Training effectiveness: Rhetoric and reality

Monday, 6 June 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Training is everywhere. With economic growth and business expansion, organisations both public and private tend to focus more on training. Every day I get many e-flyers about new training programmes, some interestingly without clear objectives and surprisingly without the name of the trainer.

The reality is that training has become a money spinner for some. The crux of the matter is, is such training effective? How do you measure effectiveness? Is there an accepted way of measuring training effectiveness? Today’s column seeks to provide answers to these pertinent questions.

Importance of training

Mercer Consulting, in its annual global surveys, consequently identified training effectiveness as one of the most important HR measurements. As we are aware, training attempts to facilitate learning in enhancing knowledge, skills and attitudes of people. More precisely, it is planned and systematic modification of behaviour through learning events, programmes and instruction, which enable individuals to achieve the levels of knowledge, skills and attitude needed to carry out their work effectively.

It also encompasses the formal and informal processes organisation uses to facilitate employees’ learning so that their resultant behaviour contributes to the attainment of organisational goals.

We broadly categorise training into two parts, namely on-the-job and off-the-job. On-the-job training takes place in a normal working situation, using the actual tools, equipment, documents or materials that trainees will use when fully trained. A trainee mechanic in a manufacturing setting or a call centre assistant in a service setting can be examples.

I remember seeing a longer queue towards a cashier counter in a leading supermarket and upon reaching the point, realised that it was manned by a trainee. There lies the challenge. The person undergoing on-the-job training is still responsible for the job results.

Off-the-job training has the advantage that it allows people to get away from work and concentrate more thoroughly on the training itself. It offers the opportunity to use a variety of techniques in order to enhance the knowledge, skills and attitude. The popular training programmes in hotels where the venue and the menu seem to be more attractive than the training content fall under this category.

Measuring effectiveness

As we are aware, effectiveness is results related. Training effectiveness refers to whether it has delivered the expected results. Training is an investment. Therefore the organisations naturally want to see the return on investment. Also it is a case of expectations, by the organisation and HR department as well as the trainees. As such, return of expectations (ROE) matters a lot with regard to training.

The most well-known and used model for measuring the effectiveness of training programmes was developed by Dr. Donald Kirkpatrick in the late 1950s. It has since been adapted and modified by a variety of researchers, yet the basic structure has well stood the test of time. According to Kirkpatrick, training effectiveness can be measured at four different levels, namely, reaction, learning, behaviour and results.

It is a case of begin with the end in mind. As Kirkpatrick states: “Trainers must begin with desired results and then determine what behaviour is needed to accomplish them. Then trainers must determine the attitudes, knowledge, and skills that are necessary to bring about the desired behaviour(s). The final challenge is to present the training programme in a way that enables the participants not only to learn what they need to know but also to react favourably to the programme.”

I would tend to simplify the four levels of training effectiveness, going by the basic thrust in each of them. For me, they highlight feel, know, do and get aspects. Let’s dig deeper into their details.

‘Feel’ aspect of training

This refers to the reaction level identified by Kirkpatrick. It relates to how trainees reacted to their training. In other words, how much they liked it or disliked it. Some organisations are very proud of compiling an evaluation sheet at the end of the training and get the overall measure. For me it gives only a ‘feel’ of the training effectiveness.

Some trainers are very smart at declaring a money back guarantee if the evaluation rating is below a specific percentage. It does not cover the reality of application challenges and is just a case of thriving on feelings.

My point here is that it is good to measure how participants reacted positively or negatively to a particular training, but not good enough to ensure impact with regard to implementation. That’s why we need to move forward.

‘Know’ aspect of training

It can be either ‘know what’ or ‘know how,’ referring to knowledge and skills respectively. This is the second stage which is the learning level according to Kirkpatrick. It is directed at measuring trainees’ performance in terms of their knowledge, skills and attitudes against the criteria which were set for the period the training.

This generally means an end of the course assessment, comprising either a questionnaire to check the knowledge gained or a test to ascertain the skills acquired. A person who had undergone training on word-processing may be asked to type a letter, and obviously the letter is expected to be well-formatted and free of errors.

‘Do’ aspect of training

This focuses on the application of training, and refers to level 3 or behaviour level of Kirkpatrick model. It resonates well with what Aldous Huxley, a British author said a long time ago: “At the end of the day, what matters is not how much you know, but how much you have done.” Knowing should lead to doing, and doing should bring the desired results.

At this stage, the focus shifts from training context to work environment. How effectively have the knowledge, skills and attitudinal enhancement gained from training transferred to the job is measured here. The immediate supervisor can play a critical role in this respect by providing feedback based on his/her observations of the trainee.

‘Get’ aspect of training

Now it is the time to focus on returns at a macro level. Return on Investment (ROI) or Return on Training Investment (ROTI) appears prominently with this regard. What Kirkpatrick calls the results level (Level 4), deals with how to measure this important aspect. It involves complex calculations to establish benefits against costs, with a high amount of assumptions.

In order to get the results, the training should fulfil financial and non-financial expectations. In areas such as sales, it is relatively easier to measure the impact at results level, in using simple comparisons such as sales before and after the training. With regard to other areas involving knowledge and attitudinal enhancements, the situation is much difficult with the involvement of multiple contributing factors towards results other than training.

Status in Sri Lanka

Despite the boom in training with the mushrooming of trainers, the measurement of effectiveness has not yet received its due prominence in Sri Lanka. I see a clarity issue as well as a commitment issue.

Are the leaders and HR practitioners clear about how to measure training effectiveness? My observation is ‘yes’ and ‘no’. There are multinationals operating in Sri Lanka who use a variety of techniques driven globally to measure training. A few high-performing Sri Lankan organisations, with competent and dynamic HR professionals, attempt to do something in this direction. However, the majority, particularly the organisations in the public sector, have not paid adequate emphasis on this front.

For me, investing in training, which is on the rise, is a good thing. Yet, not measuring the effectiveness of it is a sad thing. That is where the commitment becomes critical. There should be the discipline to measure. It goes well with the golden maxim, “what gets measured gets managed”. You have to inspect in order to get what you expect, which is true for training as well.

I recall a friend of mine who was a sales director, once telling me about training. When he exceeded his sales targets, the CEO had wanted him to find an overseas training programme, preferably in Europe, and to go there and enjoy, while attending the programme “if and when possible”.

The whole idea here is the training as a motivator, especially with regard to those conducted overseas. In such cases, contents and the conduct are secondary and the location become much more important.

Time has come for training effectiveness to be taken more seriously. This is for the betterment of the HR professionals and also for the wellbeing of the organisations. Sri Lankan organisations have a significant scope for improvement with this regard.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of human resource management and organisational behaviour. He can be reached on ajantha@pim.lk.)

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