High-tech training is the key to profit

On-the-job education can do more than correct past mistakes. At its best it targets trainees just when they need it, says Bill Byham

Workload pressures have exerted more pressure on managers to transform training and education into a profit-oriented, even profit-generating, function. Many organisations find it hard to quantify the returns they get from investing in training and education, but we do know, however, that training is expensive. So how can they get the best?

For large organisations, training budgets can run into millions of pounds, plus the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as those related to an employee's absence from work and the costs of trainers and materials.

It's costly, so why is it done? Despite the expense, I would encourage organisations to continue to invest in training. Not because it keeps DDI in business, but because it is perhaps the most strategic investment you can make - an investment in your people.

Those companies that invest in their people today are the ones that will thrive tomorrow. Intellectual capital, personified by the "knowledge worker", is the single most valuable commodity on the market today. That's people whose value to an organisation lies in their knowledge and intellectual skills. The bulk of their work is non-repetitive, knowledge-based and cognitively complex.

By the year 2000, one-third of the workforce will be made up of knowledge workers. Some 65-75 per cent of Microsoft workers are knowledge workers. Microsoft and companies like it are investing $650bn (pounds 380bn) a year in the salaries and benefits of such workers.

Investments of this size show that quality of employees, not technology or even financial capital, will determine organisational success into the next millennium. There will be intensive competition for the best people at all levels - especially those who can work independently, succeed in different cultures, manage worldwide enterprises, make the most of technology, flourish in fluid (or absent) structures, think creatively and manage others who can do the same.

Shortages of skilled, motivated individuals with the ability to learn and adapt are evident everywhere. Organisations that are doing well in selecting, developing and promoting individuals are pulling ahead of the competition. Corporate education and effective employee recruitment and selection is the key when attracting the best. Employees will be interested in committing to an organisation that will help define their future and help them deal with challenging peer and leadership issues. Increasingly, knowledge workers look for mentors to help them shape their careers.

Too often, in the past, training has been delivered to the wrong person and used to solve problems which actually arise from faulty selection procedures.

Identification of a problem, determination of its root causes, and cost/benefit analysis of possible solutions are crucial first steps in any intervention, and the first thing managers should do before making expenditures. This analysis is often called "performance consulting". If your department isn't involved in this, you might be spending money on training that is not yielding any returns.

One strategy for minimising the cost of this investment is outsourcing, something that is now common in the US. In addition to removing fixed costs, outsourcing provides an opportunity to examine the real costs and benefits of training. For example, DDI is providing all the training and development for BASF North America.

DDI specialises in training and has a lot of in-house capabilities, so it can deliver training 20-40 per cent cheaper than comparable classroom training provided by BASF employees. More cost-effective training can be offered through CD-Rom and self-study methodologies. Once BASF has fully installed its intranet, we will be able to utilise this system to deliver training more effectively.

Efficient delivery is the key to effective training. It contains costs and improves returns. Training must be designed and delivered so employees learn what they need to learn at the right moment, without taking them away from productive activity. I have concentrated on "soft skill" or interpersonal and leadership training, although what I say is applicable to technical training.

The system of apprenticeships demonstrates efficient delivery. As people became more competent at delivering tasks, the level of difficulty was increased. The moment when the apprentice seeks more information is known as the "teachable" moment. In many crafts, apprentices were encouraged to sign their work - to take pride in their achievements. We now call this empowerment.

Coaching, training and development was turned over to the professionals as the Industrial Revolution proceeded and this has continued through to today's trend towards flatter structures. There is little time for coaching and encouragement, and training occurs often at a time which is convenient to the organisation, rather than appropriate for the individual. Good leaders still need and want training but they want it at a time when they can apply it and when they are ready to learn.

In the modem workplace we have to catch people at the "teachable" moment. It is the only efficient way of providing training. In addition, it provides the motivation necessary to make "self-study" work. Many organisations are fooling themselves by buying into self-study training options which their employees just don't ever get around to completing because they have too many conflicting demands on their time.

There is always a small proportion that will adhere to the self-study training, but most people won't. They need motivation. This is where training is crucial at the "teachable" moment and the question is - how do you actually identify that moment?

Intranet-based systems are one option. They can be loaded with information, organised around specific skills and employees can "hone in" on an area they need to develop, including watching a video of someone successfully using the skill, reading about the skill, or identifying situations in which to practise the skill.

Take a newly appointed team leader who has trouble motivating a team and has an important meeting with them tomorrow morning. It's critical he has their support but has no time to discuss this with his boss. He can log on to the online system and spend as much time as possible on learning about "motivating others". He can look at quick tips, read what successful leaders say about motivation, even check out a newsgroup which has been working on similar skills. He may be able to make a self-study course online or download materials to review as he prepares for his meeting.

The ability to provide coaching is important. The apprentice can turn to the intranet for helpful advice here too. A drop down menu gives solutions to dealing with issues, such as, "dealing with problem employees". The user will receive online coaching on how to deal with this problem, ranging from quick tips to more in-depth information.

Another, more low-tech option is "phone coaching". At DDI we provide clients with interviewer training via the Internet or on CD-Rom. After individuals have learned the basic skills of interviewing applicants, they need to practise before going out and trying their skills out on actual applicants.

We can help them do this in three ways:

q The individuals group together for practice sessions where they role- play interviews and give feedback.

q Key managers such as regional sales managers are trained to coach newly- appointed subordinate leaders through practice interviews or real life interviews.

q Phone practice is given, after which the individual is given a free number in the US to set up an appointment several hours later to practise their techniques with an expert interviewer, who will then give them feedback

People know they need to plan their career, think through their strengths and weaknesses - but they often don't get around to doing it. When they are motivated, organisations need to be able to help them and this is another opportunity for the intranet, since recruitment advertisements and developmental activities can be housed in the same online library.

In this summary of the technology associated with just-in-time training development and coaching, I've described features and programmes that exist today. These are the features I feel have the most potential to provide the training necessary for the workforce of the future, to provide you with the strategic advantage that is effective training.

Bill Byham is Chief Executive Officer of Development Dimensions International (DDI).

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