Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010


I have just taken over a new department where employee training seems very old-fashioned. I would like to do something more modern and tailored to individual needs.

Training methods have been revolutionised over the past few years. Many managers are moving away from the old-fashioned 'sheep dip' method towards something more attuned to real learning, which links directly to enhancing individual job performance.

How do people learn? Whereas training usually takes place in a training room, real learning starts only when people get a chance to try ideas and to integrate them into their day-to-day working practices. To do this successfully, what they learn has to be relevant to their business and it has to meet their personal learning needs.

So, start with the content of the training: ask your employees to identify what they really need to learn to lift the performance of the department - do this through group discussions or a survey.

There are basically three types of things that your team will need to learn. First, skills (turning a lathe or delivering a speech); second, behaviours (how to deal with a difficult customer or work as part of a team); and third, tools (business process redesign or how to do e-mail).

Each of these requires a different teaching method. Skills training often requires an expert demonstrator and guide, and lots of chance to practice.

Behavioural learning is harder and takes longer. Employees will need to be given opportunities to understand current behaviour through, for example, systematic feedback from others, followed by what the trainers call 'experiential' learning. This is where people actually model the new behaviours by participating in an exercise that recreates a work situation.

This kind of training can be groundbreaking but it requires very careful facilitation.

Learning new tools can also be valuable. I saw a good example of this at BAA, where people who had never used it before were being trained to use IT. Many were over 45 years old. The trainers were computer-literate existing employees. They took one-to-one sessions with staff, showing their colleagues how to use and apply the new IT system. They then remained on hand for a few days to come to the rescue of anyone who was having problems. In this way, employees were not made to feel inadequate by young IT whiz kids, the training was relevant and, because it was one-to-one, no one was embarrassed to ask 'idiot' questions.

Having identified the content of your training for your people, you need to consider the means by which you will help people to learn. You say that you would like to find something that is more tailored to individual needs. One very effective way of doing this is through 'action learning'.

This is when people have a short time in the classroom to learn something new before going back to the workplace to try it out. They then come back to the classroom to assess how they have done, what has worked, what hasn't, and to deepen their learning. Each group of staff is called a 'learning set' and, as it is often easier to discuss a problem with a colleague than with a trainer, these sets can be powerful vehicles for learning.

Coaching is another alternative, particularly if the learning is around skills or behaviours. Coaching is quite different from training. The role of the coach is to demonstrate, observe and give feedback, to challenge, support, help break log-jams and counsel. It's fairly expensive because it is one-to-one but it can be extremely effective, particularly for senior managers.

I hope this has given you some ideas on how to update your training.

All activity that develops your people is an investment in them as an asset of the firm. If organisations took as much care over this as they do over many other investment decisions, our business performance in the UK would be substantially improved. Unfortunately we are still one of the worst countries in Europe for investment in training and development.

So I wish you well. You will certainly see the pay-off in the performance of your department over the coming months.

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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