The Honeymoon Is Over For Evaluating Training And Development

How long can a honeymoon period last? In the case of evaluating training and development programs, remarkably enough, the answer is 40 or even 50 years. No wonder the concept is looking so worn-out

Published: Jul 5, 2012

Recent research suggests at least 75% of organizations do nothing to assess the true effects of their training and development programs. The most common evaluation method used today is the post-course "happy sheet," which records only attendees' opinions of the experience in its immediate aftermath – preferably, the cynics say, once participants have been served a decent meal. 

It hardly needs to be said that this falls short of a meaningful business performance indicator. Liking, after all, does not necessarily lead to learning. Indeed, research shows that how pleased people are with learning has scant bearing on whether they subsequently refine their working practices.  

The result is that even now, amid continuing economic turmoil, institutions spend billions on formal training and development while making no effort to investigate what impact, if any, they derive as a result. It is hard to think of another area of business in which such a huge outlay is accompanied by so little follow-up. We have literally been getting away with it for decades. This attitude can no longer be sustained – not in an age of budgetary pressures and mounting calls for good governance and transparency.  

The search for alternative measurements has proved troublesome, most notably in the form of a nascent obsession with "return on investment" (ROI), which has led to some elegant mathematical formulas while largely failing to address the inherent awkwardness of applying them, and "return on expectations" (ROE), an approach so open to misinterpretation as to be potentially dangerous.  

Overall, we have a reasonable idea of what to evaluate but no consensus as to how. As demonstrated by the sheer lack of progress, the challenge is considerable; and yet it is by no means insurmountable. Indeed, a few straightforward guidelines offer a solid basis on which to build.  

First and foremost, critical above all else, businesses must commit to evaluate. Moreover, it is not learning itself that must be evaluated, or the 'happy-sheet' reactions of participants, but the impact of this learning on the business. Second, it is imperative to ensure that the process of evaluation begins with the crafting and contracting of learning objectives with the business. The how of this - establishing for each intervention an explicit contract defining learning objectives - can be very straightforward, but next to impossible to retrospectively rectify if overlooked.  

Third, it is essential to know your audiences – who they are, what they actually want to be told and how they can assist in framing the pertinent data. Related to this, it is critical to be clear about what you want to use the evaluation for and about how and when you want to present the findings to the business. In this vein, it is important to remember that when it comes to data, more is definitely not merrier. You need to be careful to avoid creating an industry of evaluation by keeping your metrics few and simple. Indeed, it is imperative to treat the process as a strategic tool and thought should be given to how the evaluation might best be used before it even begins.  

Finally, methods must match needs. This may seem obvious, but some evaluators always evaluate from a particular perspective such as ROI, rather than flexing their approach to meet situational demands.  

The objective of these principles is to create a culture of evaluation, in which it is viewed as an integral part of learning, and in which it is expected by the business to add value in its own right through ensuring that strategic decision-making about learning is informed by evidence. And this latter point is key: for evaluations to be meaningful and valuable they need to deliver something that helps leaders understand what to do next.  

Ultimately, training and development are still crucial components of any organization's growth. We know that much, however elusive the precise metrics. But if we blithely maintain the status quo for another 40 or 50 years, relentlessly bankrolling scheme after scheme without attempting to justify their efficacy in real and tangible terms, the entire concept will slip into irrelevance. Long overdue, the end of the honeymoon has arrived. 

Professor Shlomo Ben-Hur is an organizational psychologist and a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD. He has 25 years of corporate experience in multinational organizations, including senior roles with BP, Daimler AG and the Mercedes-Benz Credit Corporation.  He teaches in the Advanced Strategic Marketing Program (ASM), the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives (BPSE), Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) and the Program for Executive Development (PED).

[This article has been reproduced with permission from IMD, a leading business school based in Switzerland.]

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