Want to maximise the impact of your training spend? Pick the right problem

In February I reflected on the Learning Technologies Exhibition 2014 with a post called ‘Design the complete experience’. Thinking about the end-to-end learner experience was a major theme of the show, and my title was inspired by the continuing relevance of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, which was first published in 2006 and republished in 2010. The idea behind this book is to provide a toolkit for learning professionals who want to design programmes that make a genuine business impact, summarised in the six ‘Ds’.

  • Define Outcomes in Business Terms
  • Design the Complete Experience
  • Deliver for Application
  • Drive Follow-Through
  • Deploy Active Support
  • Document Results

Today I want to draw attention to the first ‘D’, looking specifically at how we define the problem which we are trying to solve with training. In an excellent, often searing, chapter on the necessity of defining outcomes in business terms (yes, that means monetary terms!), the authors remark that ‘in most fields of human endeavour, half the solution is defining the right problem’ (p. 34).

This is an insight which many of us would do well to remember. In an industry focus on ‘solutions’, it is not surprising that few of us challenge some rather fixed notions of what the ‘problem’ is. We tend to assume that most organisational ‘problems’ can be aligned to one or other of the established ‘genres’ of training. Revenues dropping? You need some sales training. Negative media coverage? Better roll out some more D&I training.

Typically, a lofty initiative or management vision sits behind well-funded programmes. Yet, however well-intentioned (and however specific it sounds) such an imposed ‘vision’ is often part of the problem. There’s no doubt that vision is hugely important, but the day-to-day realities of problems in large organisations can be obscured by a focus on the big picture.

What we forget is that problems are specific to circumstances and organisations. Whereas it is a truism that best practice looks boringly similar, dysfunction is unpleasantly diverse and varied. Why, then, do we expect the same (often generic) training content to solve a different problem every time? Prioritising content over tangible behavioural outcomes is the original sin of elearning developers. And as long as we refuse to distinguish one problem from another, this waste of effort will continue to be richly rewarded.

Take mental resilience, for example, which is a key training theme of 2013/14. The cost of stress, depression and anxiety is a growing issue, and there are many managers who would like a ‘quick-fix’: some off-the-shelf content which they can roll out to solve the ‘problem’ of stress in their organisation. But to assume that the problem of stress is similar is a fallacy. The causes of stress are rooted in circumstances. This means they are different in every organisation.

Explaining to middle managers at a global firm that working 14-hour days is actually less productive and more harmful to their mental health than the alternative is distinctly doable. But providing a similar kind of resilience training to social carers who work alone, face difficult conditions and are paid the minimum wage is unlikely to be as effective.

The latter, as a group, face a set of very specific pain points. To boost resilience in a measurable way, what you really need to do is ask them what the problem is and try to fix it. It’s rarely the case that a problem can be solved only by training. We know that, to a surprising degree, the right behaviours can overcome most obstacles. But behaviour must also be facilitated by the environment in which it takes place.

In this context, the kind of systemic issues – even crises – that training is expected to solve are simply astonishing. It’s not surprising that most employees are inherently sceptical. We have blurred the distinction between identifying a problem and inventing one. Wick, Pollock, Jefferson and Flanagan highlight the importance of asking. That is, the importance of conducting serious internal market research when designing a new training product.

They point out that successful companies do not define a customer by his or her demographic profile. Instead, they target products at specific circumstances or moments of need which are common to large groups. People may be incredibly diverse, but the situations and pain-points which they face on a daily basis in a given situation are consistent. Especially when it comes to technology, we’ve found that circumstance trumps demographics every time.

Tablet computers and big-screen smartphones seemed initially like a solution to a problem which didn’t exist. Actually, the majority are now mainly used for browsing the internet whilst sat on the sofa and watching TV. It’s not exactly inspiring, but I remember, pre-2010, sitting in a living room where everyone was watching TV at the same time as balancing a bulky laptop on their knees. Tablet computers wouldn’t have taken off if they weren’t a specific solution to a specific, albeit rather mundane, set of consumer problems. It doesn’t matter whether you are fifteen or fifty-five, you’re likely to face the same problem.

Conducting internal market research enables us to identify the highest-value needs in an organisation. The authors provide a solid methodology for interviewing line managers in order to ascertain the problem – which I thoroughly recommend. However, in recent years, we’ve gained increasingly powerful online tools to help us define the right problem. Survey Monkey collates data in seconds that used to take days. Internal social networking platforms will highlight pain points and concerns in real-time.

Most importantly, head offices now have access to a mass of business data which is yielded by the CRM and ERP systems now in place at almost every company. It’s not always clear to decision-makers how to use this data, but this is a chance for L&D to demonstrate some serious value. Data yields insight into behaviours, and training should be able to alter those behaviours in a specific and measurable way. Combine those two, and you’ll find that your training spend goes a lot further than it did before.