Target practice

With studies showing that three quarters or more of investment in IT
training is wasted, there is a strong case for targeting any spending on the
needs of the business as well as the individual.  So how do you ensure you get the best return to maximise business
competitiveness as well as personal development?  Rob McLuhan reports

Most industry leaders believe there can never be too much training, and
companies which fail to provide it risk falling behind their competitors. The
latest annual survey by ASTD, an international training body, shows businesses
in the US are providing courses for a record number of employees, a trend
thought to be matched in Europe. The bottom-line benefits are clearly
demonstrated, with successful organisations found to be those offering most in
this area.

Yet training courses are like the seeds in the biblical parable, with many
falling on stony ground. Research by PTS Learning Systems (since acquired by
Global Knowledge) revealed that as much as 70 per cent of investment in
training is considered wasted within a few days, as staff fail to derive any
benefit from what they have learned. Other surveys put the figure even higher.

A common problem is that companies overlook the need to link their efforts
to business priorities. This not only wastes resources but can impose an
unnecessary burden on employees, who may find themselves on a training
treadmill that exhausts them without delivering results.

"You can send any member of your staff on lots of scheduled courses,
but that won’t necessarily improve the quality of the individual, or take the
company in the direction you intend," says Pat Way, human capital
development director at QA, the UK’s largest IT training provider.

Training needs to be targeted effectively, Way says, since being made to go
on a course that the individual cannot usefully apply to their role is more
frustrating than not being trained at all. "It is equally tiresome for HR
and IT divisions, because they are not getting the results they hoped for. And
it is galling for financial directors, who are not getting any return on

The model of the learning organisation favours giving freedom to the
employee to choose courses that will aid their personal development. That can
be appropriate in many circumstances, but if handled with lack of
discrimination can end up merely providing them with a springboard to another
job elsewhere.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, staff will simply be scheduled to
attend workshops or carry out learning in a particular topic. This can be a
burden if they are not told why they are doing it or what it will contribute to
the business.

To provide the ideal alignment, Way recommends courses be chosen that
satisfy personal aspirations as well as furthering business strategy. "If
the company allocates competencies to specific roles, a member of staff can go
into the system and find courses that fill gaps in his or her knowledge,"
she points out.

From the employee’s point of view, that level of involvement is highly
motivating because it enhances their understanding of how they can apply their
knowledge to the company. It also helps HR directors, who can see what each
individual is achieving and pass that information on to line managers and
financial directors.

Paul Butler, CEO of KnowledgePool, believes that it is impossible to
overtrain anyone in technology. "The appetite of the IT professional to
learn is boundless, as they constantly need to keep their skills up to
date," he says. "This morning I noticed one of my Web infrastructure
staff going to a class carrying six big books – that seems like a lot but I
know how quickly these people absorb information."

Butler acknowledges, however, that from a business perspective productivity
gains from new skills are not always outweighed by the amount of time people
spend learning.

"It can almost become an esoteric activity to continue to raise your
level of knowledge without ever putting it to use," he says. "That is
where organisations need to be careful, to ensure people have the opportunity
to apply new skills."

There is also a practical limit to how much people can physically handle without
becoming overloaded, he points out. In the past this was naturally regulated by
cost – organisations might spend up to £15,000 giving their IT professionals
eight to 10 days a year of classes and workshops, a relatively high investment.

But thanks to the arrival of inexpensive e-learning this inhibitor has
largely disappeared, encouraging organisations to pile on the pressure beyond
the ability of individuals to cope. Butler says he increasingly encounters
organisations with aggressive learning plans that may not be beneficial.

"Some HR professionals have been seduced into believing that because
e-learning is low cost and flexible, they can get their staff to go through a
learning process much quicker. But speed is not the real driver," he says.

KnowledgePool recommends a standard time of nine weeks for e-learning as the
equivalent to one day in a classroom. If companies want that covered in only
four weeks they need to provide incentives so staff understand there is a

This point is reinforced by Steve Dineen, CEO of Fuel, which specialises in
instructor-led IT e-training. He points out that companies can now take
advantage of volume discounts, buying a library of content that contains
several hundred courses.

He says, "You think you are getting a great deal, with 1,000 units for
£50 each. But price should not be the main consideration: where there is poor
delivery, weak content and a lack of focus, frustration will result. The
student may get stuck, because the text is not explained well, and end up
blaming themselves and the courseware."

In any case, the most important courses may not be contained in the library
at all. The right approach, Dineen argues, is to tailor the training to the
organisation’s exact requirements, rather than buy a truckload of content that
may turn out to have little application.

Much of the material provided by manufacturers to train users in their
software is quite comprehensive, and will not always be needed in its entirety.
That makes it important to be selective.

