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Winter 2013
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The Public Manager

Four Decisions That Can Make or Break Training Programs

Those who are responsible for investing large amounts of an agency's precious resources must know the need, include customers at every step, make good choices when sourcing solutions, and know how to measure success.

Budgets
Vital training programs often die on the vine due to lack of money. Today's climate of sequestration and austerity could make failed training programs even more common. The good news is that by making careful choices during planning, design, and program execution, program managers, human resources personnel, and learning professionals can make their training budgets go farther and still get great results.

If money were no object, agencies would offer many training options for every requirement, use only custom-designed training, hire professional instructors, and use only the finest quality training materials. Even if it made business sense, the money-is-no-object approach leads to a price tag that most agencies cannot afford. Going to the other extreme will result in "junk training" that does not deliver the skills and competencies employees need to perform effectively, damages the organization's reputation and credibility, and undermines the ability to deliver effective training in the future.

The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) devised an approach to human capital program development that can be applied to many types of initiatives. When I was head of human resources for DLA, we used the approach to develop our leader development program. It was so effective that supervisors who had not had the opportunity to participate were clamoring to get it. We involved our largest organizations in the process, kept design and delivery costs down, and made certain the program had a "DLA feel." Four key decisions that can be applied to training and human capital programs and many other initiatives ensured the program's success.

Identify Mission-Driven Need

First, we identified a mission-driven need. It is easy to fall into the trap of following the latest trend, supporting someone's pet project, or relying on anecdotal evidence to support key programs. "Easy" may lead to unsuccessful programs that damage the reputation of the organization that creates them. At DLA, we developed our Enterprise Leader Development Program (ELDP) because we had data showing significant leadership shortcomings were directly affecting our workforce.

Numerous leadership-related questions in our employee surveys revealed the need to bolster supervisors' skills. That data, combined with our customer surveys, showed a clear connection between employee perceptions and our customers' views of the agency.

In organizations where employee scores were higher, customer service survey scores were also higher. We used the clear connection between the quality of leadership in the agency and our mission to demonstrate the business basis for the ELDP. We could clearly show why it was needed and the benefits the agency could derive from it. That enabled us to get the resources and top leadership support we needed to build and deploy the program.

Identifying real needs rather than "nice to have" programs is crucial in today's austere environment. Training budgets in particular are among the first targets of cost-cutters. It does not matter if the program is excellent or gets great reviews from participants; programs (particularly proposed or unfinished) that cannot show a clear business or mission case are likely to be reduced or eliminated.

Involve Customers

Second, we involved our customers in every stage of program definition and design. Our development model involved our customers in the design of every major program. Rather than having a group of HR professionals responsible for design, we assembled a team of representatives from every major organization in the agency and gave them ownership of the new program.

A senior HR strategist led each group. In the case of the ELDP, the group laid out the learning objectives, budget, courses, and program evaluation metrics. The team members were responsible for identifying their organization's interests, potential issues, and success criteria. They also carried progress reports back to their organizations, obtained feedback, and brought that feedback to the larger group. The program did not have time to get off track.

In 35 years of human capital work, I have seen good ideas devolve into something that did not resemble the original concept and did not solve real problems. Customer and user participation at the creation keeps the program from straying from its intended purpose, increases buy-in, aids in deployment, and improves the quality of the program in virtually every respect. Having a subject matter expert lead the team ensures customer ideas do not stray far from what is doable.

Mix Off-the-Shelf and Custom Content

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Third, we used a mix of off-the-shelf and custom-designed content to meet the learning objectives and keep costs down. Although most of us would probably prefer custom solutions for every program, the reality is that the cost of larger scale programs may make that impractical. For DLA's ELDP, we found an existing Army program that met the requirements for critical parts of our learning objectives. We used the Army content and also provided our own DLA employees as instructors to eliminate the additional cost.

We provided instructor training where needed. Although the agency lost some productivity during the time participants were conducting training, it benefitted from the cost savings and instructors who actually understood the agency's mission, customers, and workforce.

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We developed custom solutions for some aspects of the program in which it was necessary to meet agency-specific requirements and to ensure we addressed all of our learning objectives with the quality of learning experience we wanted.

Because we knew professional coaching could provide significant benefits, we contracted with a firm to provide it for all participants, and also included peer coaching to reduce costs, enhance the skills of the participating employees, and build a sense of camaraderie among the participants.

Finally, we included high-quality, completely off-the-shelf content. The combination of in-house, custom-designed, and off-the-shelf components produced a program that met all of our requirements in a cost-effective way. If we had done custom solutions for everything, we would not have had the resources to deliver the program to the number of students we ultimately reached.

Measure Program Effectiveness

Fourth, we established and used clear measures to determine the effectiveness of the program. Training and other human capital programs (and most other programs) can benefit tremendously from pre-determined metrics.

When an organization follows these four steps to develop a program, it will already have a clearly defined objective. Identifying measures for program success is usually not difficult, but it is often not done. There are many reasons people will give, including fear of failure, unwillingness to spend money measuring a program that is already done, and belief that formal metrics are not really necessary.

People who are able to realistically assess their own program effectiveness are more credible than those who are not. If they can show a clear benefit of the program, they are more likely to be successful in obtaining money for other programs. For training, whether you use the Kirkpatrick four-level evaluation model or another methodology, there are ways to demonstrate the effectiveness of the training.

At DLA, we used an existing multi-source feedback instrument to assess supervisors prior to and following completion of the ELDP. It showed a clear and significant increase in supervisory effectiveness. We also surveyed participants and maintained the ELDP working group for many years to keep the program current and ensure it continued to meet the agency's evolving needs.

Effects on the Budget Process

These four key decisions do not require special program management professional certification, nor do they need program managers with formal training. They simply ask that those who are responsible for investing large amounts of an agency's precious resources ensure they know the need, include customers at every step along the way, make good choices when sourcing solutions, and know how they are going to measure success. Any good manager can follow these steps to greatly enhance their likelihood of success.

One last consideration is the effect these decisions may have on the budget process. After 25 years as a manager, and 13 years as a member of the Senior Executive Service, including two as a political appointee, I found budget gamesmanship maddening. Those who play the game will tell you when you want a dollar, ask for two so you can give up one in the negotiating process. That may work for some folks, but there is another tactic I have found even more effective and I recommend it to everyone: Tell the truth. Truth is a surprisingly effective tool that doesn't require any special training or skills.

When building a relationship with the chief financial officer (CFO) or other money manager in your organization, have a frank discussion about the budget game and your preference for honesty. Then follow through with it. I did that for 13 years and came close to getting burned only once (and not by the CFO). Even if I had been burned, I would have the satisfaction of preserving my integrity.

CFOs are as sick of the game as everyone else. They would love to have a real understanding of what their organizations truly need and not have to guess about how big the fudge factor is. The four decisions I laid out will put you in the position to have honest discussions about funding and have the credibility to do it.

About the Author

Jeffrey Neal is senior vice president of Organizational Research, Learning & Performance for ICF International. He is former chief human capital officer for the Department of Homeland Security and publisher of ChiefHRO.com. Contact him at jeffrey.neal@icfi.com.

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