Training Is Not An Objective

Training Is Not An Objective
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Summary: We all want to create quality learning, but without clearly defined goals from the business, we run the risk of developing learning scrap. Use the following questions to guide your conversations with your clients to set clear business markers at the start of your learning initiative.

Business Goals Through The Lens Of Learning

Maybe you’ve been here before; you get a last-minute call from a panicked manager who is looking at the performance of their team and is desperate to do something. “We need to train our people,” they say. “We need to build a program.” You immediately get caught up in crafting an excellent learning event that’s built on sound pedagogy and learning principles. Both you and the manager feel elated by your work and ready to deploy—you’re happy, your client is happy, and your learners seem to love it. But when it’s time to revisit the results, you find out they are far short of the breakthrough you intended. What happened?

As lifelong learners and corporate educators, it is sometimes easy for us to forget that learning is part of our business. We make every effort to make the learning engaging and important, but too often, we skip past the first step where we need to flex our business acumen. While it is important to design educationally sound experiences for our people, it is only when we link that learning to the business objectives that the Learning and Development team and other business units can become strategic partners.

Managers Don’t Care About Training

Well, managers do care about training but only so far as it helps their people perform. To managers, training is a means to an end, one more tool in their belt to get their people to know/act/do differently. But not every tool is right for every job—you can use a hammer to cut through a piece of wood, but it won’t be very effective or easy. In the same way, you can give your managers the most researched, beautiful learning suite anyone has ever intended, but if it does not move the needle in a meaningful way, it will still be a “failure.”

This is why it is absolutely imperative that you define the business outcomes before taking any steps to create a learning experience. First, you need to determine what sort of training will work best (if any training at all). When a manager comes to you saying, “We need to train our people,” they are really saying, “I am noticing a performance issue.” The solution might, in fact, be learning, but without doing your due diligence to ensure that training will meet the business objectives, you are building without direction.

Training Is A Method, Not An Outcome

At the end of the day, it’s all about performance—it is the consequences of the training and its worth to the company. Business leaders expect you, their learning professional, to help them meet their business objectives, and their investment in learning needs to pay returns. “We need a program” is not a sufficient reason to create one.

Focus on business outcomes rather than the output of training. Assure your business partner that you can help by defining their business needs and getting them the intervention they need. This may sound like we’re talking ourselves out of a job, but by not jumping at every opportunity, you avoid wasting time on feel-good initiatives and free yourself to develop more effective interventions. In doing so, you frame yourself as a strategic partner that managers can come back to time and again.

Defining Business Outcomes

Take a step back with your colleague and truly start at the beginning. Rather than meeting them with the solution they think they need, go back to step one and understand how the desire for learning is manifesting in the business. Use these prompts from The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning [1] to position yourself and your learning team as strategic partners:

1. What Business Needs Will Be Met

Shift the focus away from any sort of solution (training or otherwise) and explore the underlying business drivers. Knowing this, you’ll be better able to link a learning objective to a direct business need. What is the real opportunity behind the request for training? If the training is successful, what will be the benefit to the organization?

2. What Participants Will Do Differently And Better

Learning has no value if there is no change to performance and no shift in the vital behaviors or actions needed to achieve the desired result. If learning is going to be used to achieve a new result, you need to know the behaviors that are required and design backward from there to achieve them. How are people going to perform their jobs after they take the training? What do better performers do that lesser performers don’t?

3. What Or Who Can Confirm These Changes

Start a dialogue about how to evaluate if the initiative is producing the desired outcome. A successful change will be defined by your customer, not by the training department. Define your markers of value at the inception of the project since the definition of success affects everything else. How can we be sure this initiative will produce the desired results? Who will notice the changes first, and what will they see?

4. What The Specific Criteria Of Success Are

Rather than looking at what could be measured, now ask about what should be measured. If the previous question was to generate buy-in, now you want to get into the specifics of what matters most to the client. What are the critical few markers of success? What would you consider credible evidence of the performance shift outlined?

Don’t Develop Training, Improve Performance

Partnering with the business to understand its objectives is the only way to meet the desired outcomes through the lens of learning. By collaborating with stakeholders to define the criteria of success and the rationale for the program, you are able to effectively prioritize efforts and make the greatest impact on your business with the highest probability of success. Get away from developing products and start uncovering solutions.


[1] Pollock, Roy V. H., Jefferson, Andrew McK., and Wick, Calhoun W. (2006). The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.