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Turning up the heat on training

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As corporate training processes get increasingly complicated, keeping them relevant and delivering them effectively becomes a massive challenge for L&D heads.

Akankasha Dewan explores the best practices of high-impact learning organisations, and the ways they bring clarity to the training processes.

Over the past few years the learning and development (L&D) industry has absorbed tremendous amounts of new information with regards to training needs and modes (e-learning, experiential learning, social media, gamification, etc) which has resulted in training departments now awash in content.

The key to training success today not only involves developing great content, but being able to define and deliver it in a way which leads to continuous capability development.

“The continuous war for talent, the advent of digital and social media, and a range of advancements in technology have changed the face of corporate training in the past few years,” says JPS Choudhary, head of HR for Asia, Africa and Middle East at Vodafone Enterprise.

Some of the major shifts include “moving from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mass approach to customisation of training to suit individual needs” and a “more structured, long-term strategic approach to employee learning rather than just-in-time training”.

But this shift definitely hasn’t been easy – mainly because of the rapid speed at which it has happened.

Today’s shorter product cycles, combined with rapid advances in technology, mean that skill requirements are changing quickly, and companies are having a hard time structuring their training programmes.

“Our biggest challenge is that the industry is changing rapidly every day – no one day is the same,” says Charissa Chan, area director of HR and training for Hotel Jen.

Because of this, she adds, L&D leaders may be aware of the direction their company is headed towards, but to connect that with day to day training structures and operations could be difficult.

And even if companies are good about training their employees, the return is shorter lived because needs are changing so much more quickly today – resulting in training that often lags in efficiency.

The 2015 Emerging Workforce Study commissioned by Spherion Staffing found that among 225 employers, 77% have put more training and career development opportunities in place this year, compared with last year.

In addition, only 24% found the cost of training staff for the future extremely/very challenging.

Employees, however, clearly don’t feel the same.

Thirty-one per cent of staff in the study felt they had not been adequately trained by their employer and only 33% felt the development opportunities they were provided with were excellent/good.

As such, 35% of them stated they worried about falling behind when acquiring new skills for the future and 29% felt their current skill sets were outdated, leaving them at risk when it comes to career development.

“Workers and employers must take joint responsibility for closing the skills gap,” said Spherion division president, Sandy Mazur.

“Workers should understand where businesses are headed and what skills they’ll need to help close the gap, while employers should examine their workers’ skill levels to focus on training that will be helpful and useful for them.”

In such a situation, what more can be done to ensure training remains essentially relevant and hits the nail on the head with what is really required?

Clarity in relevant learning outcomes

Laurence Smith, the managing director of HR at DBS and group head of learning and talent development, believes a key tenet of making sure training leaders get optimal returns on investment on their L&D programmes is having clarity on what they really want to do.

According to Smith, L&D heads need to ask questions such as “what exactly they are trying to achieve?”, “where they are today” and “how they will know when they get there?”

“I find that L&D often rushes to solutions and does not spend enough time with the customers and stakeholders to deeply understand the real problem we are trying to solve,” he says.

“L&D should use a human-centred design approach of looking, understanding, and making before rushing to the solution. In other words, fall in love with the problem – not the solution.”

But failing to take time to understand the real objectives behind training sessions is precisely what L&D leaders are often guilty of doing.

A 2011 study of companies by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the United Kingdom and by SHRM in the United States and India found that training and development specialists were more likely to spend their time delivering courses at training facilities than building relationships with senior and line managers.

Terming it as an “order-taking mentality”, Smith adds a lack of clarity on real objectives and measures of training success exists because of “some L&D teams where they simply deliver what the business wants without engaging in real dialogue and also a lack of commercial acumen or business savvy to engage those leaders”.

At Vodafone, however, Choudhary reveals how setting clear learning outcomes for each seniority level in the organisation helps in achieving training goals.

“At Vodafone we follow a leadership capability building path that is followed from front line managers (first-time managers) all the way to business and functional leads, including the senior leadership team,” he explains.

“Every leadership journey has a well-defined and structured learning path which has a blend of self-faced learning – face-to-face sessions and workplace projects. Such holistic training focuses on certain aspects of people development, coaching and raising overall team performance.”

To make it easier for training leaders to set these learning outcomes, Chan adds it is imperative they are aware of the needs of their employees by analysing training gaps on a day-to-day operational level.

“Anyone working in the corporate environment should take time to visit the field and see what’s actually going on over there,” she says.

This will also aid in making sure the training provided is aligned not only with the needs of the business, but also with the needs of employees themselves – an alignment which is easier said than done.

A Cegos Asia Pacific survey on major learning trends across the region recently found “a lack of dialogue in some organisations between professionals and the learning community” and concluded that some training provided may be “considered irrelevant, out-of-date, or simply not required”.

“This is particularly true in our survey of participants from India and, surprisingly, Singapore,” the report stated.

“L&D leaders can also do a pre-training assessment – send across a few questions to the participants, and ask them to list their learning expectations. And based on that, you can modify what you already have and modify it to tailor to the actual needs of the participants who are attending the workshop,” Chan explained.

Clarity in measuring effectiveness of training programmes

But to really ensure if the type of training provided is in fact relevant and useful, it remains imperative for L&D leaders to spend time in measuring its effectiveness, according to all interviewees.

“In order to work on return on investment and help employees shape and define their careers, it is imperative for L&D to measure the impact of its learning solutions,” Choudhary says.

“The measurement needs to move much beyond the traditional smiley sheets which are mere reflections of the ‘recency’ effect where people tend to best recall items at the end of their learning.

