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1 Essential Insight for Developing an Effective Employee Training Program

by Dave Boizelle

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Studies by the University of Phoenix and ATD (now TD) revealed that only 20-30% of skills and behaviors learned during training are retained applied. That means that on average, less than $3 of every $10 spent on training translates into business impact.

In the book 212°, The Extra Effort, authors Sam Parker and Mac Anderson use a natural law to teach a fundamental principle: At 211° water is very hot, at 212° water boils, and when water boils, energy is released in the form of steam. Their point was that just one degree of difference generates an exponential force powerful enough to make electricity or power a machine. It is this natural law that reinforces how a small thing or an extra effort can produce exponential impact.

As a leadership and management development professional I am regularly reminded of this principle—there is no silver bullet or quick fix to accomplishing high-impact leadership development outcomes. Additional action and effort must be taken both before and after the learning event to get the results we expect.

How Important is that “Extra Degree” of Effort?

Studies by the University of Phoenix and the Association for Talent Development revealed that only 20-30% of the skills and behaviors learned during training are retained and transferred to the work environment. That means that of the $60-80 Billion spent annually in the U.S, only about $17.5 Billion dollars translates into business impact.

No wonder many organizations are reluctant to invest in employee training and development.

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Key Insight: Pre-Training and Post-Training Matter (Much) More than you Think

In their study of training efficacy, University of Phoenix and ATD sought to better understand learning in a professional environment. Here’s what they found:

  • 25% of training retention and application is determined by what happens before the training takes place
  • 50% of retention and application is determined by what happens after training
  • And only 25% of effectiveness is an actual result of the training event itself
    • Yet, 85% of training dollars are spent on the event

How to Apply this Insight in Training Events

Organizations can achieve better results by doing two things:

  1. Spending training dollars in ways that achieve better outcomes
  2. Establishing an organizational discipline to attend to pre-event activities and post training follow-up

Pre-Event – Light the Fire

The purpose of a pre-event discipline is to help the learner and organization start with the right mindset before beginning the learning event.

This does not mean simply providing a training calendar, a brief course description and agenda, and sign-up instructions, then calling it good.

An effective pre-event facilitates understanding the context of the training and why it is important.

Consider these pre-event questions:

  • What’s in it for the learner by attending the training?
  • What behavioral expectations does the organization have of the learner?
  • What pre-work do they need to complete and why?
  • How will this training help the learner do their job more effectively?
  • What will the learner be expected to do with their new knowledge and skills?

Establishing the content and the context helps participants take responsibility for their part in the training investment, as well as providing defined accountability for the expected outcome.

The pre-event discipline also extends to the direct manager:

  • What mindset do they need to have to support the training of their direct report?
  • What messaging does the manager need to provide the learner before the training begins?
  • How will they support and coach the learner in applying the newly developed skills or behaviors?

By doing this, the manager lowers the atmospheric pressure decreasing resistance to application and accelerating the boiling point.

Training Event – Boil the Water

One key that can significantly improve the impact of the training and promote long-term application and retention is to end each training session with time for reflection, takeaways, and an action plan:

  • What two or three new things did each participant learn?
  • What aspects of the training will improve his or her effectiveness?
  • Most importantly, what two or three actions will they write down, apply, and practice?

Post-Event Follow-Up – Keep the Water Boiling & Channel the Steam

When training is viewed as a process as opposed to an event, there is a more defined pathway to follow up, reinforce learning, and “channel the steam.”

What follow-up discipline do you use in your organization? What post-event expectations are in place? In what way is the direct manager involved in the follow-up with their learner?

Consider some follow-up techniques and tactics:

  • Participant summarizes key takeaways and discusses them with their direct manager
  • Direct manager engages participant in a discussion about how they plant to apply their new knowledge and skills.
  • Goals and action plans are developed.
  • Organization engages a learning coach to work one-on-one with participants to implement action plans over time.
  • Training organization seeks out and shares training application success stories with the other participants.
  • Direct manager provides on-the-spot performance coaching as the learner applies new knowledge and skills.

Not Sure Your Organization will go for it?

Do an experiment.

  1. Apply the pre- and follow-up discipline to a small group of learners.
  2. Measure the results.
  3. Track post training event goal achievement.
  4. Get input from direct managers on observations of performance differences before and after training.
  5. Assess whether learners are still applying skills and behaviors at 3 and 6 months after the training.
  6. Consider expanding the experiment to replicate the results.

Share success stories with key thought leaders, decision makers, and those who influence them.  Lead out and persuade them how “one degree” of additional effort “boiled the water,” “channeled the steam,” and produced long-term business impact missing from traditional training efforts.

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About the Author


Dave Boizelle

Chief Learning Officer
Dave has unique capabilities in training facilitation and developmental coaching across mid-sized and global organizations. Previously, Dave was the chief learning officer with RSM McGladdrey. He also has extensive experience as a director of human resources and recruiting at Arthur Anderson, Inc. Dave has an M.S. in Instructional Technology from Utah State University.

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