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Retail therapy? Training buyers beware!


Robert Terry examines how training managers can be stung by unrealistic training expectations.


For most organisations, development programmes, interventions and initiatives aren’t necessarily designed and delivered from in-house resources: nearly every organisation has mastered outsourcing now, and many solutions are bought in from specialist providers. Except we seem to have overlooked a consequence or two. If the content, along with the design, management and implementation of the training comes from outside, what organisations are actually doing is, well…shopping.


Given the improvements that learning and development are supposed to deliver, and given the success rate of training interventions generally, there’s also a smart quotation from a very successful shopkeeper that’s worth raising: Consumers have not been told effectively enough that they have huge power and that purchasing and shopping involve a moral choice,” - Anita Roddick.

Roddick’s moral choice was about fair trade and environmentalism, and while vetting your supplier’s environmental record and other ethical practices isn’t a bad thing, there is a bigger picture. You are disposing some of the business’s resources in return for bought-in services: the moral imperative is therefore to spend wisely.

Training estimations

"Consumers have not been told effectively enough that they have huge power and that purchasing and shopping involve a moral choice."     Anita Roddick

Part of the criteria for assessing the wisdom, as well as the learning and development intervention itself, will, of course, be the evaluated or perceived return on your investment. This is an area where history paints a less than optimistic picture. Training spend in the UK was estimated to be £38.6 billion in 2007: this equates to an average of £1,750 for every person employed, which seems impressive. Yet research studies in the last eight years show that only 50% of training investment results in organisational or individual improvement (US survey, 2002) and only 10% of training translates into job performance. On that basis, somewhere between £19.3bn and £34.7bn was spent in the UK in 2007 on training that didn’t achieve what it was presumably intended to.

However you interpret that, there have been some poor buying decisions made out there. But our belief is that the picture is not that simple – although the situation remains stark. Where training and development investments don’t deliver on their promise, there is a tendency to revisit the design and delivery of the ‘event’ and ignore other factors that are just as significant in turning good training into improved individual and organisational performance.

Timing vs success

Timescales for the effective transfer and application of learning all too often conflict with those of the prevailing business imperatives: the order comes down from above to change x, so something that provides an input on x is bought in the hope that x will improve in 6 months. Given that effective transfer and application, the stage at which new learning and new behaviours are an embedding part of revised daily practice that are now safe from backsliding into old processes or individual habits, typically takes rather longer (indeed, years would be a better measurement timescale than months), the evaluation of ‘success’ (where it goes beyond simple Level 1 practices) is likely to be severely distorted.

Interventions aren’t measured in a long enough timescale to provide meaningful evidence, so decisions are made against a backdrop where evidence often isn’t given great weight. Rather than outputs, which also require other support from the organisation, too many organisations therefore buy inputs, and draw a veil over ‘evidence’ as it raises more questions than answers.
"There's not point ticking all the boxes on your criterai list if they're the wrong boxes."
Robert Terry
 But even that is to assume that everything was as perfect as could be: that learning objectives were properly aligned with business objectives and imperatives; line managers were not only pro-actively involved in setting expectations and building motivation before interventions, but actively supporting learners in applying their new learning and providing opportunities to do so after completion of the ‘event’; the organisational culture didn’t stand in the way of employees making changes to practices; and behaviours and ways of working and inter-relating the learning has clearly shown would bring results.


Change of approach

Your purchasing criteria should not begin and end with ‘who do we know who does training on x?’, ‘what’s the cost per trainee’ and ‘can they complete the programme by October’. Surely you should be buying the outcome, not the deadline? If HR or L&D professionals are to contribute to future organisation success, some tougher questions should be on that list:

  • Is the intervention you’re seeking to buy a sticking plaster, or does it address the cause of the issue as well as the symptoms?

  • Does the programme include support for transfer and application, and how will your supplier work with you to make sure this is delivered and implemented?

  • Is your organisation set up to support it, and to not stand in the way of changes that the learning may show are needed?

  • How will learners will be motivated from the outset, and monitored and encouraged as they work to apply their new learning, and who by?

  • Are other aspects of learners’ working lives that will have an impact of transfer and application (such as performance appraisal procedures, reward and recognition practices) being taken on board, so that the return to the workplace doesn’t undo or undermine any good work that may have been begun – but requires more than simply attending a workshop to complete?

The importance of HR's input

Outsourcing doesn’t make the performance gap entirely your supplier’s problem: there will be aspects that your organisation must still clearly own if the outcomes are going to be maximised. And if HR is to fulfil its promise, and live up to its own (we assume) objective of making a major contribution to business success, the challenge is for HR to question and challenge this unhelpful status quo, and to argue strongly for the ability – and the right? – to spend its budget (which is, after all, the company’s money) where it will deliver most benefit.

Where HR is being set unrealistic, unhelpful or (worse) counter-productive objectives from senior leaders within the business, it owes it to the business – and to the learners – to challenge this thinking and demonstrate both its business and professional focus by insisting that purchased interventions are aligned with business objectives and outcomes, and not merely with learning outcomes that may or may not serve a greater purpose. There’s no point ticking all the boxes on your criteria list if they’re the wrong boxes. If all they will help you prove is that a training event happened, some people went and some of them enjoyed themselves, then it would have been cheaper and easier to organise a coffee morning.

ASK Europe. He has over twenty years' experience in research and consultancy with a particular interest in the growth of shareholder value through mergers, acquisitions, privatisations, trade liberalisation and large-scale organisational change through the rigorous application of behavioural solutions. Robert is the former chief executive of the Adam Smith Institute, the liberal market policy ‘think tank’.

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