Training’s Futile Search for Evidence of Impact

It seems like we are always looking for something to improve training outcomes, a noble and well-intended search. In the many years I have been in this profession I confess to being part of that search. I must also confess to seeing shifts in tactics to e-learning and new whiz-bang technology that speed the process of training – and at the same time, perpetuate the search. So we search. And we search some more, and we always seem to look under the same rock – improving the transfer of knowledge. Understand that emphasis on that search is not a bad thing, but what we continue to miss is the fact that it was not to only thing; there is another rock to peek under as part of our search.

Why did we miss it? Was “knowledge transfer” the wrong rock? Absolutely not, but an additional rock lay right beside the one we always look under that would give us a clearer path to the solid tangible Level 3 & 4 type evidence we so badly need. This “other rock” reveals that our search was too narrow and often fell short of the mother lode of evidence – the downstream, post-training work context.  Quite simply, our training scope and charter…and very often the skill sets within the training department…do not equip us to even consider looking under an additional rock. We are not properly equipped to go downstream.

Why should we? I mean we just invested in a new LMS. We just bought Lectora licenses, and we sent developers off to visit the Flash oracle to acquire the vision and the power to make sizzling e-learning that was both sexy and engaging. No doubt some of you reading this post have been down this road as well. No shame for taking this path, but have you noticed that our engagement in this journey seems to end at deployment? Ours did. And we got better at it too. We created a faster, cheaper, more efficient way to improve participant satisfaction and the transfer of knowledge. We had the level one evaluation numbers to prove it, and we had the level two confirmations that knowledge did indeed get transferred. Throw in how many butts we had in seats, and how our percentages increased on the consumption of more efficient on-line learning, and who could doubt our success?

Sadly, all we could prove…and prove without a shadow of doubt…was the fact that we were working our rumps off in the very necessary task of transferring pleasing knowledge to the workforce. What we spent our days doing was our mission. We were evaluated on the metrics of “activity-based” contribution to the business. Unfortunately, there was no way to attach “tangible business impact” to our efforts. Our reward was an emaciated budget…visualize Swiss cheese…imagine withered…whacked…riddled…you know what I mean because the same thing has most likely happened to your budget, right? It is sad when we consider an annual budget that remains “flat” as a win. Yeah, I have done that too.

Was whacking our budget fair? We seem not to be able to break that paradigm of budget freezes and/or down-sizing vendettas that continue to restrict or eliminate Training resources. That will only continue if we [Training] cannot demonstrate a tangible contribution to the business. No leadership team is going to restrict anything that drives profitability. That means not only look under…but diving under…that “work context” rock. We have a call-to-action to take our Training wares closer to the point of work.  Why? The point of work is where real, tangible business value is either won or lost by the workforce.

Going downstream changes things. It presents us with new hats to wear – performance consulting and maybe a dash of workflow mapping and process improvement savvy for starters. Quite frankly that “rock” implies a larger scope and charter for training. Whoa…did I just use the “L” word? Larger? Did I say “larger role” for Training? Heck, we can hardly keep up with the activity we have on our plates as it is. Larger? More? Sorry, but yes it is true. Training’s scope does need to become larger. BUT…do not confuse the implications of “larger” with an automatic assumption of that word implying “more”! We do not need “more”, we need “different”.

It is not “more transfer of knowledge” that we seek, it is evidence of impact. Make that tangible evidence of impact, and that does not happen in the classroom or on-line; it happens at the point of work. What that implies is evolving what we DO in the classroom and/or on-line so that a thread of learning continuity flows from the formal training to the workforce’s consumption of informal learning assets at the point of work. I call this “learning @ the point of work”.

Learning @ the point of work does not eliminate upstream formal learning efforts. It changes them. See…it’s not “more”, in fact, it may even be “less” traditional training activity and more post-training performer support…which just so happens to be located @ the point of work. And if we design appropriately for post-training performer support, we then have resources that can be integrated into what we DO upstream in training. And consistently the integration of the performer support tools decreases the amount of knowledge that must be transferred by comparison.

I had breakfast with a colleague this past Friday, and he is also a veteran of the training profession. He does contract work as well and is “locked on” to the concept of accomplishing more with less. He works with computerized materials management systems (CMMS) technology and this specialized software application is very process-oriented. I have had similar experiences with countless SAP modules and Oracle/PeopleSoft and electronic medical records (EMR) systems. All are very workflow-oriented and many different roles lay hands upon these applications. Trust me when I say this…effectively equipping a workforce to function flawlessly @ the point of work is to “equip them to learn” @ the point of work.

The “learning” that is accomplished is not a single transaction; in fact, it may not be training at all. Do we still need to have the classes where everybody endures super-user trainers and e-learning-based simulations? The answer is not just a resounding “YES!” it is “YES AND…” The “and” is what implies that “something different” must happen in the upstream formal learning effort that is consistent with the downstream work context. This speak to that “thread of continuity” I mentioned earlier. My friend described his training as a collection of performer support objects (PSOs) or job aids, and/or quick reference guides that are designed and developed using a “create-once-use-many-times” approach. These objects used in formal learning [training] are the exact same objects the workforce is expected to use in their respective downstream work contexts. The spectrum of these PSOs range from hard-copy job aids to embedded assets integrated with the workflow using electronic performance support systems (EPSS) or accessed through a learning and performance portal. The result is a different design approach on the content to be consumed. That design gives us the real possibility of that critical learning “thread”.

Was training still linear? Yeah, but it was linear based upon specific roles and tasks that had to be executed flawlessly in the work context. This learning environment lends itself perfectly to the PDR Learning Continuum I devised…in self-defense…after parachuting into a new role with a company in a mid-stream SAP deployment. Talk about landing behind enemy lines…oh my. The deployment was NOT going well, despite some of the best Flash-based learning content I had ever seen. Failure was not happening during training, it was happening @ the point of work. Errors and rework were sucking up any productivity gains they hoped to wring out of the SAP investment. So who got the blame? Training. Now I can look back and say that part of that blame was deserved, because our end product was under-scoped for the performance they needed us to sustain…and that was only going to happen @ the point of work. Training was MIA…@ the point of work.

Evidence of success was never going to be attained with world-class training. We had to get beyond our realm of excellence and get into the work context – the “new classroom” and not only deploy learning, but implement it. That is the “YES AND” that will shine the light on Training’s contribution to business impact. What I have just described is not rocket science. I look back on my own struggles and wonder what took me so long to make this now obvious connection.

There are several links highlighted in this post that dig deeper into several topics and tactics mentioned. Also, I am honored to present this topic as a speaker at Training Magazine’s Learning 3.0 conference in Chicago October 25th, Session #502, “Learning @ the Point of Work”. If any of you are going, it would be great to have you join in the conversation.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
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Twitter: Gdogwise