Enhance success with five steps to better training

Check work environment first, expert says

By Louis Phillips, EdD
Greenville, SC

Training does not always produce the results you desire. This is question to ask yourself: Is training the culprit, or is something else mitigating the training? Actually, both can be at fault. By following the suggestions discussed below, you can greatly enhance your chances of success.

Analyze problems and issues that exist in the trainees’ work environment.

Having interviewed thousands of employees in preparation for developing training programs, I am always struck by two major points they make. First, they desire to do a good job — to perform well. Second, they are often unable to perform well because of problems in their work environment, such as lack of good and timely information, outmoded equipment, lack of clear procedures, lack of appreciation and recognition, or a lack of feedback.

These environmental conditions over which the trainees have no control are not training problems. They create frustration and motivational problems because they interfere with the individual’s desire to do a good job. Remember Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

The top motivators in the workplace, according to psychologist and author Frederick Herzberg, are a sense of achievement, recognition, and the enjoyment of work. Employees often do not experience these motivators because of environmental problems. When asked to attend training, their willingness to learn is blocked by frustration about things over which they have no control.

They know if factors or conditions blocking their performance were removed, they could perform at a higher level. They feel frustrated because training often is substituted for the more realistic need of cleaning up their work environment. Trainers often hear participants say, "I wish my boss was here to hear this." It’s because their bosses are generally responsible for the environmental conditions that create those frustrations.

The critical first step in any planned training initiative is to identify problems and issues in the work environment that prevent staff from performing their best. If staff are going to be trained on a new system, they should be asked to identify potential problems and issues that might prevent the new system from working effectively. This is usually achieved through a series of focus groups.

Problems should be resolved before or during the training. Corrections not only allow staff to work more effectively; but they also reduce the employee’s resistance to the anticipated training.

Since most problems are under the control of management, removing them is a visible sign to employees that management cares about the outcomes of the training. In fact, resolving these problems and issues can sometimes eliminate the need for training. On the other hand, failure to resolve them can limit or doom the training.

• Spread training out over a period of time.

Hospital administrators often determine when training will begin and how long it will last with little or no input from those responsible for the training or for supervising its results. Consequently, a lot of training is done in a rush so the administration can say, "We’ve got everybody trained." Often, this results in staff being exposed to lots of information but not sufficiently trained to change their behavior. Behavior change comes about slowly. People learn and remember best when they are trained in small chunks (for example, being given limited information at any one time). Staff need time to digest and use those small chunks back on the job before receiving more training. Research on this issue has proven conclusively the benefits of spreading training over time.

• Develop job aids.

Staff do not need to keep all information necessary to their jobs in their heads. Increasingly, we use manuals, disks, tapes, and computers to store information that can be retrieved when needed. Job aids can do the same thing for employees, especially for tasks that are complex or done infrequently. These include checklists, charts, reference materials, flowcharts, and algorithms.

Trainers can have staff develop these job aids as part of their training. Such an activity provides training practice and allows them to personalize job aids to their particular situations. Also, job aids are increasingly being developed on computers to provide performance support.

• Make training relevant and personal.

Every trainee comes with one basic question: "What’s in this for me?"(WITFM). They pay attention, listen, and process only information to which they personally can relate. Training is so often focused on the hospital or patients that it fails to consider the WITFM question of each trainee. A more effective approach is to examine the trainees’ status, including knowledge of their work environments, knowledge and skill levels, attitudes, and desired changes in performance. After all, it’s the trainees’ behavior you are trying to change. Or put another way: "When the boat misses the harbor, it is rarely the fault of the harbor!"

• Practice, practice, practice!

A major reason trainees do not implement in the workplace what they learned in training is a lack of confidence. They simply do not feel they understand their new tasks well enough. When there is doubt, they tend to revert to their old ways of performing. Practice builds confidence. Practice allows trainees to make mistakes, to receive feedback, to be coached and to make corrections until their performance is acceptable. It allows trainees the opportunity to "personalize" their learning — to do what each finds necessary to perform correctly back on the job.

Generally, trainers present too much information to trainees with little or no time for processing or practice. The idea that all possible content must be delivered in hopes the trainees will use it is an outdated notion. The focus instead should be on the "essential" pieces of content and using practice to reinforce that content.

The preceding ways for achieving better training results are based on how employees perceive and process training. Too often, one or all of these suggestions are overlooked, thus creating barriers to learning and performance change. Every training program should begin with an understanding of whose performance the training is designed to change and what is required to change that performance. When training fails to bring about those changes, don’t blame the trainees. Instead, determine why the boat missed the harbor!

[Editor’s note: Phillips has been an adult educator for 32 years. He writes, trains, and demonstrates effective educational practices designed to change performance. He can be reached by calling (864) 268-8822 or e-mail at]