Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, July 28, 2006

People management in professional services - a training primer 2

Nice email from Bruce MacEwen to say that he liked the last post, People management in professional services - a training primer 1. Just to summarise the core arguments put in that post.

I made three key points:

  1. At organisational level, training should be thought of as the process by which staff acquired the knowledge and skills they needed as they needed them. Attendance at a few continuing professional development seminars or individual short courses was not training in the way I was defining the term, but instead should be thought of simply as training activities.
  2. It seemed clear that the great majority of knowledge and skills acquisition- probably well over 90 per cent in most organisations, 100 per cent in some - was informal and took place on the job.
  3. Training could offer significant economic pay-backs if, but only if,the training process focused on and integrated total learning within the firm, including informal learning.

I now want to extend my argument by focusing on other elements in the training process of practical relevance to professional services firms.

Different Training Types

One core difficulty with training as a process and a key reason why training fails is that it can involve a mix of outcomes each requiring a different approach. Mix them together and you can get a mess!

I need to clarify just what I mean by the word outcomes. In the current context, I am not talking about the results from specific training activities, but am instead applying the term to broad generic training categories.

I will describe these in a moment. From a practical management perspective, the key point is that both managers and individual professionals can use them to help make judgements about training. Further, you do not need to be a training expert to do so!

The key training outcome categories I am talking about are:

  • knowledge -how & what to do
  • skills - the capacity to do
  • judgement - when to do
  • and attitude - willingness to do.

Individual elements in this mix are better suited to different training modes.

Knowledge, for example, can be acquired via self-study with the acquisition measured through oral or written test. This allows for a variety of delivery modes including eLearning.

This is also an area where the new computing and communications technologies and especially the internet are steadily undercutting training's traditional role as a supplier of knowledge by giving people the ability to access information when they need it. This makes the firm's information systems an adjunct to the training process.

By contrast, skills acquisition requires practice, practice that may need to continue after the formal training has been completed if the skill is to be really internalised. Certain types of skills may be capable of being taught, practiced and measured via simulators. Others, the softer management or communications skills are an example, require direct oversight and group interaction.

Judgement takes skills acquisition one stage further and can only be acquired through experience, including observation of others.

We can now see why on the job training is so important, why 90 per cent plus of knowledge, skills and judgement formation takes place as a natural by-product of work. Only while working can you acquire the firm and environment specific information you need and the actual practice required to build knowledge and skills. "Formal" training can supplement, not substitute.

The final training outcome category, attitude, is actually a slippery one because so many things combine to create attitude. I have no doubt that training can be valuable in giving people information on the attitude to be adopted in regard to specific clearly defined things. However, the use of training to achieve broader attitudinal change is, I think, very uncertain.

Competency Based Approaches

The terms competency and competency based approaches have become very fashionable in Commonwealth and European countries, much less so in the United States.

While we have problems with their rigid and formalised application in the vocational education and training arena, they do provide a critical building block in the training process because they provide a bridge between the definition of the need to be met one one side, the training approach to be adopted on the other.

Let's start with a very simple definition.

Competence means no more than a person has the knowledge, skills, judgement and attitude required to carry out a task or set of tasks to a required standard. So when we talk about competency based approaches we are talking about the required standard on one side, what is needed to achieve the standard on the other. Once this has been defined, then it becomes easier to identify performance gaps and to take corrective action.

In practice, the whole process can be quite hard because it may require different ways of looking at work. For example, it means putting aside activity lists - and a remarkable number of people think of a position in terms of a long list of activities that have to be carried out to do the job - to focus instead on the core features of the job. What are they, how do we measure them, what are the key inputs required for success?

Some firms have already adopted this approach. For those that haven't, getting started need not be too complex. You can look at the problem in terms of specific positions. Alternatively, you can focus on classes of activities. You won't get it right the first time. Rather, we are talking about a process that can be refined over time.

Individual vs Organisational Needs

An interesting thread in the current global debate on the future of training relevant to our current discussion is the potential conflict between individual and organisational needs. Many training and development professionals in particular argue that much training failed because it failed to meet the needs of individual participants in the training.

The real position is far more complex since, from our experience, there are three sets of needs that have to be taken into account if corporate training is to be effective:

  • the organisational needs (objectives) of the organisation
  • the needs of the trainees' work area or areas
  • individual trainee needs.

The problem is that these needs can conflict. For example, an organisation wide program to upgrade general management or marketing skills may fail because of resistances at workplace and individual level. These conflicts need to be identified and managed as part of the overall training activity.

Of importance here is what we see as fundamental shift in developed countries in people's attitudes to work itself, a shift that has had a direct impact on individual approaches to training.

The end of life long employment together with constant corporate restructuring has forced individuals to change their attitudes to work. Whereas they were previously prepared to consider things that would aid their career within the individual organisation, people's focus has now shifted to things that will assist their career beyond the organisation.

This has had a significant impact on individual attitudes to training. People are simply less willing to do training unless there is a definable individual payback. Will it give me a marketable skill? How will it look on my CV? Will it build my network, give me new contacts? These changing attitudes need to be taken into account in the design of training activities.

I will finish this post here, completing this discussion on the training process in my next post. I will then turn to discuss the people chain, starting with induction.


Dave Lee said...

The WIIFM (What's in it for me?) has been well entrenched in the US business environment for quite some time now. Employees will often do just about anything to avoid company sponsored because a perceived lack of value to the individual. I'm a bit surprised that it seems to be, from your post, a new trait amongst Australians.

The solution to employee apathy isn't found in making the training more specific to the individual desires of employees. Rather will be found in demonstrating to employees that the targeted increase in knowledge, skills and/or abilities is vital to the company's strategic goals and thus requisite of their position.

Having an understanding of the relevance of one's work (positive) and potential termination or being overlooked for a promotion (negative) are strong motivators.

Jim Belshaw said...

I was pleased to see this post from Dave Lee. For those who do not know Dave he is one of the moderators on the US Learning Circuits blog - - a key e-learning blog. He also has an interesting personal blog - - that contains a range of interesting material.

Dave, I will pick your points up in a new post.