Making Training and Development Count

By Jia Wang
Texas A&M University Professor and lead author of NAW’s Optimizing Human Capital Development

The leading management thinker, also known as the Father of Total Quality Management—William Edwards Deming, once said, “Learning is not compulsory; it’s voluntary. Improvement is not compulsory; it’s voluntary. But to survive, we must learn.”

What Deming said decades ago couldn’t be more applicable than in today’s world, where change has become a constant. Take the United States for example. The workplace is no longer the domain of Boomers. In many organizations, five generations of employees are now working under the same roof, presenting unfamiliar challenges when it comes to training and developing current and future workforces. Additionally, rapid technological advancements have made many jobs obsolete and require workers to acquire new sets of skills to survive or stay relevant in turbulent times. For distributors, this means training and development (T&D) must be at the forefront of their agenda. Those with a strong learning culture and optimal talent development processes will stay competitive and have the systems and talent in place to disrupt the disruptors.  

The benefits of T&D activities are well supported by research. For individuals and teams, effective training and development can lead to the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, improved job performance, increased job satisfaction, and enhanced communication, planning, and task coordination in teams. For organizations, the benefits of T&D include reduced costs, improved quality and quantity of work, a drop in turnover, and enhanced company reputation. For these reasons, the importance of training and developing employees—both new and experienced—cannot be overemphasized. Here’s what I’ve found about T&D practices through my collaborative work with a team of researchers at Texas A&M University and a number of distribution companies:

  • Within training and development, more effort has been devoted to job-related training than to career-oriented development.
  • While training programs are offered to different groups of employees, the sales force typically receives most of the attention.
  • While robust training programs are available to onboard employees, they generally focus on new hires, not newly promoted employees (e.g., mid-level managers).
  • Topics for training are typically centered on sales and operations, with few on soft-skill development (e.g., performance evaluation, leadership skills, and change management).
  • Many distributors make generous investments in training but few capture the return on their training investment, whether measured tangibly or intangibly.

In light of the above findings, here are my questions for you: What training and development systems do you have in place to unleash the potential of your employees? How do you measure the impact of training and development? Going forward, what can you do to help your company enhance its learning capacity? What can you do differently to ensure your training and development programs contribute to your business goals?  To make your training and development effort truly impactful, here are a few ideas:

Create a learning culture. Successful training and development systems thrive in a culture that values and rewards learning. A culture of learning begins with organizational leaders, so make sure your training and development initiatives have full leadership support. To ingrain your learning culture, make training and development mandatory for everyone in your organization. Finally, to sustain it, provide timely and adequate recognition to employees who have applied and/or shared new skills and knowledge.

Prioritize your focus. For training programs to contribute to an organization’s strategy, they must focus on filling performance gaps. This requires that distributors pay extra attention to two phases in the process—analyzing training needs upfront and evaluating the impact upon program completion.

Know what to measure. Every training program should be evaluated on at least three levels—Reaction (How did trainers like the training program?); Learning (What did trainees learn during the training?), and Application (How did trainees apply new learning at work?). Programs that are the largest in scope, demand significant investments, and have the greatest effect, should also be evaluated on two higher levels—Impact (How does the training affect bottom-line results?), and ROI (What is the return on training investment?).

Invest in career development. Extending your investment in employees beyond short-term, job-focused training to longer-term, career-oriented development will give you an extra competitive edge. This is because when you can show your employees a career path to pursue, rather than just a job for a living, you also show them you’re interested in them as professionals. As a result, you stand a better chance of retaining them in the long run.

Integrate T&D into other HR processes. To make training and development programs truly beneficial, they should be integrated with, and supported by, other HR processes—for example, talent acquisition, performance management, succession planning, and compensation and reward systems.

There’s another quote by the Father of Total Quality Management that reinforces the importance of having a training and development program in place, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.” T&D is essential to grow your most important asset, your people, and as they accumulate more knowledge, skills and experiences, they will bring more value to your organization. This is the smartest strategy you can adopt for sustainable success. In our newly published book, Optimizing Human Capital Development: A Distributor’s Guide to Building a Sustainable Competitive Advantage through Talent Strategy, my colleagues, Drs. Barry Lawrence and Bharani Nagarathnam, and I have mapped out a systematic approach to unleashing distribution companies’ human capital potential. I invite you to read it with the hope that it will motivate you to embark on a journey of critical self-reflection, continuous learning and development. By doing so, you will harness and maximize your employees’ strengths and be ready to take the challenges and opportunities ahead.

About the Author
Jia Wang is the co-author of "Optimizing Human Capital Development," a book designed to help anyone from front-line supervisors to C-suite executives map a pathway to maximizing their workforce through best practices and practical tools for evaluating talent initiatives. Those interested can learn more about the book at this link.