"A company might want to send someone on a course because they are
responsible for managing a Microsoft network. But it is pointless making them
sit there for a week if all they need to know is how it interacts with the
printers, back-up software and storage devices," he says.

Dineen points to another potential downside with content libraries, which is
that an individual can choose a course that fits their own long-term agenda
more obviously than that of the organisation. That could enable them to take a
completely different career path to the one assigned to them.

In theory that could even exacerbate retention problems rather than ease
them: certainly the worry that overqualified staff will end up leaving is
sometimes cited by companies as an excuse for not investing in training. But
how genuine is this risk?

Problems have been shown to occur with high-level business education, with
companies encouraging key staff to take an MBA and then failing to reward them
with appropriate roles. That can lead to frustration, as individuals look
elsewhere for opportunities to practice their new skills.

But in most other areas the dangers are exaggerated, according to Henry
Stewart, chief executive of Happy Computers, who points out that surveys
consistently point to the retentive benefits of training.

"The idea that training can lead to the loss of an employee is an urban
myth that terrifies business people but has no basis in reality," he says.
"If you look after employees they will stay." As an example he points
to his own firm, which provides plenty of opportunities for training and enjoys
a 2.5 per cent staff turnover.

Stewart concedes, however, that it is possible to overtrain, especially
where courses are imposed from above with little consideration for the end
results. This is often exacerbated by inflexibility of training companies which
insist everyone on a course take all its elements, even if they are already
familiar with many of them.

He adds, "The idea of ongoing learning is great, with a certain number
of days set aside for training. But it is counterproductive if it is just
filling up the days with no return."

Frazer Chesterman, director of Training Solutions 2001, agrees. "If you
put people on courses that aren’t relevant you won’t get good use of their
time," he says. "That should be completely obvious but because
training is often seen as a perk or a reward for good performance it is not
always taken into account."

He also recommends that companies don’t overdo it by trying to make people
learn too much in one go. For instance, workshop courses can be broken up into
half days so staff can go back into the working environment and test out what
they have learned.

Getting buy-in from the individual is an essential element, stresses John
Aves, chief executive of Forum, part of FT Knowledge. This can be achieved by
making courses easy to access.

He says, "We live in busy times and one thing that makes people feel
overstretched is where training doesn’t flex with them. We do a lot of thinking
about how to provide opportunities for people to choose when and how they

"Whatever the level of training, you have to make sure it is delivered
to them at the right time, at their desk or when they are ready for a new
challenge in their career."

Keeping them involved also means ensuring the course is relevant to their
current role and the strategic context in which they sit, as well as to their
personal aspirations. "If something is interesting to them personally but
not to the organisation, it won’t do much good," he points out.

Evaluation can also play an important part in making sure resources are
properly directed. Among other things, FT Knowledge measures the efficiency of
spend in training and development, and finds it can often save organisations up
to 50 per cent of their previous investment.

Inefficiencies often arise where courses are purchased in a fragmented way
by departments that fail to liaise with each other. That means the company can
end up buying 15 variants of essentially the same topic from 10 different

On the other hand, Aves detects a big shift away from the wasteful tendency
to choose courses from catalogues towards specific training and development
interventions driven by the business. This increasingly ensures companies
invest their training pounds in skills that add value.

This approach takes full advantage of "blended solutions", in
which e-learning complements the classroom to offer a range of opportunities
for the individual in the way they access training. In common with many
experts, Aves believes the ability for the individual to combine different modes
of activity – with groups in the classroom, with managers or with an online
tutor – creates higher quality learning than single disconnected events.

Used wisely, that wealth of choice enables staff to take useful and
satisfying courses that advance the needs of the business, instead of enduring
fragmented interruptions that serve no purpose.

Tools that measure, monitor and align training to business needs

Skills Dynamics (QA):
Skills-and competencies-based automated training selection tool

E-dynamics (Docent/QA):
Automated learning management system. Helps organisations tailor a learning
strategy, by identifying skills gaps, creating competency tables, and integrating
into existing infrastructure.

Surveys and Assessments (Dale Carnegie):
Tools that measure five levels of training effectiveness, including
application, financial impact and return on investment.

SkillScape Competence Manager (John Matchett):
Internet-based application that enables organisations to identify the
training needed to meet strategic needs and comply with industry regulations.
Can forecast, identify, classify, evaluate and analyse the skills, competencies
and gaps in the workforce.

Evaluator (Resource Management Services):
Reports and questionnaires to evaluate the effectiveness of training.

CompAssess (SVI Training Products):
Identifies individual training needs, maximising software skills
proficiency while minimising training time.

Quality Standards for Evaluating Multimedia and Online Training,
(McGraw-Hill Ryerson):
Book that outlines four main stages in checking the usefulness of a
training package: business objectives; accuracy, depth and clarity; ease of
use; instructional design.

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