Surveys or Interviews? - Training and Development

In addition to the monitoring and anticipation, T&D managers often use surveys(for quantitative data) and interviews (for qualitative data) to poll managers for their perception of the training needs in the organization.
Unfortunate results sometimes grow out of such surveys and interviews if T&D managers fail to consider carefully what questions they ask and how they interpret the data.

Atypical ploy is to concentrate on perceived training needs and ask managers, "What are your training needs going to be in the next year?" Line managers don't know their training needs! So they either ignore the survey or provide misleading and superficial data. Hotheads with deep personal agendas send very strong signals, only to give intense but distorted pictures of the situation. Conscientious managers who have nothing much to say but who think they ought to say something send back lots of data based on minimum thought or perceptivity.

Another problem grows out of asking managers to tell the T&D specialists their training needs: They come to believe that they do know how to determine training needs. Over time, they begin to demand training for performance problems that training won't solve. At that point, because the T&D manager is in a weak,defensive position, he or she tries to dissuade clients from doing training.It's an awkward position, even when training won't do any good.

Inherent in any survey is the problem that once line managers have responded, they feel they have totally discharged their responsibility for training.

They need only wait until a schedule is published, nominate a few subordinates to fill up their established "quota" of enrollments—and that's it.

The trouble with all this is that in relevant training systems, that isn't"it" at all.

In relevant T&D systems, line managers in all departments and at all levels of the organization see the direct relationship between their own operations an dT&D programs. If they merely respond to surveys or interviews, line managers are in a purely passive position with no proactive responsibility and no proactive potential benefit. This passivity, which may result from a needs determination based on nothing but surveys and interviews, is unacceptable to dynamic&D managers.

On the other hand, if the T&D department never takes its inquiry to the actual line-manager clients, it risks bad generalizations about the macro training needs of the organization. Thus, the most astute T&D managers use surveys and interviews to validate their own analysis of the data gathered in monitoring the ongoing operation.

Perhaps an effective summary of the relationship between surveys and interviews on the one hand, and monitoring the operation on the other, would go like this:

  1. Basic signals about training needs come from monitoring the ongoing operation.
  2. Signals about individual training needs are pursued, the T&D department using further inquiry and analysis with the manager of the potential trainees and, of course, with the trainees themselves.
  3. Signals about the organizational training needs of the organization are validated by further inquiry in the form of surveys and interviews.
  4. New signals that come from the surveys and interviews are validated by reference to the "hard data" from the operational monitoring.

By such a dual focus in determining training needs, the T&D manager can better validate the accuracy and completeness of the department's response to the training, education, and development needs of the organization.

There are also various actions the T&D manager can take to make certain that the surveys and interviews actually used are of maximum help.

First,one faces the question: Shall we use a survey or interviews? The answer depend son several criteria. The T&D manager must consider the size of the population, the sensitivity of the issues, and the time available.

Clearly,interviews are time-consuming and unfeasible when a vast population must be reached. An alternative is to interview a few and send surveys to larger numbers. If the population is extremely vast, the T&D manager may have to sample, even on the survey.

If the issue of training is especially sensitive, or if strong feelings exist about certain programs, then perhaps no survey can measure the depth of the feelings;only interviews can permit that two-way affective exchange. On the other hand,if people are taking training too much for granted, perhaps the "hot"interview medium will rekindle the interest the T&D manager would like to generate.

The issue of time involves at least two facets. There is the time available before the data must be collected and analyzed. There is also the time the data source is willing to invest in supplying the information. No matter which one uses,interviews or surveys, the decision should reflect a genuine concern for the responder. Short is best—so long as it can provide good data on which to base training decisions. Surveys should be as brief as possible, with the time for completion measured in minutes rather than hours. Interviews should be just as long as the interviewer told the interviewee they would last—no longer.

Perhaps the decision table shown in figure below will provide some help in deciding whether to use surveys or interviews in the next data-gathering quest.

decision table

Deciding whether to use surveys or interviews

Regardless of the medium (surveys or interviews), the same questions are useful.

The two most useful questions are probably these:

  1. What are your people doing that they shouldn't be doing?
  2. What aren't your people doing that they should be doing?

These have the value of orienting the responder toward behaviors. They focus on visible behaviors—which are the only kind we can ultimately verify.

