Outside Answers to Individual Training Needs - Training and Development

When searching for programs to satisfy individual training needs, T&D managers use such activities as seminars and workshops, university and college offerings,programs from local trade and night schools, self-study, or conventions,conferences, and so forth. Each of these options has some special value—and each requires some special consideration.

Membership in professional societies provide T&D managers and T&D staff members with a rich opportunity to find out what is new in the profession, to meet people who do similar things (often in innovative, useful ways) in other organizations, to get recognition for their own accomplishments—or just to find support groups, socialize, or hold an office if they need such fulfillment.

The largest groups feature local chapters, regional and/or national conferences, publications,and seminars or institutes.

The American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD), the National Society for Performance and Instruction (NSPI), and the Organizational Development (OD) Network are among the largest. The National Society of Sales Training Executives is one of the active groups that serve a particular discipline or specialty within the T&D population. The Office of Personnel Management sponsors programs to upgrade trainers in the public sector.

Seminars and workshops offer one of the more frequent answers to the T&D manager's quest. Their sponsors range from independent consultants to professional societies to colleges and universities. Their length ranges from one day (even a few hours) to several weeks. Unfortunately,their quality spans an even wider spectrum.

How do T&D managers locate such events? Usually, they need only open their mail. Membership in any professional society will get your name on mailing lists,which are then going to be sold to sponsoring agencies. Organizational list servers also announce upcoming events. Furthermore, attendance at any event by just one sponsor will guarantee future mailings—frequently multiple, because computer lists become cross-fertilized. If these methods haven't already produced more mail than there is time to read, phoning the associations or writing to nearby universities (or the American Management Association) will ensure lots of brochures in the future.

How do alert T&D managers separate the wheat from the chaff? How do they select the really "right" answer to the individual training need they face at the moment? Are liable seminar or workshop should score a "Yes" on at least ten of those questions. It certainly should score a "Yes" on five of the first six questions if it is to meet the unique learning needs of your trainees.

If the seminar looks marginal, there may be value in inquiring about the sponsor or the announced leaders. Has the sponsoring organization been in existence for at least two years? (New sponsors may be perfectly fine. But when sponsors are established you can uncover data about their past programs.) Has the seminar offered programs in these particular subjects for at least a year? Are the conference leaders offering similar programs throughout the area—or throughout the country? How long have the leaders worked for this sponsor? Remember, these questions become useful only if the more urgent questions in that"primary" list haven't given you the data you need.

If the program has been previously offered, T&D staff members can ask for rosters and check with other organizations who sent people—the T&D department as well as attendees. The point is to establish a mechanism for exchanging information on the usefulness and quality of public programs in providing data that's more user-oriented than the data you can hope to acquire from the sponsors or the leaders. They're marketing people while they're answering your questions. And be sure to ask the users how they're using the program— not how they liked it. Answers to the last question will be contaminated with data about the food, the meeting site, the trip to and from the program, and other participants.

A Useful list of questions to ask previous participants at seminars and workshops would include some of these:

  • Did you or your participants institute new policies as a result of attending?
  • Did you or your participants revise or eliminate old policies as a result?
  • Did you or your participants revise procedures as a result of the participation?
  • Did participants return to the organization with products they could immediately put to use?
  • What specific problem was solved as a result of attending this seminar?
  • Have you calculated a dollar payoff from participation?
  • If the need still existed, would you send people to this program today?
  • Did others who attended really reflect the audience appealed to in the advertising—or did the sponsors admit anyone who paid the money?
  • Should our participants make special preparations?
  • In what ways did your participants receive special individualized time and attention from the leaders?

Some of those questions are quite important, others far less valuable. What one probably does is select about two-thirds of the relevant ones, and then hope to receive concrete answers to about two-thirds of those. When previous participants are unable to identify unique assistance or specific applications, the program may be questionable. (Of course, there's a fallacy in that: Users can be incompetent, too—so check with more than one and with the T&D department.)

Even for one-person training needs, some organizations like to send teams of two to seminars and workshops. This is often a good idea. Dual participation can increase pressure on leaders to respond to the uniqueness of your organization.

It can cause each trainee to stimulate the other toward active participation and active contemplation of on-the-job applications. Dual participation can make"honest people" out of your trainees; they tend to acquire the needed behaviors more consistently—especially if the "partner" is the boss.

Not only do behaviors tend to be acquired at workshops—they tend to be applied; thenon-the-job behaviors tend to be reinforced more readily if the boss has the same knowledge. This merely says that team attendance (especially superior-trainee teams) results in more dynamic change than attendance by just one person. For this, as well as for marketing reasons, some seminars offer discounted rates for the second person. Team members should be warned against isolation;they should be instructed to mix with the group.

