In college, students who have failed to keep up with coursework throughout the semester undergo a ritual as old as education itself: the hallowed ceremony of cramming for a test. With mere hours to learn the subject matter, they frantically try to absorb several weeks’ worth of material, hoping to glean just enough knowledge to pass the test—after which they will promptly forget everything they’ve just learned and then repeat the process the next semester.
Cramming isn’t just for college students, however. It is also prevalent in organizations, where it takes the form of training programs designed to fulfill immediate needs rather than advance strategic goals.
“A lot of organizations sub-optimize their short-term training investments, and since they’re driven by urgencies, they become a check-the-box exercise,” says Joseph Grenny, a consultant with Utah-based Vital Smarts and coauthor of the bestselling book Crucial Conversations.
“For example, many organizations have to do regular compliance training for certifications, but they tend not to ask what results that training is going to produce, aside from getting the certification. There’s an enormous opportunity to profoundly influence behavior in the organization and improve competence, and organizations end up frittering it away, because they don’t see it as an opportunity.”
Instead of being based on a careful assessment of capabilities and needs, this quick-fix approach to training is “primarily determined based on informal processes or on programs that the trainers happen to be familiar with or are certified in, even if it's not really what will help to build organizational competency,” says Richard Chang, CEO of Lake Forest, CA–based Richard Chang Associates. “The result is a training program that is planned in an ad hoc manner and is not systematically aligned with the organization and its performance requirements.”
Shortsightedness is only one of the problems organizations face when assessing their training needs, says Grenny. Another persistent flaw is the tendency to focus on general competency profiles while ignoring enterprise-specific needs.
“Organizations are spending an enormous amount of energy trying to develop a competence template and trying to have their training curriculum align with that template,” says Grenny. “While I think that’s a useful exercise, the results often end up looking the same. You look at the competence profile an automotive manufacturer develops, and the one that a financial services company develops, and they tend to be about the same categories, at least on the soft skills side.”
“Often, the more useful question doesn’t pertain to the competency profile of future leaders but to the behaviors needed across the organization to produce better results,” Grenny continues. “For example, I’ve worked with a number of healthcare organizations, and, instead of fixating on leadership
training, they’ve found that focusing on eliminating medical mistakes is more important.”
Identifying a solution that strikes the right balance between the training needs of the individual employee and the organization is another critical step in the assessment process. “It’s not a matter of saying pick the content that you want; it’s a matter of saying within the content we think is a priority for this organization for you to receive, we make sure that there is personal value for you in that,” says Grenny. “Particularly with soft skills training, most of it can apply to home, personal lives and work situations that are intensely important to the individual. The design of training ought to address the whole person. You’re more likely to get organizational benefit out of it when there’s personal benefit in it.”
Grenny cites as an example his work with a large automotive manufacturer. “The manufacturer had decided that one of the keys to launching vehicles more effectively was people being able to hold crucial conversations in a more effective way with project stakeholders, both within and outside the company,” he says. “They made sure the design of the training addressed issues that these individuals had with being away from home for months at a time and being able to talk with family and resolve issues, at the same time as they learned to resolve issues with the people in the plant. So there was a lot of personal value—they were being taught precisely the same skills to solve family issues as they were being taught to solve business issues. People, therefore, became deeply invested in the learning. The company even gave personal study materials for people to bring home, because a number of them said they’d like to use them with their family. That was a huge win-win, because they were at home practicing the very skills that were needed in the workplace.”
Another factor to take into consideration is context. “The number one predictor of transference—meaning people taking ideas and concepts and applying them back in the workplace—is the degree to which the learning context resembles real life,” explains Grenny. “The more corresponding variables between the learning situation and the application situation, the more likely that someone is going to apply it. For example, Vital Smarts’ Crucial Conversations method involves teaching people to have emotionally risky conversations with other people. It would make no sense if we took them away from all the people with whom they’d have such conversations, put them into a classroom and had them practice on scenarios that have nothing to do with the situation they’re going to face when they go back, and which also are missing all the emotional dynamics.”
Ultimately, students who try to take learning shortcuts end up cheating themselves, and the same is true of organizations. “We become so reactive to the external environment that we don’t ask the strategic question,” says Grenny. “It ends up being how quickly—and shallowly—can we get everyone trained? We end up spending the same amount of money and getting nothing out of it. I think smart leaders step back and ask, Is this an area in which we need to be world-class? Is this going to affect the future performance of the organization?” Learning to ask such questions is the first step in developing a grade-A training program.