The WSJ recently ran an informative article, Lessons Learned that discusses the importance of the need to create a workplace environment that actively encourages people to change. They start their article with the statement, “With some studies suggesting that just 10% to 40% of training is ever used on the job, it is clear that a big chunk of the tens of billions of dollars organizations spend annually on staff development is going down the drain.”This is actually a myth as some studies suggest the transfer rate is actually around 60% as the the study the WSJ used is based on extremely faulty research (see Myth - 10% of Training Transfers to the Job). However, 60% is still too low of a transfer rate, thus we know we must use a better method for designing our learning processes.
To ROI or not to ROI?
The article notes that an effective post-training follow-up activity is the performance assessment—“When employees know that they are going to be observed and given feedback on their performance, the motivation to use newly learned skills and knowledge increases.” This means you must know what you are going to assess before you design the training, which in turn means the learning process must be based on a goal achieved through backwards planning that will have a positive impact upon the organization.
Does this mean you need to perform a ROI? No. Learning and Training departments normally only need to provide an ROI if they are the initiators of a learning or training process. For example, if you presently outsource your Microsoft Office training program and you want to bring it in-house because you believe you can do it cheaper and better, then you should provide an ROI to show this to be true. If on the other hand you will provide the training for the users of a new computer system, then it is up to the original initiators, normally the IT department, to provide the ROI.
In other cases... it depends. For example if a manager comes to you for a request for training that will eliminate a problem in her department and you determine that training is indeed the answer, then you will have to decide if an ROI is needed or not. In many cases the manager simply wants the problem to go away. And yes, training may be more expensive than solving the problem, but this frees the manager to help grow the organization rather than spend her time putting out fires. You are really investing in her—by eliminating the problem you allow her to spend more time growing the organization, thus the training will pay off in the long run. One rule of thumb is to provide an ROI whenever possible to show that your efforts have a positive financial impact on the organization, but always keep in mind that even if the cost savings are not there in the short turn, it could pay off in the future.
Getting the Impact out of Training with Agile Design
So why you may or may not have an ROI, you still need a positive result or impact. Nadler defines “training” as learning that is provided in order to improve performance on the present job (1984). Most definitions closely follow Nadler on these two points: 1) training always involves learning and 2) performance is improved. Thus training is basically a positive impact caused by learning. If it does not follow these two points then that means you are doing something besides training. It doesn't mean its wrong or right, but it is simply not training.
While the author of the WSJ brings the learners more into the learning and training process, there is still another step to go—include them in the design. Rittel (1972) noted that the best experts with the best knowledge for solving wicked problems are often those affected by the solution; in this case it is the learners themselves. Yet, the only time we normally bring them in is to be guinea pigs for testing our learning process. While you might not be able do bring the entire population of them in on the planning stage, we do need bring in enough learners who will actually represent the population.This is the heart of Agile Design. The learners are the real stakeholders, even if you or the managers don't agree to what they are saying, you need to listen, guide, and act on their needs and perspectives so that they take ownership of the learning and performance solution. In addition, they gain metalearning and metacognitive skills.
This is true “Learner Design.” Simply designing a learning process for them is andragogy or pedagogy design. True learner designed process involves the learners. Change works best if the people it affects are involved in the process. Learning is no different if you want to change performance on the job. Involve the learners so you not only make them part of the change process, but also as Rittel noted—they are often the experts who can provide good advice.
Nadler, Leonard (1984). The Handbook of Human Resource Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Rittel, H. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generation.” Bedriftsokonomen. No. 8, pp.390-396.