For far too long, training has been a seller's market. Employers have been frustrated by the variable quality of training offered around the country. Indeed, some training providers would probably benefit from going on a customer care course themselves.
Many different agencies, including the SSDA, the Learning & Skills Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, are working to drive changes through the system to ensure that the skills the UK needs are the skills the UK gets. But employers, too, need to make sure that they use training providers effectively. Intelligent demand should help keep this market honest.
The paradox is that the statistics quoted in the introduction point to worrying skills shortages, and an apparent failure to train and develop British workers properly. And yet, undeniably, a lot of training is going on in the UK: the CBI estimates that a massive £23 billion is spent every year on training activity of some kind. The question is, who is getting the training and how much of it is really effective?
Some training is required simply to comply with the law - for example, in health and safety, and hygiene in food production. But what about other relevant and necessary skills? If it's true, as the TUC suggests, that about 20% of the productivity gap between the UK and France and Germany is a result of skills gaps, it looks as though we're spending a lot of money on the wrong training.
Andy Westwood, head of policy research at the Work Foundation, suggests that traditional hierarchical attitudes may have something to do with badly directed training investment. 'Training is too often regarded as a perk or reward, given to managers who are already well advanced in their careers, rather than to shopfloor staff who might really need it,' he says. 'We have a managerial culture in this country that says if you want to fix something, get a manager to do it. But if you fund someone's MBA, how much of that learning gets brought back into the business? That MBA may cost up to £30,000 a year.
'Firms that get training right develop useful skills and see it as a strategic goal for the organisation,' adds Westwood. 'They actually want to get better at what they do. They don't want their people to end up doing poorly paid jobs. They are interested in quality of service, not just driving down cost.'
Akber Pandor, director of learning and development at KPMG, agrees. 'Training effectiveness depends to a great extent on the culture of the organisation,' he says. 'The language that is used reveals the employer's attitude. If training is seen as a "cost", they are clearly not expecting any payback on it.'
But if training is seen an investment, where are the hard figures that say you are getting a good return on that investment? As with advertising and marketing, it is not always easy to prove to what extent training has been effective.
And how do you calculate the cost of training in any case? Is it the per capita cost of the course for your attendees? What about the opportunity cost of the time spent away from work? Do you have to hire the venue, pay for the electricity and meals, the use of IT and other materials?
What if training helps you minimise workplace accidents or criminal action - how much money have you saved that way? And what if when staff leave, they tell the world what a good employer you are - how much future business might this help bring in?
As learning is increasingly self-managed and pursued remotely with new technology, costs will start to decrease. But does that mean you will fall down the league tables of 'investors in people'?
This is a famously knotty problem. KPMG's Pandor says that as measurement of cost is so difficult, it makes more sense to look at overall value to the organisation and its culture. 'The classroom is just a catalyst for learning,' he says. 'You really want to develop a wider culture of learning within the organisation. Learning happens all the time.'
Several attempts have been made over the years to devise a discipline to help evaluate the effectiveness of training. The Kirkpatrick model, which identifies four different levels of evaluation, has best survived the test of time. Level one evaluation is concerned with reaction to the training just undergone: trainees fill in 'happy sheets' on whether the room temperature was comfortable and whether the handouts were informative.
The second level concerns learning: what specifically (if anything) has been absorbed by the trainees at the sessions.
The third level of evaluation focuses on trainees' subsequent behaviour, and identifies whether there has been any successful transfer of learning from the classroom to the workplace ('on-the-job effectiveness'). Lastly, business results are measured to see whether there are positive business outcomes and bottom-line benefits to the training.
This model is built on the rather heroic assumption that the training interventions selected meet the working needs of the business. It also presupposes that employers have some idea of where they already stand as far as certain skills are concerned. Clearly, evaluation of training effectiveness is not possible if you do not know your starting point.
If money is one concern, time is another. Business is a just-in-time activity where speed of reaction to changing markets and customers is vital. Who can afford to take three days out of the office? Who is going get on with the tasks you leave behind?
Questions such as these, as well as some fresh thinking on people's preferred learning styles, have led to the emergence of new bite-sized training options, most notably the 90-minute work-outs offered by a new training provider, the Mind Gym. The firm's founder, Octavius Black, is helping to shake up the market for training with his innovative approach.
'We are going back to the people attending our work-outs to ask them if they are using the skills they picked up with us,' he says. 'I'm keen to compare our results with other training companies, but so far we haven't had any takers. I suppose it would be rather terrifying if you found out that your training didn't actually work.'
Employers need to work smarter, not harder, with their training investment.
They need to do more thinking up-front about the skills they want to develop, and the quality of service they are striving to achieve. Without the right skills, the outlook for British businesses is not a happy one. The competition will not give them a second chance.
CASE STUDY 1 - A LIFE OF LEARNING
DAVID PRETTY, chief executive, Barratt Homes
'I've learned three important lessons in my career, all interlinked.
The first is that whatever you end up doing, you need to spend some time on the front line.
I started out after university at Procter & Gamble as a sales and marketing trainee. My experience as a sales rep stood me in very good stead later on as a manager. My second learning point is to back your own judgment.
When Barratt started its urban renewal work in the inner cities 20 years ago, everyone told us we were mad. Well, we weren't; we backed our judgment there. My third point is that you should surround yourself with good people as much as you can - it makes everything easier. Don't be worried if people then advance further than you. So what? You will benefit from having talented people around you.'
FIVE TESTS FOR EFFECTIVE TRAINING
Know where you're starting from Arbitrary training courses chucked at all staff, sheep-dip style, will have little value. Identify training and business needs before committing to a learning programme.
Use happy sheets
But don't stop there, dig deeper. Of course you need to find out what people made of a training session, but that is just validation. Evaluation requires deeper, sharper questioning - of both the attendees and the providers of the training.
Check on-the-job usefulness Make sure you find out from staff how useful their learning experience has been in practical terms. Do they apply any of it in their work?
Look for hard data and real business Proper evaluation will come only through the measurement of hard business data, not gut feel - which means you must...
Give it time The true benefits of learning may reveal themselves only gradually over time. Worthwhile learning and skill acquisition may not be a quick win.