Thus these two questions put the entire inquiry into the proper realm: human performance.In addition, they tend to be relatively open, yet relatively specific.

However,most effective surveys and interviews contain a balance between open question sand directive questions.
We have already noted the futility of asking managers to tell us what their training needs are. They don't know. Besides, it's our job to determine training needs.It's their job to identify performance problems, ours to help them solve those problems. Training may be the solution—or it may not.

Another direct question, "What are your problems?" tends to be less than productive for the T&D specialist. The question itself may be too threatening:

Managers probably can't afford to have problems—at least not publicly. Even if they share their problems, the question doesn't focus on human performance.

It's likely to uncover such things as the inadequate plumbing, the deterioration of the community in which the office is located, or the tight labor market.

Client descriptions of performance problems are often a bit cloudy; it's easy for managers to contract a disease called "They Don't Make People the Way They Used To!" However, when asked to do so, managers can usually describe what they would like their subordinates not to be doing. From that theft&D specialist can move to the next question: "What would you like to see them doing that they aren't doing now?" or "Just describe what you see your staff doing when you view the office the day after the new system has been installed." Then when that visioning step is complete, ask,"Now what do you see a week after the installation?"

For the client unskilled in visioning, a format or matrix such as the one shown in Figure below often helps.

format or matrix

Matrix for identifying expectations.

Such formatting brings focus. Of course, there are other ways to help client managers specify what they want; for example, prioritizing exercises, such as there in Figure below.

Matrix for identifying expectations.

Establishing learning goals.

Such lists of skills "prime the pump" and encourage client managers to envision specific behavior rather than make general complaints about the human condition.

Little of that "pump priming" can be a good thing; too much can be harmful. It limits the client manager's responses in several significant ways:

  • A long list deters them from thinking of their own performance problems.
  • A long list limits their creativity.
  • A long list implies that the thinking has already been done by the T&D department.

Although Figure below brings focus by forcing the manager to rank items (as in Figure above),it lists topics only; there is little implication of behavior and no mention whatsoever of standards or criteria. It would be more useful if, instead of topical lists, it listed skills such as "provides for two-way feedback when making assignments" or "voluntarily prepares zero-based budget forecasts for semiannual, annual, and five-year cycles." Nevertheless, as it stands, the format can help acquire data from client managers who are not accustomed to dealing with a training function that uses behavioral statements.

Establishing learning goals.

Getting training priorities from line managers.

By completing such a question, line managers help the T&D director put proper priorities on training objectives and training needs—even as they give helpful data about performance problems.

It's important to include, in any structured question, a place for the responder to include fresh ideas—as the suggestions they may add to the bottom of the list in the "What Training Do You and Your People Need?" forms just examined.

This is just as true of interviews as it is of surveys.

Respondents need a chance to inject their own ideas. On questionnaires, blank lines where they can add items reveal many interesting data. Open questions are excellent ways to involve respondents. For example, the T&D specialist might ask (Mona questionnaire as well as face-to-face) the respondent's opinion about:

  • The chief duties of the T&D department
  • The respondent's own responsibilities for training and development
  • The most significant changes this organization might make to improve it straining and development activity
  • The most significant skills the respondent could acquire with the help of the T&D department
  • The most significant skills the respondent's subordinates could acquire with the help of the T&D department

One big advantage of the interview is its flexibility. When preplanned questions fail to hit pay dirt, or when the unexpected "agendas" of interviewees begin to appear, the interviewer can always move into an "open and reflective question" mode to accommodate and encourage the unanticipated data. When the responder gives extraneous answers, obviously not understanding the question, interviewers can always rephrase and redirect. In other words, a planned interview assumes that interviewer and interviewee alike can follow the structure—yet shift, add, adapt, or delete as the dynamics of the interview require.When the T&D specialists who conduct interviews cannot do so, there is at raining need right in the T&D department, isn't there?

This does not mean that interviews are loosely structured. There should certainly be some forced questions to test the depth of the conviction and to ensure some common basis for comparing data from all interviewees. Any forced choice would serve this need. A parallel to the list of desired learning objectives would be something like this: "Of the seven training programs listed here, assume you could have just one. Which would it be? Which one would you least likely use?" This process can then be repeated, with the same list of programs,by asking the manager to do the same selection—but as if the choices were for subordinates rather than for the manager.


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