“With today’s challenging economy, L&D budgets are receiving more scrutiny than ever. Participant feedback forms administered immediately after a learning programme are no longer enough, and L&D professionals need to look for more solid evidence to justify the investment in their programmes.”

This is precisely because measuring the returns on investment on these programmes is, however, easier said than done.

According to Choudhary, L&D programmes often provide more long-term value rather than short-term effects, making their ROI difficult to define.

In addition, evaluating effectiveness is also particularly challenging when the targeted outcomes involve softer skills such as collaboration, decision-making, innovativeness and the ability to think strategically – all of which are common learning objectives in many organisations.

“It can be difficult to assign a monetary value to such skills, or to show a correlation between the learning initiative and the acquisition of the targeted skills,” Choudhary says.

This has disastrous consequences as L&D budgets, when they lack clear and measured deliverables, can be soft targets for cost-cutting.

“Given the challenges of shrinking OPEX (operational expenditure), L&D professionals are relentlessly working to put a dollar value to evaluate learning and effectiveness.

“However, this has so far been done with varying degrees of success: it is ultimately the learning journey that will need tools and technological support to build on.”

Smith agrees, and adds that concentrating equally on both the pre and post-implementation of training programmes is key to measuring their impact.

“It is usually the time spent in these two before and after phases that actually indicates how much impact will be derived. L&D typically spends the vast majority of design time and effort on the course itself rather than really understanding the objectives and ensuring real outcomes,” he says.

But time, Choudhary identifies, is also a fundamental problem when it comes to evaluating training outcomes.

“Investing time is the most common barrier to evaluating and measuring the impact of L&D programmes, due to other business priorities which take precedence,” he says.

He adds that as learning is a long-term process, it also takes time for an incumbent to transition from learning knowledge to practising skills and then attaining new capabilities, ensuring a “long wait” to calculate the learning impact.

A third factor impeding the evaluation of learning outcomes is “the lack of technological capability and qualitative and analytical data that can correlate L&D’s impact to business imperatives”.

Clarity in using the right data and mode of learning

Shelley Perkins, vice-president of human resources for Asia Pacific at FRHI Hotels & Resorts, identifies, however, that data such as profitability, retention and engagement can, in fact, be used to measure learning effectiveness.

“I’m a big believer in evaluating performance post-learning, and what we do is that we follow up with the supervisor and leader of the employee and ask if there’s any change in performance or understanding as a result of the training,” she says.

She also adds that she ties in metrics such as guest satisfaction rates to measure if training of staff has really been effective.

When it comes to service training, for example, she adds the company is particularly vigilant about guest data.

“We measure everything related to the guest experience.

“For instance, we recently had problem resolution training cascaded through the organisation and we’ve been monitoring our guest satisfaction scores on problem resolution. Thankfully, we’ve seen an uplift in scores following the introduction of the training.

“Essentially, we will tie data to the training programme and, if there’s no change in guest experience, then we will have to re-look into the effectiveness of training,” she concludes.

Guest satisfaction was also, Perkins explains, the main driver in formulating how training within the company evolved over time.

“Training in hotels has been evolving to on-the-job training, in-the-moment training, sound bites through the day, and opportunities to demonstrate learning. It’s a little bit more out of the classroom and onto the floor.”

Indeed, all interviewees unanimously agree that today’s corporate learners have little appetite for classroom learning, where employees spend days outside of offices attending long workshops.

Structuring the training in the right way is important, Perkins adds, because it forms a significant part of companies’ employee value proposition today.

“Today’s generation will ask you about learning opportunities as part of the interview and what they will learn.”

Clarity in communicating training needs and content

Because employees themselves are so willing and eager to learn, they themselves should be accountable for what and how they are learning – something which is often forgotten in the design of the training programme.

Employees are, Smith explains, “the most interested in their own career, but are often ignored in this process other than the annual performance review and a one-off development plan creation”.

Choudhary agrees, adding the accountability for employee learning needs to be shared between line managers, the employees themselves, and the learning specialist – with each playing a very important role in the process.

“The line managers need to provide the adequate level of learning guidance to the employees, providing the basis for exhibiting various competencies while at work, and advising on the desired behavioural aspects and career aspirations. It is imperative that line managers provide the right inputs to the employees on their work strengths and areas to develop,” he says.

He expands that learning and development teams ultimately play a critical role in understanding the capabilities and skills needed for various career levels in the organisation, each of which is required to tackle current and future business challenges.

“They need to act as catalysts in helping employees shape and define their careers with the timely provision of impactful learning solutions.”

Chan agrees, saying it is imperative for all parties to play an equally important role in the process – along with the right attitude.

“I think everybody plays an equal role in the training process, including the learners themselves. Without the right attitude, desire and willingness to learn, the effectiveness of our training sessions won’t be there – no matter what we prepare for them or to what lengths we go to.”

But Smith warns even if all such parties are part of the implementation and execution of the training process, the effectiveness of L&D policies get compromised if leaders are not able to clearly voice their priorities.

“I usually find that L&D people are incredibly weak at communicating their own successes,” Smith observes.

“Work with the business sponsor to measure the impact in as many meaningful ways as possible and then make sure it gets written up and communicated, preferably by them. Building a portfolio of success stories makes it easier for other stakeholders to reach out and engage you.”

Perkins adds another way of effectively communicating training priorities is to customise messages to suit the demographic traits of the audience.

She says “large multinational corporations do have to have the understanding that the training and delivery does need to be tailored to different markets – the way they deliver training in China is very different to the way they deliver it in San Francisco, for instance”.

Seniority levels of trainees in question should also be taken into account when designing training programmes.

“We absolutely tailor our training programme and we define our audience at the beginning of the process. You’re not going to get a manager to sit in a three-day service delivery session, for instance,” she says.

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