First class coach


Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


Q: My employees have given disappointing feedback on the external courses they have attended. The company we use has a good reputation but seems insufficiently focused for our particular business. Would it be worthwhile taking our training in-house and what would it take to set up a workable series of internal courses?

A: Training, like advertising, is something everyone is keen to do, but no one is sure what difference it makes to business performance and it is often the first to go when businesses take a downturn.

Like many firms, you are finding that your investment in training is not giving you value for money. Unfortunately, bringing training in-house is unlikely to be the answer. In fact, most companies over the past 15 years have been going in the opposite direction - closing down their in-house facilities and contracting out their training to a mix of external suppliers.

The way training companies make money is to develop standardised materials and programmes, and to deliver them over and over again, driving down the unit cost through increasing volume. In this way, they also keep their employment costs to a minimum, because they can employ trainers with lower levels of skill who are cheaper to hire. This is fine if what the customer wants is generic training, untailored to any particular business - but you clearly don't.

Bringing training in-house would enable you to make sure that it was tailored to your needs, but it is unlikely to be cheaper, once you add the cost of training facilities and the fact that you will be paying your trainers on a permanent basis.

The biggest problem with in-house training is quality. First you have to recruit trainers who are willing to dedicate themselves to only one firm for several years. The best trainers often prefer moving around and working with lots of different firms to give them variety. It keeps them sharper and they bring a wider range of experience to their work. Many businesses - including most of the big oil companies and many of the more successful retailers - have switched to a carefully blended mix of external providers, backed up by a core of skilful in-house training-and-development experts who know how to purchase training and customise it to their company's needs.

Another effective solution is to change the way you manage training. You say it is not sufficiently focused. But, to be focused on the needs of your business, trainers must connect with the day-to-day challenges you face, and understand how the skill and capability building they are asked to achieve relates to the day-to-day business. One way of doing this is to create a training panel made up of a cross section of the managers and supervisors of the people you are training. Their role is to take an active interest in the content of that training, to provide quality control and to help the trainers to remain connected with the business.

They should meet with the trainers once or twice a year to review feedback, examine the design of the programmes with the trainers and, most importantly, to brief the trainers on day-to-day challenges within the business.

A good way of getting across your ideas and needs is to suggest that the trainers 'shadow' people they have trained to see how the learning is applied in practice. It is amazing how often this reveals how inappropriate some training methods really are.

Managing a training contract is like managing any other service contract, it needs very clear specification and a good two-way exchange of information.

In managing your trainers, give clear criteria for success. Connect the trainers with managers and supervisors and build in measures that track the effectiveness of the training against the criteria you have identified.

The only effective test of training is whether people are actually learning and then applying that learning in their day-to-day work.

Your problem really is not whether the training should be in- or out-of-house but how you can get more focus and value for money from the training you are already buying. So, stop focusing on the training and focus instead on learning, on what your people really need and what works for them. Give them a real say in shaping the training specification, look at multiple sources of training and different ways of assisting people to learn and to connect that help directly with the needs of the business through a panel or specially chosen advisory group.

Margaret Exley leads Towers Perrin's European practice on change and communication. A founder of Kinsley Lord, she is also a director of HM Treasury's Management Board.

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