What's Your 'Training Groundhog'?

In 2011, Punxsutawney Phil celebrated the 125th Anniversary of Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA.  On February 2nd, he emerged from his burrow and (according to folklore) predicted the arrival of spring.  According to the official rules of Groundhog’s Day, if he sees his shadow, there will be 6 more weeks of winter.  If, however, he does not see his shadow, we are in for an early spring.

Giving Phil the benefit of the doubt and assuming his prediction is correct, one must admire the precision of outcome metrics: Shadow = 6 weeks. No shadow = Less than 6 weeks. Clear, straightforward, easy to use.

Phil’s system got me thinking about the metrics (and lack thereof) often associated with training initiatives. Too often, organizations implement a training program with no clear plan for identifying actual outcomes and ensuring the ROI of the investment.

In many cases, a 1-page evaluation form distributed at the completion of the training is the only information available to help determine if the program was a success, identify means of building upon knowledge gained, and decide whether the content is worth repeating with future groups of participants. The problem with that, of course, is that a 1-page form distributed immediately upon the conclusion of the program doesn’t cast a very large “shadow” for prognostication purposes!

So what are some options for gathering better information?

  • Measure Direct Outcomes: Organizations can administer tests to identify pre- and post-program levels of proficiency on specific skills. You can track direct outcomes such as increases in sales volume or decreases in customer complaints. You can measure productivity levels pre-program, immediately after, and then in 30- or 60-day increments after that. Identify the key skills to be taught, map those skills to a handful of expected organizational outcomes, and track.
  • Track Workflow and Productivity: Many process-oriented organizations have the ability to track employee productivity and efficiency with relative ease. Items such as number of calls handled per hour or number of interactions required to resolve a client complaint are straightforward and easy to track. If your organization provides training directly aimed at improving efficiency, it makes sense to take a baseline and track the results following the program.
  • Survey Your Employees: Following a training program, an employee evaluation provides immediate feedback; for information regarding the efficiency of the program, you’ll need to gather information again once they’ve had a chance to practice and implement the skills learned. Asking for both quantitative and qualitative feedback 30 days after the program will help you understand what they’ve retained and what skills they are actually using. You can also ask managers and team leads for observations regarding performance in the wake of a development opportunity.
  • Target Customer Satisfaction: “Customer” can be defined in a number of ways for metrics purposes. Your learning organization may track satisfaction of workshop participants as direct customers. You may identify internal customers supported by the participants of a particular program and conduct pre- and post-evaluations of performance as judged by those internal clients. You may identify ways in which a training program should directly impact external customers and solicit feedback from them as well.

Metrics aren’t the end-all, be-all, of course. As Albert Einstein famously noted, “Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts.” A complex spreadsheet doesn’t guarantee improved ROI on employee development. And a simple system doesn’t guarantee results, either, if you can’t influence the outcome—Punxsutawney Phil may be right, but those of us who wish for an earlier spring don’t have much hope of increasing the chances of a cloudy day to influence whether or not he sees his shadow.

That said, identifying a handful of key indicators of training effectiveness can help you plan, administer, and build upon the training programs you implement. So the question, then, is: What’s YOUR “training groundhog”?