Training in the 21st Century: Everything Old Is New Again

Being forced to do more with less, today’s learning leaders are finding new ways make learning and training more effective and efficient by designing programs that maximize value while minimizing cost.

As companies tighten their belts in response to tough economic times, CLOs are getting squeezed. Being forced to do more with less, today’s learning leaders are finding new ways make learning and training more effective and efficient by designing programs that maximize value while minimizing cost.

When the economy stalled in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the mandate for CLOs everywhere was to ensure their people were trained as efficiently and inexpensively as possible.

Most learning organizations rose to the challenge by taking advantage of then-new technologies such as video discs and computer-based training to decrease classroom time and cram as much nonessential content into pre- and post-work as they could, saving only the most valuable content for the classroom. Best-practice organizations also focused on more clearly defining performance objectives tied to training. Then, they cut out everything that wasn’t explicitly focused on helping learners achieve those objectives.

In the years that followed, the trend toward optimization continued as new technologies emerged. We cut travel from our budgets by using real-time webinars instead of face-to-face training. We moved entire learning programs into self-paced e-learning modules to minimize the need for classroom time. And we began employing rapid-authoring tools to streamline our course-development processes.

Back to the Future
Here we go again. Times are tough, and CLOs are facing renewed pressure to reduce costs and optimize learning. The problem this time around, however, is that there are few cuts left to make in training departments. Most of the fluff already has been shaved, and as an industry, we have learned — some of us the hard way — that you can’t always reduce the amount of training and expect to save money in the long run. Whether you are teaching someone accounting or how to use a medical device, there is a threshold investment of time and resources necessary to teach someone to do something. Condense beyond that, and learning and retention are imperiled.

Thankfully, there aren’t many CLOs who are caving in to current budgetary constraints by slashing training time or cutting programs from their curricula. Instead, some are implementing better and more efficient ways to manage the processes that feed into and support employee learning and performance development.

Learning on a ‘Need to Know’ Basis
It is in this arena — process automation and optimization — next-generation learning, performance and talent management systems are of distinct advantage to CLOs.

One of the ways that such systems help companies reduce costs is by automating the process of determining what employees know and what they still need to learn. Within learning programs themselves, for example, an integrated talent management system can eradicate the need for the time-consuming hard coding that used to be required to attach instructional objectives and assessment questions to courses and educational documents. The system can automatically attach both components to courseware of all kinds. Then, based on a learners’ performance on a given assessment, it can automatically determine which skills individual learners have mastered and which ones they need to brush up on.

The system then takes the automation a step further by intuitively assigning training and recommended tasks to learners based on their specific development needs. For example, let’s say the system determines that “Jeff” understands how to complete a preinstallation checklist but hasn’t yet mastered the ability to hook up the electrical components of a system without calling in to his company’s help line for assistance. It can instantaneously redefine Jeff’s learning path and guide him to take action by recommending activities based on gaps in his skill set.

Such activities might include a training course, external seminar, reading a book, receiving some mentoring, a special job assignment or activities such as self-study courses that Jeff can walk through on his own. With some systems, Jeff can even launch and review recommended course material directly from the application. And if a recommended activity is classroom-based and led by an instructor, Jeff can view the class schedule and register directly from within the application, as well.

Comprehensive performance management functionality also is tied into many of the latest talent management systems. From an optimization standpoint, this means CLOs and others in the organization have the ability to automatically determine whether learning is required based on actual on-the-job performance.

Imagine, for example, a manufacturing plant that employs a comprehensive talent management system to regularly assess line workers’ job performance. If the system were to determine that product stickers weren’t being properly affixed to the product along the manufacturing line, it could automatically mine individual and multi-rater assessment and performance review data within the system to detect which 10 out of the 100 line workers require additional training in this area. Then, rather than wasting time and money training the entire workforce on the problem, it would push out a targeted course, e-learning module or development activity to each of these “deficient” workers.

The air transportation sector, for one, is benefiting from the cost savings associated with this functionality. A maintenance trainer at an airline recently conducted a study of the top 10 reasons flight cancellations occur due to maintenance. After determining that individual errors made by aircraft mechanics made up the lion’s share of the top 10 reasons, he developed training to address each error identified, then used his organization’s learning and performance management system to ferret out those individuals on the flight line who were responsible for making the mistakes. Training was then pushed out to these workers by the system, and by year’s end, the maintenance errors that were once among the top 10 reasons for flight cancellations weren’t even among the top 100 reasons.

For all of these industries, the big-picture benefits linked to such capabilities are clear. Fewer errors and fewer calls to an organization’s help line translate to higher productivity, more satisfied customers and less risk of revenue loss.

From a back-office perspective, the potential for cost savings is significant, too. Previously, the aviation maintenance trainer might have known which errors were occurring, but he would have had a difficult time determining which individuals were responsible for the mistakes. To find those workers, he had two options: He could either spend hours sifting through scores of disparate databases and disconnected spreadsheets, or he could put every single member of the maintenance staff through training, regardless of whether everyone needed the training or not.

With processes automated and every system within his organization talking to one another, however, a more holistic view of the organization emerged. Within minutes, he was able to enter his search criteria into the system, find the workers he was looking for and push targeted training out to each one. Problem solved.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In many ways, the ability to link learning interventions to a company’s strategic objectives represents the epitome of training’s aspirations. If a CLO can point to the metrics that show training’s impacts on those objectives, so much the better — for both his budget and people.

This is where today’s talent management systems truly excel: in proving training’s value to the business.

If a CEO’s goal is to increase customer retention by 15 percent this year, for example, she now has the ability to publish this goal within a talent management system. The system can then automatically communicate the goal to every member of the organization, typically by job function. As the process filters down, the goal’s components become more specific and actionable, and goal components are embedded into each employee’s performance and development plans.

Today’s talent management systems also are capable of allowing employee performance goals to be systematically aligned with department goals, which in turn can be aligned with higher-level organizational objectives. This means that organizational goal alignment not only occurs on a top-down basis, but from a bottom-up perspective, too.

Employee performance plans within such systems provide associates with an opportunity to share their plans and goals with managers and supervisors. These systems also provide tools and mechanisms designed to encourage employees to work with their managers to align individual goals to both departmental goals and to organizational initiatives and critical success factors. This creates a two-way reporting mechanism that allows all employees to see how they are doing individually and as a team in relation to achieving the company’s objectives.

Of course, such transparency not only helps everyone within the company better understand how their work contributes to the overall good of the organization — a key driver of employee engagement and the creation of a high-performance culture, according to research from the Corporate Leadership Council — it also affords CLOs the ability to point to the specific ways in which learning supports the organization in reaching its goals.

At a time when learning executives everywhere are facing enormous pressure to pull and stretch their budgets, many CLOs are finding that the ability to demonstrate the value of training by leveraging their talent management systems is the most effective budget defense strategy of all.