A Caution With Courses

I get a bit concerned sometimes when I hear managers decide it’s time to send staff off to courses, workshops or seminars and then adopt a ‘pick a course, ship ‘em off, forget about it’ approach. My alarm bells twitch when I hear assumptions made (without checking) that a number of workplace ‘problems’ must automatically be the result of a lack of staff training. My bells really ring when I hear about managers who, prior to selecting or approving a course, don’t know what individuals’ specific learning needs are. There are managers too, who after individuals have been on a course, don’t check whether the course content met the learning needs. There is also the situation when managers don’t really want or expect staff to do anything with their learning experience. I’ve found, from my and others’ experiences, that if you want to get the most out of your training dollar and your staff, you need to ensure you’re targeting the right issue. Spend a moment contemplating your answers to the following questions……

What is the exact learning need? What are the organisation’s goals? What skills, experience or knowledge is required within the organisation, in order to meet those goals? What skills, experience or knowledge, therefore, is required from staff? What are the learning needs identified through individuals’ performance appraisals? Would the training need be due to a lack of knowledge in a particular area? Or, could it be a lack of specific skills or a lack of experience in the role or organisation? If you don’t know what the learning needs are, then find out, to ensure that both the training need and the course are well matched.

Be mindful that in some instances, what may appear as a knowledge or skills deficit, can be symptomatic of different problems. For example, individuals’ may be bored. They may have been doing the same thing for years. Some individuals’ may be physically in the workplace but mentally and emotionally gone. They may want to go but lack career options. If you have individuals who have done every course imaginable and there’s no change in their practice, then you may be dealing with professional course goers.

Can the learning be internally accessed? Most organisations are natural learning environments and can present opportunities for internal training and development. Have you particularly skilled or experienced staff who may also be great coaches for those with less skill or experience? Have you the structure to support opportunities for secondment or for buddying staff? Have you taken a formal talent inventory of all your staff ? Do you really know what skills and talents may be available to the organisation? You may have more resources than you realise. Of course, it may not be possible to utilise staff and internal resources in this way. It may be that the best options are to source external courses – so be it, but do check, anyway.

What outcomes do you expect? It is wise to have a clear view of this before you write the cheque out for the course fee. What do you want the staff member to DO with any new information, ideas or techniques? How could the staff member usefully share the learning with others when they are back at work? Outcomes are difficult areas to measure. They may include benefits like networking with colleagues and peers or confirming the way you or your organisation is doing things. Sometimes learning nothing new on the day can usefully validate what is already known. Sometimes the benefit can be in picking up only one idea or a new perspective, which on the surface can look insignificant, but in practice, could dramatically change someone’s approach to their work. So ask yourself, if you encourage and support staff to attend courses, do you really, really want them to do anything with the experience when they return, or is it enough that you’ve spent the training allocation?

How well can your organisation absorb new ways or ideas? It’s great to send people away to courses but it’s not so good if they come back inspired and fired up and encounter a wall of blockers and knockers. This can be very demoralising. So do a snapshot check to see how your organisation copes with change and how well new ways or ideas get received and implemented. Check too, whether there are real or imaginary opportunities for staff to share or implement what has been learnt.

And those bells you hear ringing in the distance? They’re mine (and not the goods train on the crossing) and yes, they do stop with evidence of identified learning needs, well matched courses, monitored outcomes and opportunities to translate course theory into meaningful practice.

First published in NZBusiness Magazine Feb 2001

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