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Heather Townsend

Excedia Group


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Talking Point: Why is HR still looking for training silver bullets?


The happy sheet – or, to give it its proper title, the ‘post-course evaluation form’ – has been part of the trainer’s toolbox for years.

The problem is that they tend to offer little or no value in the long-run – not because of the feedback itself, but because of the lack of bearing that they have on whether someone will make any change after being on the course to which they relate.
The key concern in this context is whether the training provided made any discernable or measurable impact on the individual’s long-term behaviour, attitude and knowledge– certainly not whether they enjoyed the coffee and biscuits or not…
This is particularly true of workshops that are intended to foster softer skills such as leadership development.
When someone is sent – or asks to go on a training course – the key goal is generally to effect sustainable behavioural or skill-based change.
But how often do you actually measure such change? Or are you and your training department assessed instead on the number of people that bother to turn up and the ratings that are given to individual trainers immediately post-event?
Silver bullet?
When I worked as a training project manager for Tesco, I was required to write a business case showing the expected organisational impact of all of our workshops. But I’ve not been asked to do so since.
Unsurprisingly then, retired professional ice hockey player and coach, Brent Peterson, found that 85% of the cost of a training course is based around what happens in the classroom, while only 10% is about preparation and a mere 5% about follow-up.
Unfortunately, however, as researchers Bersin & Associates discovered, 70% of an individual’s learning takes place on the job AFTER the training has finished, while a mere 10% actually happens in the classroom.
But have you ever asked your trainers how they intend to support your learners once the classroom session is over? Do you ask for line managers to be sent suitable materials so that they can help learners get the most from the experience on their return? 
Or do you subscribe to the myth that training is a silver bullet, which means that you can send everyone, even your problem children, off for help and they will all come back fixed and ready to go?
It is in this context that blended learning fits in. According to research by Robert Brinkerhoff, a professor at Western Michigan University and expert in evaluation and training effectiveness:
  • Less than 15% of attendees on a training course will implement their learning
  • More than 70% will try to implement it but give up because it becomes too hard
  • More than 15% of learners will do nothing as a result of attending a training course.
Blended learning
This clearly means that, if you leave attendees to their own devices and ‘trust’ that their line managers will support their further learning after the workshop, the return on investment that you gain will be woeful.
You will, however, still get a ‘tick’ in the box to show that the training course was provided as required and, because the trainer will hopefully receive a good happy sheet score, the course will be deemed to have been a success.
But a blended learning approach can help to compensate for such ineffectual learner support following a workshop. In other words, if you spend some time working out how to ensure that learners will receive subsequent support, you are much more likely to obtain a positive ROI.
And blended learning approaches don’t need to be expensive if you:
  • Encourage learners to buddy up and support each other in achieving their learning objectives
  • Divide classroom time into separate modules and get attendees to undertake field work in between each one
  • Get learners to work on a project together after the course, which will help them to use any skills that they have learnt
  • Set up action learning groups after the course to ensure that each participant makes the others accountable for what they have pledged to do.
So go on: take the initiative. Ensure that you understand the drivers behind your organisation’s training needs, make certain that courses are designed to truly meet them and put the necessary mechanisms in place to measure and maximise the learning of your attendees post-event. Bingo.

Heather Townsend is director of career coaching consultancy Excedia Group, author of ‘The FT Guide to Business Networking‘ and co-author of ‘How to make partner and still have a life‘.

2 Responses

  1. Good comment

     Thanks for your good comment, which shows up the realities of providing learning, training and development in the workplace today. 

    Trying to make sure that courses are fully utilised, and getting them put on at the right time, always means that it is normally the wrong time for someone to do a course. 

    As a generalisation, my view is that until we invest in the line manager’s skills and responsibilities to help their direct reports learn more on the job, then we are going to struggle with ROI for learning interventions. 

  2. There are a number of inherent problems with training courses

    A regular problem we face is having to wait for a course to become available in the subject required.  It can often feel quite insulting to be sent on a training course to do a job you’ve actually already been doing for 3 months.  Then we often have to ensure that we have sufficient numbers to make the course viable.  If a course requires 10 people, but we only have 5 who need the training now, do we make them wait, do we send 5 extra to make up the numbers, or do we pay for a 10-person course, but only send 5, and risk that some of the exercises will fall flat due to insufficient numbers?

    Measuring the success of training can be difficult to nigh-on impossible.  If a programmer goes on a course to learn about macros, and comes back being able to use macros well and efficiently, that’s great – job done.  If she comes back and still can’t use macros, then is she at fault for not learning, or was the course not taught correctly for her ability range?  Was the trainer bad, or (sometimes worse), really good?  I’ve been on at least one course where the trainer was clearly brilliant.  Unfortunately, that meant they just thrashed ahead, whizzed through examples and expected students to keep up.  Not everybody did.  You can be an expert in your field, and yet lack the skills to pass that knowledge on to others.

    Worse are the soft skills.  I went on a course entitled ‘Handling Difficult Situations’, which featured lots of excellent ideas and advice, tips and techniques.  The exercises and role-plays were imaginative and original.  I learned a huge amount.  That was 6 months ago.  If my manager asks me what I’ve done differently as a result of being on that course, the answer will be ‘Nothing.’  Not because I didn’t learn anything but because I work in a team of motivated and engaged people where difficult situations don’t arise all that often.  If/when they do, I’ll feel a lot more confident about dealing with them.  Was the training a waste?  Certainly not.  Will my manager think so?  Almost certainly.

    Not all success can be measured in the next 5 minutes, and some just can’t be measured at all.

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Heather Townsend


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