Training is useful, but only when it meets specific purposes.

Successful training programs clearly focus on an organization's goals. They reduce costs, increase job satisfaction, and improve quality. And they're something most organizations don't have. How can you make your training more effective? Let's begin by looking at the reasons for training.

Training can help you meet a mandate, reach an organizational goal, and improve your bottom line. Your training projects are more likely to succeed if you understand each of these three reasons in any individual training project and then develop your training accordingly.

Meet a mandate. We often conduct training because we have to. For example, OSHA requires training for lift truck operators. Training can also be part of negotiated contractual obligations. Some trade organizations have certification and recertification requirements. In addition, many organizations now follow a defined certification process as part of ISO 9000.

Reach an organizational goal. Some organizations survey employee satisfaction with company training programs and refer to them when determining management performance ratings. Often, their human resources departments establish metrics for training, typically in “hours of training” per employee or as a percentage of total hours worked.

Improve the bottom line. “Performance improvement” programs replace traditional training programs and focus on areas where performance improvements could measurably enhance an organization's bottom line. Training is only part of a performance improvement solution. Improvements in work processes themselves — supported by a targeted training program — often yield measurable, long-term results.

Measure the results.

It's important to understand your organization's motivation for training before attempting to quantify its success. Then build a way to measure progress toward meeting goals into training programs so you can show the return on investment (ROI). Training measurement falls into two categories: training efficiency and training effectiveness.

Training efficiency is a function of student throughput and the resources required to achieve it. Though you can measure efficiency in training dollars per student (or student record), it would be more beneficial to take student on-the-job performance into account and measure training dollars per satisfactory training record.

Most training experts have adopted the four levels of training evaluation method developed by Donald Kirkpatrick, an author of several management programs. The problem with evaluating training as it applies to the company's bottom line is that nontraining issues can easily mask the positive impact of training programs. If workers are not motivated or suited to their work and the work environment is chaotic, even a world-class training program may not help. Conversely, dramatic improvements in the four nontraining factors affecting human performance (see sidebar below) may overshadow the poor results of an ineffective training program. When you require targeted training for specific performance issues, consider all five factors of workplace performance (sidebar below) rather than automatically pushing the training button.

If you are designing your own trainee performance tests, keep in mind these measurements are often at odds, making it difficult to maximize both goals simultaneously. Remember that real-life measurements will show up in various metrics. For example, suppose you ran a highly efficient safety training program but your safety statistics hadn't improved six months later. If the work environment hasn't changed, the program failed because it was ineffective. But in reality, work environments do change, and that makes it hard to measure effectiveness directly.

Many training experts see innovative use of increasing bandwidth and the move toward technically sophisticated “edutainment” as the best hope for closing the gap between training efficiency and training effectiveness. Simulations not only more closely represent real-world challenges requiring multiple skills, but they also bring out a competitive quest for excellence in employees by providing a game-like training environment. Because the simulations are computer-based, all the advantages of self-paced learning and automated testing and tracking make these training tools highly cost-effective.

With today's training environment and the inherent complexities of demonstrating bottom-line ROI, the key is to clearly identify the organization's training goals and use appropriate measurements. To satisfy this need, some training companies provide Web-based, turnkey solutions by providing training content and record keeping services. Electronic media other than the Internet, such as CD-ROMs, are highly effective.

However, a reliance on electronic media can also strain some organizations that may not have the infrastructure to support such methods. Because of these limitations, it's still popular to use live instructors who can answer questions and provide individual attention to students.

If literacy and resource limitations make reliance on electronic media the wrong choice for you, should you dismiss technology? No. These tools can supplement traditional methods quite well. And technology has other uses: If you use traditional training methods exclusively, you can automate the evaluation and record-keeping process with scannable test sheets.

Throwing training at a problem can be a politically expedient and relatively inexpensive way to address performance problems. But if work knowledge is not to blame, this won't solve the problem. Ineffective training has real costs, including lost work time, reduced management credibility, and the creation of negative attitudes toward any training provided by management or union leadership.

If you identify a specific lack of work knowledge that is causing a problem, then training designed to overcome that knowledge gap will produce positive results. Training, when properly planned, implemented, and measured, is a sound investment of time and money — and it will save you both.

Coleman is Director of Education for PRIMEDIA Workplace Learning's Industrial Services Group.

Sidebar: Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of Training Evaluation

Level One is the trainee's response to training. Trainers use “smile sheets,” which survey students on the quality and relevance of a training activity.

Level Two uses student testing on content to determine training effectiveness and focus on learning gains. Pre- and post-tests are important tools toward this end.

Level Three seeks to measure the impact of training on job performance. This type of measurement is easiest to accomplish when training focuses on procedures and methods. You can evaluate the ability of workers to follow prescribed procedures and work practices in the classroom and on the job. Adhering to best work practices should increase worker safety, productivity, and product quality.

Level Four measures the impact of training on the bottom line. This is the level of measurement most organizations want to tie training budgets to. However, training is only one of five major factors that can positively affect bottom-line work performance, including:

  • Targeted work skills training.

  • Optimized and documented work processes.

  • Effective manufacturing technologies.

  • Appropriate worker incentives.

  • Adequate worker selection criteria.