Employee Skill Development: The Five Rights of Training

Jack Prot

No matter how long we have been training employees, it helps occasionally to go back to the basics. We all tend towards repeating what has worked for us before, and sometimes we forget the wider organizational context of our training efforts. By focusing solely on what goes on in our training room or what we put into our e-learning content, we can miss appreciating our trainees as people who will go back to their jobs with the purpose of winning goals for the organization.

I have cemented what I see as the basic principles underlying effective instruction as the five “rights” of training. These five “rights” are:

1. Right Trainees

2. Right Learning

3. Right Time

4. Right Method

5. Right Environment

Let me explain below each of these five “rights” and illustrate with examples how easy it is to ignore them. I want to stress at the outset that none of what I say here is new or astounding. What is surprising is how quickly we can forget the basics to the detriment of the organizations we work for and their employees.

1. Right Trainees

-employees genuinely requiring skill development are nominated for training

This first principle is about ensuring that the people requiring training, and only those people, are conscripted or invited. Here, conducting a proper performance diagnosis is the key. I still see many organizations committing one or more fundamental errors in this first step of analyzing their training needs. One such common error is prescribing training as the solution to a problem when there exists no knowledge or skills gap. When this happens, the upshot is that no trainees nominated for the training are the right trainees.

Some managers fail to grasp that poor performance is not always attributable to lack of training. When an employee does not perform up to standard, it may be because they:

a) don’t know it’s expected

b) think they’re already doing it

c) don’t want to do it

d) can’t do it

e) don’t know how to do it

Notice that providing training to the poorly performing employee will only help with reason e) above. It will not help with the other reasons (or, at least not initially). Without an adequate problem diagnosis, many managers are throwing good money down the drain. In some cases I have seen, even more money is wasted when the trainees fail to respond to the antidote and exactly the same training is prescribed again.

Another misuse of training dollars that I see is what is called the “scattergun” approach. “John and Mary need training in how to write a business proposal, so let’s send everyone on the training.” Not only is this wasteful of resources, it also serves to frustrate the other members of the team by taking them away from the important work that they are doing. Do this often enough, and you might find that overall team performance will go down instead of up as people give up in dismay.

2. Right Learning

-program content and activities closely match organization and learner objectives

I see many programs run based on what people want instead of on what the business and the employees need to lift performance. This often results from “quick and dirty” performance appraisal discussions in which employees are asked for what training they would like to do. It also results from a “smorgasbord” approach in which a catalogue of training is presented to employees with little to no serious discussion about how the training will benefit themselves or the organization. Many managers are content to waste money on such training as it looks as if they are “doing something” to develop their employees.

I also see many programs padded out with extraneous material, mainly as a result of managers and trainers having no clear idea on what organizational outcomes are being targeted. Get focused on what are “must haves” in the program. With whatever time is left available, you can then include the “nice to haves”.

3. Right Time

-training is neither delivered too early nor too late

The third principle is about timing the training event right. If trainees do not get the opportunity to apply their new skills and knowledge soon after the training is completed, they will quickly forget. Alternatively, if the training is delayed too long, wrong behaviors may take hold, leading to expensive mistakes. Wrong behaviors that become habits will also be all the harder to correct with training. Furthermore, if employees are expecting training, say, for a new system installation, and it just isn’t happening, by the time it does arrive you may find that you have lost a number of your valuable employees to the opposition. The remaining employees are also at risk of quickly become demoralized in the face of “uncaring” management.

4. Right Method

-methods and delivery modes match learning objectives and learner preferences

Professional instructional designers know all about this fourth principle. Here, training methods are matched to the learning content, the training objectives and trainee preferences. Training progresses from simple concepts and activities to the more complex, or from an overview to progressively more detailed treatment of the subject matter. Training content is also “chunked” appropriately to allow trainees to assimilate new material and to practice.

A common mistake that I see is a learning objective stating that trainees will be able to do xyz, such as dealing with angry customers, and yet trainees are treated to hour after hour of theory and stories. And when practical exercises and practice sessions are included in the program, they are treated as a short addendum instead of taking center stage. This is especially the case where program durations are shortened because of budget or operational time constraints and the necessary practice sessions are cut short.

Preferred learning styles also need to be considered in the program design. For example, some trainee groups may prefer to learn through lots of trial and error, whilst others may learn best through detailed theoretical treatments. A lecture style with ample supplementary reading will suit the latter group, but not the first. Here, a problem-based learning approach with trainees working in groups may be a better match.

The second aspect to this principle is modes of delivery. The media through which training content and activities are delivered need to suit the capabilities and characteristics of trainees. Delivering training via an internet or intranet portal may not suit technologically challenged employees. Requiring a lot of reading from trainees with low literacy levels will also prove frustrating and ineffective. Audio broadcasts and live visual demonstration may be a better match here. All of these factors need to be considered if the training program is to be as effective as it can be.

5. Right Environment

-training and workplace settings are optimized for learning and later training transfer

The final principle is about the training and workplace environment. Trainers generally perform an admirable job in getting the physical learning environment right. They ensure that there is sufficient lighting, the room temperature is comfortable, the seating layout is conducive to discussions, seats are ergonomically suitable and participants are well-fed.

Competent trainers also set and maintain the conditions for interpersonal exchanges that encourage learning. In this learning environment, participants can take risks, differences are respected, questions and discussions are encouraged and participants learn from each other. To the detriment of organizations, however, not much attention has been paid to the workplace environment. By workplace environment, I include here such factors as visible support from managers and supervisors, placement of on-the-job aids, availability of on-the-job coaching and reward systems that are aligned to the new required behaviors.

How many of the five “rights” can you see followed in your training function specifically and, more generally, in your organization? Congratulate yourself and your team for the ones that are being actively supported. Which ones do you need to work on? Make an action plan now of how you will improve the visibility of those “rights” that are seen not as clearly. Review your progress in six months’ time and then announce to your organization the positive impact you have made.

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