It’s Time for Training to Talk to The Business

A critical lesson from the Training 2016 Conference: Connecting business results to the efforts of training has not always been the easiest to do—but clear communication between Training and “the business” make it a whole lot easier.

I recently pored over the notes I took and the interviews I conducted with several speakers at last week’s Training 2016 Conference in Orlando in the hopes of finding some commonality between all the sessions I attended, or an unspoken theme for the week as a whole. And suddenly, it hit me.

Whether you’re talking about in-person training, Webinars, self-paced, micro-learning, or any other virtual or e-learning course—there might not be a more collaborative experience out there. Training instructors love to share their experiences and recommendations of the latest technologies, ways to engage and interact with their students, strategies for collecting feedback, and every other tip for creating memorable experiences in physical and virtual classrooms alike.

But I wonder how much collaboration is extended to those outside of the classroom, and if it was, would “the business” see training in a new light?

Proving ROI

I started to ponder this as I recalled the stark differences between the sessions led by those with teaching backgrounds and those with an MBA or background in finance. This went beyond an obvious difference in topic and message; it extended to the entire feeling in each room. While sessions led by the former resulted in attendees excited to try out new tricks in their own classes, the latter often resulted in many in the room knowing it was time to have some serious, or even dreaded, conversations around ROI.

I counted nearly 10 sessions in the week’s agenda that dealt with “measuring,” “maximizing,” “going beyond,” and ultimately “proving” ROI, which means that this is an area many in training likely struggle with. But the good news is that while proving ROI may sound like the most daunting task, by opening up that line of communication—early—with the business and/or whoever signs checks and approves budgets, you’ll be able to establish an agreed-upon ROI, set better expectations, and provide metrics that matter in the end.

Ajay Pangarkar gave a brutally honest session that really got me thinking about this disconnect between training and business, and how we can start to bridge that gap. Coming from a background in finance (Ajay’s a CPA, CMA, and CTDP), Ajay talked about how one of the first problems is that the term, ROI, means different things to different people. If you as a Training professional are promising ROI to business leaders who immediately equate that to financial gains—while you meant happier employees—that’s a serious issue.

I also don’t have a background in training (mine is in marketing), which, Ajay pointed out, is a cost center, just like training. We hear all the time about ways to make management stop looking at training as a cost center, but that might not be realistic, or even necessary.

It’s not easy, or sometimes possible at all, to tie certain training or marketing efforts to an increase in sales revenue or widgets sold, but there are several other benchmarks that training absolutely can take the credit for. The key is knowing what the word, “investment,” means to the business leaders within your organization, and if you can’t tie training to an increase in revenue, prove where your efforts have done something equally impressive—helped the business reduce costs. Maybe you’ve helped with employee retention, or the time it takes to resolve support tickets, or decreased hardware shipping costs by shifting to virtual training—find out what the business expects of you, come to an agreement on what it should expect of you, and provide a level of training that reaches and exceeds those expectations.

Exceeding Expectations

So how do you exceed the lofty expectations you likely just agreed to? There are plenty of Websites with free virtual games and prize downloads, and other ways to make your classes less ignorable and forgettable, but I wouldn’t say these really “maximize” or “go beyond” helping you prove ROI. Doing that requires a much more holistic approach, and deeper levels of personalization and emotional effort.

“Maximizing the Employee Experience with Moments of Impact” was Training 2106’s highlight for me, personally, as presenters Laura Solomon and Peter Mostachetti, both from IBM, provided an inspiring look at how and why IBM’s business leaders, and Training professionals both value training so highly.

IBM’s motto around this belief is, “Engaged employees drive the client experience—and that, in turn, drives business results.” And this is true. As I mentioned earlier, connecting business results to the efforts of training has not always been the easiest to do—but clear communication between Training and the business make it a whole lot easier.

Laura and Peter shared a brilliant three-step approach to this challenge that they use at IBM:

  1. Identify the results you need to achieve: This is the conversation that Training has with the business; you’re establishing these together. While this session in particular dealt with management training (IBM has 37,000 managers!), this is applicable to training for new hires, new product/feature rollouts, compliance, or any other training you’re responsible for providing. Make sure you know exactly what “investment” means to the business, before you promise to return one.
  2. Develop learning solutions to drive these results: Take a look at your existing learning solutions. Are they best suited for the results you’re expected to deliver? If not, how can you change that? Are you trying to train more people? Are you trying to extend your training globally? Have you been asked to deliver results you achieved previously but with a smaller budget? These are common challenges in the industry today, and there are modernized approaches and tools that should be considered if your previous training delivery can’t meet the current demands of the business.
  3. Collect relevant data to show meaningful impact: This was my favorite part of Laura and Peter’s session as they described how “getting creative with the data” doesn’t mean fabricating it; it means perhaps looking in new areas for proof of the impact of your efforts. Walking into a retrospective with little more than, “We didn’t see any increase in the sale of our product,” hopefully sells yourself far too short. Are there areas where you can prove greater productivity? Can more customer complaints now be resolved before they’re escalated to costlier levels of support? Are fewer employees leaving for your competition? Is there an increase in referrals, not simply for the bonus potential, but because your employees are thrilled with the opportunity for career growth that your classes provide to them?

Providing excellent training isn’t a new concept. The methods for accomplishing this may have changed with consumerization and the rising expectation of on-demand and self-paced access to training, but trainers themselves still have the same goal of creating a memorable student experience. It’s simply time for trainers to create additional “moments of impact” for themselves—and for the business—not just after school is over, but before your earliest class ever begins.

Noel Wurst is managing editor at Skytap, where he is responsible for setting and executing Skytap’s content marketing strategy. That includes overseeing the creation and distribution of high-quality, targeted content, and managing the team and external resources associated with those efforts. By leveraging deep online marketing, project management, and editorial experience, Wurst plays a crucial role in helping generate and nurture leads with compelling content. Follow Noel on Twitter, @NoelWurst, along with Skytap, @Skytap.