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The Rules of Knowledge Acquisition

By Lucio Zonca, CPIM, CSCP | January/February 2012 | 22 | 1

Designing the right employee training program for your business

Employee education and training must be strategic, cost-justified undertakings. Every proposed program should be evaluated from the start with a thorough benefit-cost analysis. Benefits include improved customer satisfaction; better product or service quality; reduced scrap, rework, or return inventory; improved productivity; increased employee retention; and a more flexible workforce. Costs include trainee salaries, lost production time, facility expenses, educational materials, trainer fees, and—perhaps most importantly—the tangible and intangible consequences of not training.

The decision to embark upon a training program is just the first step in successful completion of the entire process. I have consulted and performed training at various multinational corporations, and following are the key steps and lessons I learned.

Determining training needs
A proper assessment of training needs helps prioritize resources to ensure they are available to address the most critical issues. This can take the form of a company-wide periodic assessment, in which the analysis provides data for an annual training plan and budget. Or, it might be the simple observation that an employee does not know how to perform an assigned task. Methods to determine needs include tests, surveys, checklists, simulations, self-assessments, performance observations, individual or group interviews, brainstorming, and focus groups.

In order to meet the needs of trainees, it is important to clarify early what the training program should contain and establish a clear intended learning outcome. A good outcome is characterized by the acronym SMART: It must be specific, manageable, attainable, relevant, and time-specific.

Designing the training program
One of the most important tasks is selecting a trainer. These professionals need to be precisely that—trainers, not simply experts in their fields. Seek an instructor who comes from the same profession as the trainees, as it will increase his standing with the audience and create a greater corresponding impact on attitudes and values. One caveat I have found when using experts not local to the environment is they may lack understanding of domestic laws and policies. Be sure to provide these individuals with summaries of the appropriate regulations.

Composition of the training group has great influence on communication and cooperation. In general, participants are most at ease in homogeneous groups with people at a similar level in the business hierarchy and who possess comparable knowledge and experience. In mixed groups, trainees are more reluctant to express opinions and ask questions.

The aim of the training also can factor into group composition. For example, if the intent is to inform trainees about a broad topic, such as changes in regulations, then a large-scale seminar with participants at all levels of hierarchy and experience could be appropriate. In this situation, interactions among participants would be limited, and the learning process would not be hampered by the heterogeneity of the participants. But a session on developing skills or influencing attitudes—in which interaction is a primary condition for success—might be better served by a small, homogenous group.

The targeted participants have a great influence on the level of knowledge or skills required and on determining the appropriate training method. Most people prefer taking an active role in training activities, so the program should have a clear and practical approach and respect their knowledge, experience, and motivations.

Malcolm Knowles, in The Adult Learner, writes that trainees
  • need to know why they should learn something
  • deeply want to be self-directed
  • become ready to learn when they experience a need to know or when they can perform more effectively and satisfyingly
  • enter into a learning experience with a task-centered or problem-centered orientation
  • are driven to learn by both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Meanwhile, David Kolb theorizes that people go through four phases when learning. The learner 1) has an experience, 2) reflects on the experience, 3) develops abstract theories based on the experience, and 4) applies what he or she has learned. The application of the knowledge in turn creates another experience, and the cycle begins anew. Kolb’s model can help in understanding how people react to different types of training. Some gravitate toward hands-on learning (phases 1 and 4), while others favor abstract thinking (phases 2 and 3).

Training is about not only exploring and absorbing new knowledge, but also digesting it. Therefore, any good training program must contain elements to ensure the trainees process the new ideas, such as role-playing, case studies, and simulations. These hands-on activities will assist those who do not respond well to abstract theory.

Designing the training environment
Some learners might be anxious about opening up in group discussions. Therefore, aim to make the training environment as comfortable as possible. Try strategies such as welcoming people as they arrive, providing coffee, issuing name badges, and having the training team mix with participants during breaks and meals.

Time also is a resource that greatly affects the training. Keep the sessions short, and provide adequate breaks. Remember that most people’s maximum attention span is around 20 minutes, and ensure that sessions are broken up with some form of activity at 20-minute intervals. Another question regarding time is whether trainees are expected to cover the intended learning hours solely during the face-to-face instruction period. There may be considerable benefit in requiring participants to perform some form of preparatory work. One way to get trainees thinking early is by distributing in advance any printed materials, such as case studies or domestic policy documents that will be discussed.

