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Getting bang for your buck: development programs that deliver business results

If organisations are to remain competitive and sustainable, the rate of learning by individuals, teams, and the organisation as a whole must meet or exceed the pace of change in the external environment. Fail to achieve this and you may not be in business very long!

In many organisations the response to every perceived development need is classroom style training. This is despite research that suggests that 17 out of 20 participants do not use what they learned in training interventions to improve their job performance.*

The critical first step in ensuring development programs deliver value is to determine what kind of development is actually required. While traditionally development has been focussed on individuals, an effective development program may actually need to target a range of levels.

  1. Developing people – Do people have the knowledge, skills and confidence they need in order to behave in the way you need them to?
  2. Developing process – Are the systems and processes aligned to support the desired behaviours and create leverage?
  3. Developing culture – Does the ‘way we do things around here’ engage and guide employees to display the desired behaviours and deliver the desired business results?

Research suggests 80% of training fails because of factors in the preparation or the follow up of the learning event.* When organisations focus primarily on developing their people while paying little attention to process and culture, they often fail to identify roadblocks to individuals applying learning in the workplace. A prime example is the contradiction between interventions that encourage teamwork while having a bonus structure that rewards individual performance.

In addition to identifying the level at which development is required, it is also necessary to align development with the needs of the ‘learners’. An effective development program will have both clearly defined learning outcomes and target audience. The content and format of the program will appropriately reflect these. Too often there is an assumption that supplying individuals with ‘knowledge’ will translate into changes in behaviour. This assumption is counter to research about adult learning, which has recognised that before individuals are in a position to apply new skills and knowledge, they need to first be aware that they have something to learn.

Another piece in the puzzle is ensuring that development is linked to the business strategy and that this link is clearly communicated across the organisation. Failure to effectively make this link, or to communicate it, leads to a number of unhelpful outcomes:

  • The value of the development intervention isn’t understood and therefore isn’t given the appropriate prioritisation, time, energy and resources.
  • It becomes difficult to measure the return on investment of the development intervention.
  • Opportunities to develop synergies and maximise learning potential are missed as individuals are left to apply learning in an inconsistent way.
  • Peers and managers do not support participants to apply their learning.

In short, implementing development interventions that are successful in delivering business results isn’t easy, but stepping back from the assumption that ‘training’ is the only solution to your problems is a good place to start!

Diarmid Lee

* Research by Prof. Robert Brinkerhoff (Western Michigan University)