University programs take a variety of forms. They may be short seminars. They may be "one-night-a-week" programs offered through regular channels or through extension services. They may also be a full-time investment of the trainees' time and energy during a period of release from normal work responsibilities.

Such"release" programs sometimes lead to degrees—as a "year at Harvard"or an MBA from a state university.

Regardless of the money invested, regardless of the time and energy spent, regardless of the organizational level from which trainees come, university programs should be investigated and evaluated. As any training investment must, it should pay its way—if not in documented dollars and cents, then in ideas, which are brought into the organization.

How can T&D managers assure investments in university programs?

To begin with, they can check the programs for relevance and quality in the same way they check seminars and workshops. Colleges and universities will invariably have existed for more than a year; their reputations as sponsor shave already been established. (Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad sponsorship.)

But it's dangerous to be beguiled by good reputations. Colleges with good reputations in general may be poverty stricken in the department from which you need help. Institutions with shabby reputations in one department may excel in others. And besides, it isn't the institutional reputation that matters so much as it is the competence of the professors who will teach your trainees. But beware.

A Glittering array of renowned authorities on the faculty does not guarantee that those luminaries will actually teach your people. Astute T&D managers check, and get a commitment about:

  • The precise name of the instructor
  • The amount of time the learners will be exposed to each faculty member
  • The nature of that exposure (Will they listen to lectures? Get to ask questions?Get small-group or one-on-one time to discuss unique problems?)
  • The size of the class
  • The nature of the testing (Will your trainee be held accountable for the information learned?)

When no guarantees can be made about the faculty's willingness to deal with the special needs of your employees, a longer search may be a good investment of time and energy. Often, the truly motivated trainee or manager will do the searching—a healthy action that gives some "ownership" of the final decision.

To insure commitment to make learners accountable, a "contract" may begin order. T&D people, in concert with the manager and trainee, identify specific ways in which the knowledge will be applied on the job. For example:

  • Delivering four oral reports within three months of completing a university course in public speaking
  • An X percent drop in rejects after a welding course or
  • An X percent increase in the number of decisions at meetings chaired by a manager who attends a conference/leading course

Although such "contracts" can and should be simple documents, they indicate that both student and manager accept accountability for the expenditure of money and energy and support by the organization. They also show both the businesslike and the supportive nature of the T&D function. What these contracts say is that the payment of the tuition (and sometimes compensation for time in class)is a business transaction in which evaluation criteria and accountabilities were established at the start.

Such commitment to learning and on-the-job application can erase some of the stigma of academia, some of the "ivory tower" reputation that tarnishes college programs. It is also a basic mechanism for meaningful evaluation, for encouraging immediate feedback when students find the program a doubtful route to the targeted application objectives. For general tuition aid programs, these contracts are recommended parts of the policy guidelines.

Self-study is another medium for meeting individual training needs. Sometimes, these self-study programs already exist within the organization;they've been bought for previous similar needs. Sometimes they are available through local educational institutions. More often they are available as book stand computer- based training packages, sold through publishers or commercial vendors.

Again,membership in professional societies puts the T&D director onto mailing lists describing such programs. Subscription to training magazines also uncovers many sources of such "software," as well as the names and addresses of suppliers. In addition, attending conferences (or local merchandising sessions by publishers) lets T&D specialists know what is on the market, which sources to respect, and whom to turn to when a really unique individual training need arises.

More important is the appropriateness of the presentation to the learning goals.

If the goals involve acquiring knowledge, then reading a book may be the best solution. Other training needs may involve a retention and application that is possible only through programmed instruction, or lessons mailed to and reviewed by an instructor on the vendor's staff. Other needs involve psychomotor skills,which can come only if the program provides visual displays— and perhaps equipment with which to perform the tasks.

In evaluating self-study programs, the usual questions arise:

  • Are the behavioral (learning) outcomes clearly defined? (This may not apply to books, but it should be a minimum test for accepting any programmed text.)
  • Is the scope of the content clearly specified?
  • Are there indications of the "normal" time required for completion? (Beware of averages; look for upper and lower limits.)
  • What do previous users say about their use of information from this program?
  • What do other users say about the learning processes stimulated in this program?

Professional conferences and conventions provide another source of learning to meet individual training needs. They are seldom structured as behaviorally oriented learning systems; thus, they often become intellectual bazaars at which people discover new trends in their fields. As such, they can be an effective way to bring state-of-the-art and cutting edge knowledge into an organization.

One hopes that people who attend conferences and conventions will bring back ideas and that they will try them out or, at the very least, share with them their peers.

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