by Neil Harris
We all need training. Jobs change and we require a different set of skills. Technology moves on and we have to keep pace. New responsibilities come our way that we must be equipped to deal with. Managers perceive a need for a different kind of employee and we have to adapt. Learning is a life-long experience and training provides us with continuous development.
Training needs are often discussed during appraisals. Sometimes, of course, there is a sudden change in our work that requires immediate attention to our skills. Occasionally we just see a course advertised that we think would be beneficial. But what should we expect to gain from training and how can we evaluate the benefits of it?
The acid test of any training programme is whether it results in an improvement in the way we carry out our work. Does it improve our morale and make us feel better at our job? Will we be more attractive to another employer or will our current employer give us the additional responsibilities we seek? Could increased skills and knowledge help us to find a new role? Does it improve efficiency, decrease wasted time, expand profits or reduce costs? To evaluate our training we need to consider what happens before, during and after each course.
Before the course
What do we expect from a good training course? Before the course we should have an idea of its aims sufficient to decide if it is right for us. The trainer should know something about the type of participants so that the material can be pitched at a level to interest everyone. The course materials should be well written and useful both during the course and when subsequently applying any newfound skills.
Good trainers engage with their audience to discover each participant's aims. Not everyone is there for the same purpose and trainers should discover what people expect and want from the course at the start. This makes it possible for them to tweak the agenda to cover some areas in more depth or to use particular scenarios that relate to participants' experiences.
Courses should be pitched at the right level for everyone to understand by starting out with simple concepts that are gradually built upon to develop more complex themes. We all have individual learning styles. Some learn best by discussing, others by reading about the subject. Diagrammatic representations giving a visual form to a concept appeals to many. The trainer has to be aware of the differing needs of the participants and design the course to cater for that variation and to maintain interest.
Training often includes a wide range of activities. Brainstorming is a valuable tool to tease out new ideas and evaluate them. Exercises that simulate work situations in which the newly acquired knowledge or skills will be used are always important; their success depends on how closely the simulation matches the day-to-day reality. Discussing aspects of the training, in groups or in pairs, is valuable, especially when others on the course come from entirely different backgrounds and bring new perspectives. Mentors, already experienced in the material that others need to learn, can also provide a useful avenue to advancement. In-course evaluation of how learning is progressing can be achieved by short tests during the programme.
A good experience
Rupinder Heer of jobs.ac.uk recently attended courses on communication and account management skills. ‘I felt they were pitched at just the right level', says Rupinder. ‘The trainer carefully discovered what each of us do in our job roles and applied the content to suit our individual needs. The courses included lots of interactive learning techniques such as group activities and quizzes. It was clear that the trainer was very knowledgeable on the subject because he used lots of examples from his personal experiences. Delegates were given plenty of opportunity to discuss their own experiences too.
The courses included many useful exercises so that we could apply what we were learning in practice and they helped to make the courses more fun.
The course materials included a training pack to take away with us that contains all the material we worked through on the courses. I have not looked back at them yet but will probably do so at some point in the near future when I start to implement more of the techniques I learnt. I feel they will serve as a good reference point.
I've already applied some of the time management techniques we learnt but have not had the chance to implement anything else as yet.
Some parts of the courses were more beneficial than others. The parts that weren't beneficial were those that I don't think apply to my role as much. However, these may be useful at some point in the future'.
The employer's perspective
Employers invest in staff training for many different reasons. They carry out skills audits and align staff training to meet their organisation's needs, especially to cover skills their workforce is deficient in and to prepare to meet changes that are coming along. Providing training is also seen as a good way to motivate staff, engender loyalty and reduce staff turnover.
End of course evaluation
Most trainers provide questionnaires to be completed at the end of a course to assist with evaluation. Although this gives an immediate guide to the value of a course, it does tend to reflect how much people enjoyed themselves and how good the venue and catering were rather than the strength of the learning experience. The best evaluation questionnaires ask participants to reflect on their learning. Did the course suit their learning style? Did it meet their original objectives? Do they feel that they can now confidently apply their newfound skills in the work place?
Post course evaluation
The most important assessment of training can only be done some time later. In practice this requires reflective thought on the process and usually takes place during appraisals with one's manager. Did the course change your skills or attitude, improve your efficiency and add value to the organisation through new ways of working? From a personal point of view, did it in increase your skills set, make you a more attractive employee and open up future opportunities for advancement? In some cases, such as sales training, the value of training can be accurately measured by results, but in most cases precise evaluation is difficult to achieve.
Some consultants offer an evaluation service, but it is expensive. Elaine Walsh and Esat Alpay, senior lecturers in transferable skills at Imperial College, have designed a skills evaluation inventory to assist with this process. This is definitely a step in the right direction but there is plenty of scope for more to be achieved in this area. Dr Keith Wood, a senior research manager, had this to say about how his staff responded to training: ‘It is often two or three years after the event before the benefits are apparent'.
* Elaine Walsh and Esat Alpay, ‘Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education', April 2008