Blog Post

To ensure successful employee training, patience is required

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

Years ago, I watched Dr. Frances Conley — who in 1986 became the first woman to be full professor of surgery at a U.S. medical school — guide a resident as they operated on a patient with a tumor on their spine.

Because Conley let the newly-minted physician do much of the procedure, the operation took longer. And because operating rooms charge for the time they are in use, the longer time drove up the cost of the procedure. Stanford medicine told Conley to have her trainees just watch her, but Conley insisted on training them by having them do the work under her close guidance.

Conley illustrates a trade-off that confronts every organization interested in training and developing its people: Is it worth the time and money to do it right?

People engaged in mastering new skills will not, initially, be as proficient as more experienced employees. And training them is expensive and time-consuming. To avoid these costs of learning, too many workplaces choose to hire experienced outsiders, eschewing the many benefits of internal development even as they pay large fees to recruiters instead of investing in their own people.

Organizations that focus on learning see more dividends than costs over the long term. Research shows a focus on learning creates employees who are loyal, engaged and productive. And to build true learning organizations, organizations have to facilitate settings where people are empowered to learn as they develop proficiency and expertise.

The 3 benefits of learning and skill development

Internal learning and development offers companies several important advantages that justify investment in training activities.

First, when organizations invest in their people, they activate reciprocity: Workers will reciprocate an organization’s commitment toward them by staying at those organizations. One report noted that “94% of employees would stay longer in companies that are willing to invest in their professional development.”

Second, investing in training signals to those being trained that they matter and are important, unleashing the power of positive expectations. People who are expected to do better in fact often perform at a higher level. As Jim Goodnight, the co-founder and CEO of SAS Institute, the largest privately owned software company in the world, famously said, “If you treat your employees like they make a difference, they will.”

Third, to maintain and enhance an organization’s culture, promoting and developing from within upholds a strong organizational culture. Promotion from within also signals to people that they have a good future if they continue their learning and development. Bringing in outsiders signals that people cannot advance and that outsiders are more valued than insiders, leading to turnover due to discouragement and reductions in employee effort. Many strong-culture organizations such as Southwest Airlines, DaVita and Costco emphasize internal promotions as a way of keeping their cultures intact and vibrant.

Why organizations continue to underinvest in training

Of course, training and development also impart the skills that are necessary for a rapidly-changing economy that has constantly evolving technology and competitive challenges.

Nonetheless, the evidence suggests a tendency to underinvest in learning and development. For instance, after peaking in 2017, total training expenditures in the U.S. fell steadily through 2020. Other data paints a similar picture. For instance, one report found that:

  • 50% of companies in the U.S. do not have formal training strategies in place to address the skills gap
  • 41% of HR staff said that the real problem is the lack of resources

Senior executives at organizations frequently ask HR and learning professionals about the return on investment from the training and skill development they sponsor, often before any investment occurs. Yet, there cannot be a return on investment unless the investment happens. Moreover, with insufficient patience to observe effects over time, L&D efforts often rely on participants’ affective reactions to evaluate programs.

However, research from numerous educational settings shows essentially zero correlation between how much people enjoyed the learning experience and how much they learned.

USAA, a large insurance and financial services firm that serves both active and retired military personnel and their family members, had when I visited them, a separate training department not part of HR. And they also had an evaluation process that asked the people the trainees worked with — some six months after the training — how the trainees' activities and performance had changed.

This seems like a much better approach — give the training some time to manifest in actual work, and rely on behavior and performance changes to evaluate the success of the training.

Learning and development take time. Learning new skills is not something that occurs instantaneously. But outside recruiting also takes time, and almost half of external searches fail to find acceptable candidates to hire.

Successful learning and development activities require qualities that seem to be in short supply: A long-term perspective and the patience to work with employees while they master new skills.

A genuine commitment to a learning culture

The best solutions for organizations require them to recognize the many advantages of a robust, long-term learning and development program.

These include strengthening an organization’s culture, ensuring that employees see and value their employers’ investments in them, reducing turnover and most importantly, developing and adapting skills for a changing, competitive environment.

Patience and providing employees the opportunity to learn new things is a necessity for companies to reap the many benefits of learning and development efforts.

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