learner and keep your eyes on the desired proficiency. You can use a combination of formal training, informal training, social learning, on-the-job interventions or other performance support tools. When you design training programs for acceleration, you need to think of what comes before, during and after the formal training and at various points in the entire trajectory of an employee. You need to make sure your design, delivery, and support processes avoid the pitfalls mentioned above.
2. Design for On-the-Job Performance Beyond Training
Look at ways to provide an efficacious performance support system, OJT checklists, and other tools that allow learners to experience the job at an accelerated rate. One of several ways you could do so is to make sure the training is designed around actual job scenarios and problems rather than pure content. This is where it is vital to make certain managers and learning designers work in unison to design assignments or projects that take learners towards a shorter time to proficiency.
The goal of training and learning is not simply to provide knowledge, content and skills — but to prepare learners faster, there must be some productive mindset changes towards what really should happen for the business. The goal of any training should be to accelerate efforts to prepare employees to do their job.