Visual aids such as PowerPoint presentations, computer graphics, whiteboards, flip charts, videos, handouts, and other physical objects help your audience understand the structure of your presentation. The intended learning outcomes will guide the decision on which materials will work best. Use visual aids to
  • transmit ideas with more effect
  • help trainees absorb information
  • focus attention and maintain interest
  • break up lectures and add variety
  • assist the trainer in preparation
  • keep the speaker and the audience on track
  • support memorization using summaries of key points
  • standardize presentations involving a number of trainers at different locations.

PowerPoint slides are a great way to ensure participants are active in a discussion because they provide questions and visual models or demonstrations of critical subjects. Flip charts are easy to use, and they are a practical way to track participant feedback. When using flip charts, ensure you are writing legibly and in big, bold, capital letters. Try not to write and speak at the same time. And always prepare in advance for practical issues that can prevent an effective presentation and might adversely affect the trainees’ confidence in the trainer. Ensure early that trainers are prepared with any equipment needed to begin on time and that everything is working properly.

Lastly, be aware that the presence of trainees with visual or auditory disabilities will require adapted materials.

Delivering the training
The actual delivery of the training generally is conducted in the form of a trainer-led session. Too often, this means a lecture or presentation. But other forms are more effective in certain situations. For example:

  • Learner-controlled instruction—where the learner has considerable influence over what is taught, how it is taught, and the pace of instruction—works well when participants are geographically distant or when there is only one person to train at any given time.
  • Experiential training focuses on experiencing the effects typically encountered in real-life situations and can take the form of games, simulations, or role-playing. It is most appropriate for training softer, interpersonal skills areas.
  • Case studies illustrate the application of study content and show how different approaches can be used to solve problems. They also can stimulate intense discussions and idea sharing.
When beginning a training session, establish appropriate ground rules to ensure trainees understand their responsibilities. Do not always assume each trainee is a willing learner. Lay down the law at the start to prevent misunderstandings later. Consider discussing topics such as the following:
  • Expectations regarding attendance. During training, address the issue of students disappearing early by circulating forms at the end of a session.
  • Timing and schedules. Explain that the timetable is not merely a guide, and stress that starting and finishing topics promptly is essential to completing the entire training program.
  • Participation. Underscore the idea that small-group training in particular requires active participation.

Evaluating the training
Assessment is essential in determining whether the training program met the objectives of the plan. Additionally, every training program should require measures to assess its effectiveness, results, and outcomes.

There are four different levels of evaluation:
  1. Reaction. Were the participants pleased with the training? What did they think of the design of the program? What did they think of the delivery methods, the facilities and equipment, the trainer’s qualifications, the selection of the participants, and (of course) the course content?
  2. Learning. Did the participants learn what was intended add to the beginning of training? This usually is determined by a written test or another form of examination.
  3. Behavior. Did participants change their conduct and performances after training to desired levels? On-the-job performance assessments can evaluate this metric.
  4. Results. Was there a positive effect on the organization resulting from participants’ changed behavior? This usually requires a quantitative analysis of the organization’s outcomes pre-training versus post-training.

It is vital that employees begin using the knowledge and skills gained in the training session immediately. If they don’t, only a small portion of the experience is likely to be retained. Positive reinforcement helps—both during training to shape the participants’ behavior and when the trained person begins using the new skills on the job. In the end, it is essential to retain a commitment to ongoing education and training from all levels of the organization, as they are a means for supporting strategic goals and objectives.

Lucio Zonca, CPIM, CSCP, is an independent consultant based in Singapore. He may be contacted at lucio.zonca@laposte.net.

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  1. DICKSON UNOGU February 15, 2012, 05:16 PM

    A master piece. A product of experience, usually not thought this way in Colleges and Universities. I learnt a lot especially distinguishing between an expert who do not have experience within the trainees environment, to a professional trainer that have knowledge of events around them.

    The break out sessions is brilliant. Constant break is ideal. I get bored on long presentations, I imagine unproductive seminars I attended in the past.

    Thank you. Excellent work.

  2. tuck-chee fong July 19, 2013, 10:06 PM

    Hello Lucio,

    Appreciate your efforts to put the training process in a nutshell. Thank you for sharing!


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