Want to Improve Training ROI? Focus on Application

Training Directors and organizations have a big and very expensive problem.  Over $156 billion was spent on training and development efforts in 2012[1] – yet a stubborn gap persists between what is learned and what is actually applied to generate improved business results.

In 2000 Stanford Professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton published their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action in which they highlight significant knowing-doing gaps in the organizations they studied.  Fastforward to the present day, and we can see this disconnect continues as reflected in various studies including a 2011 evaluation of of 21,000 managers – in that study, which measured their ability to apply management knowledge that they already have, the average score was a mere 32%![2]

What’s Gone Wrong?

If we review the training industry literature, we should not be surprised to see that most of it is focused on the topic of training –how to enhance it, how to adapt it for younger generations, how to utilize technology and so on.  The only problem is that while we are in the business of training, our real objective needs to be to generate new behavior in the workplace to enhance business results – and training is only one part of that equation.

Although training is essential, if we are serious about producing the improved business results we need to stay competitive then we need to look beyond the learning itself.   We can no longer pretend that training, even excellent training will solve vital performance challenges on its own.

Context is King

Think of training as a seed.  No matter how high quality the seed is, it must be planted in the right soil, in the right season and tended to the right way for it to bear fruit.   Seeds also don’t grow overnight, but rather take time to develop.  The context of the planting is as important as the seed itself.

One of the best ways to think about context is to think about the time context and the organizational context around the training.  Too often the focus is only on the individual and the training module they are participating in.   When that’s the case the prospects for application of the training are slim and a huge area of opportunity is simply ignored.

Some Questions to Consider

Sure, it’s easier just to ignore training context, but aligning the training and the context isn’t rocket science.  It just demands that we address a few key questions and try to get specific as possible in answering. The more questions, the better, but to keep it simple for now, let’s keep it to the What, Who, Where, When How and Why.

  • What specifically should the employ be able to do after the training?  What is the new behavior or proficiency they should be able to demonstrate?
  • Who can support them as they develop this new skill?   Is the manager involved?  Is there a coworker that will be taking the training as well?  Is there a coach or mentor available?
  • Where specifically should the new training be applied? Where should the employee look for triggers or cues to apply the new skills in a given work situation?
  • When will the employee practice these skills after the training?  When should the manager look for the new skills to be demonstrated?
  • How will we know that the training was successfully applied?  How will recognize the employee for successfully demonstrating the new skills in the workplace?
  • Why is this skill critical for the employee’s success? Why is it important to the success of the work group or the overall enterprise?

You may want to rephrase these questions or add some of your own, but do try to get specific.   The more specific you get in the context and the application plan, the more likely you’ll see the learning applied.

Low Hanging Fruit

Looking at context is a great way to harvest low hanging fruit in your training effort.  By being mindful of context and asking questions like those listed above, you can go a long way to making sure training gets applied in your organization and that the seeds that you plant in your training efforts grow into better business results.


[1] Timothy Baldwin, Managers’ Knowing Doing Gap.  Academy of Management Leadership   December 2011

[2] ASTD State of the Industry, 2012.   ASTD.   2012



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.