Is Your Employee Development Actually Working?

By Plum

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Take a Talent-Based Approach to Professional Development


Organizations are increasingly putting money into employee training efforts. In the U.S., among companies and educational institutions with 100 or more employees, spending on external training products and services increased 32.5% in 2017 to $90.6 billion.

Overall, on average, companies spent $1,075 per learner last year compared to $814 per learner in 2016, according to the 2017 Training Industry Report.

Your organization may be allotting a lot of resources to employee development because you need to maintain market standing, enhance employee engagement, and increase productivity. But have you stopped to calculate the ROI on your employee development investment? In other words, how do you know your employee development is actually working to meet those goals? 

In this two-part blog series on professional development, we'll begin by looking at why industry and academic publications question the efficacy of individual and organizational development efforts. Once you understand the challenges, we'll dig into how to make sure your employee development is actually working.

Questioning Employee Development’s Efficacy

One 2013 study identified the possible negative influence of pre-training motivation (or lack thereof) on development efforts. Another addressed the need for careful learning and goal orientation. Development initiatives can work, but they require “sufficient front-end analysis” (Collins & Holton, 2004) to ensure the right knowledge and skills are being offered to the right people. In the coaching context, coachees may have fewer positive outcomes if they “set too difficult goals, devote less time to accomplish them or have low pre-coaching motivation.”

Additionally, professional development is less effective when seen as a single-stage process. What an individual learns from attending a lecture or workshop, for instance, needs to be contextualized within their daily efforts on the job. Employees may leave a development experience inspired, yet they can’t actually implement or apply what they learned in their day-to-day because of organizational barriers.

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled, “Why Leadership Training Fails,” a trio of researchers noted, “only one in four senior managers report that training was critical to business outcomes.” They further offered the anecdote of a manufacturer investing $20 million for a state-of-the-art center for safety training yet still suffering multiple fatalities at its operating plants. After all, the “seeds” of a developmental intervention can only take root in the right climate and environment.

Strengths-based training has also been scrutinized. While Gallup’s StrengthsFinder is now used by 1.6 million employees every year and 467 Fortune 500 companies, a Harvard Business Review article notes: there are no scientific studies backing this approach. Plus, focusing on strengths can foster a false sense of competence. At the same time this “everybody is talented in their own way” approach leads to expending resources on lower-performers (when the top 20% are responsible for 80% of revenue, profits, or productivity, per the Pareto Principle).

Leadership development, too, has had its time under the critical lens. Another Harvard Business Review researcher noted, “the vast majority of leadership programs are set curricula delivered through classroom-taught, rationally based, individual-focused methods.” However, this type of development isn’t suited to cultivate “intuitive, dynamic, collaborative, and grounded in here-and-now emotional intelligence.”

Suggestions to address these shortfalls include setting clear objectives, identifying the people who will benefit most from development initiatives, and making the learning experiential. Further, the literature calls for more focus on “being” rather than “doing.”

So, with all of these possible pitfalls to your employees’ professional development, how can you ensure the opportunities you are offering your people are making a positive impact?

Focus Development on Talents vs. Skills

Many professional development programs require a rejig. Too many organizations focus their development efforts on hard skills. Yet “upskilling” the employees doesn’t encourage people to think or behave differently. Nor does this approach help individuals to influence the interacting systems at play in their working environments.

Put simply, the individual who is trained to do new and exciting things with the company’s customer relationship management platform may gain the ability to streamline his or her work process. However, if this individual’s talent for communication or creative problem-solving remain undeveloped, he or she could still face obstacles if the rest of the team is resistant.

A talent-based approach helps address these concerns. Going beyond baseline goals, this approach to professional growth considers the individual’s pre-existing attributes and what he or she can learn to improve on those characteristics.

Looking at each employee individually to determine areas he or she can develop and identify strengths linked to his or her own tasks and responsibilities can provide a foundation for more sustainable development. This is less about getting the latest certification and more focused on leveraging opportunities to stretch and challenge employees in a context that will really resonate.

In tweaking your employee development plans to embrace a talent focus, remember also that effective development rests on a willingness and ability to change. As an HR or TA professional, you already recognize the challenges of supporting and sustaining change. Conflicting priorities, poor communication, lack of coordination, and/or a culture that feels unsafe to suggest new approaches can each hinder development. Perhaps instead of sending your teams to a workshop on the latest, greatest iteration of a software used, you might offer development opportunities that foster a more open culture and facilitate your people’s talents for honest conversations and collaboration.

In our continued effort to find ways to make professional development truly matter, we’ll expand next on providing effective feedback to enable real returns on investment in employees.