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Measuring the impact of training

Several years ago, we went through a time when measuring the ROI (Return on Investment) of training was all the rage.
Congresses, literature, an offer of services on the market, all converged to make that the new mainstream method. Then, in a couple of years, the lights went out on this subject, and it was discounted. But the jury is still out on the real question, that determines how, from different positions, companies negotiate budgets and quality of their policies on personnel: in a company, is developing employees a cost/an expense or an investment?
The same question stands, in a different scale and terms, about educational policies for the citizens of a so-called developed country, maybe Italy, for instance. Shall we regard a progressive general improvement in its citizens’ education as a utopian aspiration, or a non-negotiable, strategic goal? Professor Tullio de Mauro, in his long intellectual parable, has helped us to find reliable, well-grounded answers to these questions: for instance, de Mauro showed the strict correlation between the effectiveness of the European national school systems and the level of industrial competitiveness of each country.
With due proportion, when shall we see another de Mauro, who might be able to clarify the relationship between training and competitiveness in a company?

It may be useful to posit this question in terms that are methodologically sound, to try also to lessen resistance and reductive visions that still abound on this subject.

According to several McKinsey surveys, which corroborate the signals we gathered in our work, it is useful to promote four guidelines, for better assessment of the impact of training on a company’s business. Briefly, let’s see what’s what:
1) The creation of an efficient environment for learning, before and after training
We need to create the best conditions we can (processes, operational practices, the involvement of senior employees, knowledge management, etc.) so that we can provide an in-field learning using the new skills that the employees acquired in class. Otherwise, we risk falling under the delusion that after “taking a course” people will simply be able to “automatically put into practice" what they have learned and experienced in their training class. This is nothing short of magical thought.
2) A careful evaluation of training needs
It is not uncommon that people in charge of the systems for the analysis of training needs, guide them with an unconsciously top-down method: they respond to request coming from the top, without a sufficient gathering of data “from the bottom up.” So, even when a company has an effective assessment model, there’s the risk of activating training programs that are “out of focus” with the real need of a company. It is an intrinsic bias in the process.
3) The involvement of area managers
If it’s true that “you only grow if someone else dreams of you,” a training programme grows (and will yield the expected results) only with the help of the creativity of the managers who are in charge of the delegates. The executives’ motivation to take an interest in the designing of a program and in following their people carefully, before and after their training, always makes a difference, for better or for worse. That is even more noticeable in training for salespersons: here, it is essential that the Sales or Area Managers can commit to the project and exchange views with the consultants, at least in the initial steps.

4) The choice of the criteria for measuring a training program
It is essential to have a foundation of objective data, to adequately design a path of development for a company’s human resources.
If that may appear easier when we measure quantitative variables (and we know it isn’t so, either!), things become more intriguing when we consider qualitative factors.
In the Sales area, theoretically, we may assess the impact of a training course on the company’s turnover using a linear regression technique, for instance. But we have no statistical certainty that the positive effect of a training course can develop in a predetermined amount of time. And particularly, if people after the session do not consistently apply what they have learned.

That’s why, in recent years, we offer our clients an assessment of some “hidden” variables, using a “Learning Balance,” an evaluation process that we will discuss more in depth later.

Alberto Agnelli e Francesco Simoni