Amid economic uncertainty, organizations are on a discovery mission to uncover budget savings. Organizational functions that were approved with little thought are now being reassessed for their real-world impact. For instance, with reference to training, leaders are asking if their training budget makes a real difference. Their line of thinking usually goes something like this: If we are going to effect change in the organization given our tight labor markets, then we need to move forward in ways that make people more effective — not in theory, but in reality.

Fortunately, organizations that engage in this type of reflection can use their training function to catalyze genuine transformation. And there’s real value in that because when employees become more effective in their work, they often become more satisfied with it. That is, seeing a positive outcome from one’s efforts increases a sense of fulfillment, which impacts an employee’s engagement and the likelihood of long-term loyalty to your company. So, in this era of budgetary caution, the key questions to ask are: what does it take to generate real change, and how do we know our training is effective?

The 3 Keys to an Effective Training Function

As you read through these points, I encourage you to think of one or more things you could do differently to improve your training effectiveness.

1. Context — pay attention to your audience. A training program is almost certainly doomed from the start if it fails to account for the audience. On paper, this might seem obvious, but we see it all the time. For example, one organization we trained was struggling with results. Their sales team was being instructed to use a specific vocabulary alongside a set of questions that their leadership thought would be effective in qualifying opportunities.  Unfortunately, the questions didn’t work, and rightly so. As it turns out, the leaders had never actually used them in any selling situations. Additionally, the questions were not consistent with the discovery approach we were training on. Rather than building on the foundation of their sales team’s (i.e., their audience’s) experience, they attempted to marry old and irrelevant concepts and practices to new training, and it flopped.

Effective training models always focus on the audience’s needs and preferences, not only in terms of subject matter, but also communication. This has become increasingly difficult in our global and often remote environments. Offices are frequently cultural cross-sections, and employees maintain a diverse array of communication and learning preferences. In short, what works for one employee (or for one organization) might not work so well for another. But effective training always seeks a kind of balance that allows for these differences to enhance the group learning process rather than limit it. To do that well, we must abandon the one-size-fits-all training approach.

In general, research has demonstrated that only a small percentage of buyers in the U.S. want a salesperson to engage in small talk in early meetings. They see it as ingratiating and presupposing a business relationship. Yet when training in the Middle East this is a requirement for doing business — personal relationships come before business.  Effective training recognizes these cultural differences and does not force a single model on everyone.

2. Coaching — incorporate systems to reinforce training. Employees need practice over time to incorporate new ideas and tools. They do this using a variety of tools — for instance, interactive digital libraries. These programs provide personalized, self-paced training reinforcement, which function much like a guided journey and offer specific tools that lead users through relevant topics. These tools relieve some of the pressure managers face and allow them to focus most of their energy on the coaching process.

Reinforcing training often falls to the frontline managers, but how equipped are the managers to succeed? They need to create sessions to give team members time to discuss the new concepts, results from initial implementation and receive encouragement from the manager and peers.

The best training processes, therefore, include special training for managers, then hold them accountable for this ongoing training reinforcement. And it behooves senior leaders to monitor this work, ensuring the regular occurrence of team coaching sessions as well as the participation of team members through electronic or staff-level reporting.

3. Conclusions — use assessment tools to identify successes and opportunities for improvement. It’s virtually impossible to know your training function’s impact without implementing assessments. These may be conducted in-house if you have the internal resources for it. Otherwise, outsourcing to a qualified training organization is probably in order. Either way, discovering the real-world conclusions of your training enables you to make key decisions about revising those processes for the future.

While there are no universal assessment approaches, what is important to recognize is that assessment isn’t as simple as “success equals higher revenue.” There remain many reasons for improved numbers. In fact, things like inflation, supply chain constraints or surpluses, and especially competitive changes make revenue growth a fairly unreliable metric on its own. Instead, think about more sophisticated metrics. For example, gauge the language people are using around your company. Have they picked up the new vocabulary, or is it still foreign to them? Are you seeing higher conversion rates for new prospects, or are fewer deals getting stuck in the late stages of your sales funnel?

While it has been shared many times, John Maxwell’s axiom still rings true, “People change when they hurt enough that they have to, learn enough that they want to, and receive enough that they are able to.” The best training organizations focus on the last point — giving the learners context, coaching and conclusions — in order to experience lasting change.