Most organizations use their training investments about as strategically as they deploy their office supplies spending. And the impact on customer satisfaction, cost containment or quality improvement is just as useless.

One of the biggest causes of wasted training dollars is ineffective methods. Too often, companies rely on lectures (“spray and pray”), inspirational speeches or videos, discussion groups and simulation exercises.

While these methods may get high marks from participants, research (ignored by many training professionals) shows they rarely change behavior on the job. Knowing isn’t the same as doing; good intentions are too easily crushed by old habits. Theoretical or inspirational training approaches are where the rubber meets the sky.

Another way of wasting dollars is failing to link training with organizational strategies and day-to-day management behavior. What happens in the classroom and what happens back on the job are often worlds apart.

Trainees learn which hoops to jump through, pledge alliance to the current management fad, give their enthusiastic “commitment” to building “the new culture,” get their diploma – and then go back to work.

Here are a few steps to using training as a key strategic tool:

  • Use training technologies that build how-to skills that are highly relevant and immediately applicable. Research clearly shows far more people act themselves into a new way of thinking than think themselves into a new way of acting.

Training that produces tangible results starts by changing behavior – which ultimately changes attitudes. Most executives and many professional trainers (who should know better) get this backward.

  • Follow-up on training sessions with on-the-job coaching and support from managers. A Motorola Inc. study has found that those plants where quality improvement training was reinforced by senior management got a $33 return on every dollar invested. Plants providing the same training with no top management follow-up produced a negative return on investment.

An earlier Xerox Inc. study showed a paltry 13 percent of skills were retained by trainees six months after training if managers failed to provide coaching and support as the skills were being applied.

And Western Gas Marketing Ltd. of Calgary uses its performance appraisal system to hold managers accountable for applying the principles that have been taught to them.

  • Build training around organizational objectives and strategies. Trainees should immediately see the connection between their new skills and where the organization is going. This makes training more relevant – and gets everyone focused on applying their new skills to the organization’s key priorities and goals.
  • Another key principle is practiced by Vancouver-based Finning Ltd., the world’s largest Caterpillar dealer. Chief executive James Shepard and his executives are not only first in line for service and quality training, but they are also the trainers delivering sessions to their people.

This trend to “cascade” training down from senior management snaps everyone to attention. Training attendance problems disappear. Results-oriented executives jettison all the nice-to-do, but irrelevant training. Trainees don’t cross their arms and ask “Is the organization really serious about this stuff?”

In addition, managers achieve a deeper level of skill development when they teach others and are put on the spot to practice what they are now preaching.

Naturalist William Henry Hudson once observed: “You cannot fly like an eagle with the wings of a wren.” Most training efforts never get off the ground because the methods don’t change behavior or the training is poorly delivered and integrated by the organization.

The waste of money is tragic for such a vital investment in competitiveness – and ultimately Canada’s standard of living.