Talent gaps are challenging U.S. employers across virtually all industries, and the job of training and upskilling workers has become an integral part of helping businesses adapt. Millions of dollars are being shifted to learning and development programming, but if that programming isn't effective, all the resources and energy may be for naught.
An effective learning and development program addresses the needs of today but also those of the future. It focuses on the skills and proficiencies employees must have to perform their work effectively on a daily basis. But beyond that, it plans for the relatively unforeseeable: where will the digital revolution take businesses and workers? How can employers prep them for whatever arises? HR Dive asked three experts in the field for their tips on creating an effective L&D program for today and tomorrow.
#1: Identify needs
More than just looking at procedure and use, look for areas that can benefit from improvement. It's easy to recognize new hires will need to learn how to use equipment and existing employees will need training for updates. But where are the unseen needs? Say an employer's recruitment efforts are not meeting target goals; with talent shortages and low unemployment, it's easy to blame market conditions for underperformance. But there may be areas for improvement on the recruiter side, like training on interviewing skills or on closing a candidate offer. Don't accept the obvious — identify needs in all areas to stay competitive.
#2: Know your audience
L&D programs are only strong if they speak to those who benefit from them, Christine Kensey, director of training at Phenom People, said in an email to HR Dive. "Know your audience. Ask them what they want to learn more about," she said, "and understand the gaps in their knowledge. The better you can craft your content and messaging to their needs, the better it will resonate."
#3: Define achievable goals
Unachievable goals demotivate, putting employees in a "doomed to failure" environment that will not only fail to produce results, but also discourage them from future growth opportunities. Goals must be achievable in a relatively quick timeframe, and should spark an employee to seek more similar opportunities.
"Define what success should look like," said Kensey, "and then measure baselines as you progress. Don't just measure skills, look for behavior changes and improvements."
#4: Understand how they learn
Traditional classroom training sessions may have their place in the business world, but they won't fit the bill for most learning "Make the learning process fun," Kensey said. "Pay attention to the adult learning process. Be attentive to how they are evolving in your program and get their feedback so you can make adjustments as needed."
Employers can make an effort to know the audiences they're looking to teach. "Thinking about the level of understanding, and who needs to understand what, can help you create audience-specific curated L&D programs," Koreen Pagano, vice president of corporate product management at D2L, told HR Dive in an email.
#5: Keep it evolving
Training is never a one-and-done prospect; constant curation is required to assess who's using the training, whether they're responding to it positively, whether they're moving on to the next phase and — perhaps more importantly — who isn't and why.
"Content curation is a broad term," said Pagano, "which means different things depending on organization size and structure." She suggests it's all about finding appropriate resources within and outside your internal training library. For companies that have invested in L&D programs for decades, "curation becomes about critically assessing what they already have to identify the most impactful or effective content," Pagano added.
#6: Get managers involved
Front-line managers know what needs to be learned how, by whom and when. Involving them in the planning stages is critical to delivering relevant, timely and effective content, Pagano said: "The best L&D programs are designed with specific business goals and team-level goals in mind."
"The people who are setting business goals should be involved," Nausheen Farishta, learning and development manager at Walker Sands, told HR Dive in an email, "as the L&D program will ideally align with helping employees fulfill these goals." She suggested pulling together a steering committee of representatives at different roles and levels to provide input with a broad sample of end users in mind.
#7: Variety is the spice
Pull from as many resources and types of learning as possible to provide a variety of learning for a variety of learners. Internal subject matter experts can offer valuable insight, said Farishta: "See who has expertise they can lend to the rest of the company, and where your employees could benefit from outside help." Industry trends are a great way to curate content, she added. Employees need to stay up-to-date on the latest trends to better support customers.
"Make all of your content easily accessible and differentiate it for different learning styles: auditory, visual, linguistic, kinesthetic, etc.," Kensey said.
#8: Up and downstream
"The most successful L&D programs are supported and endorsed by senior execs," Pagano said. "If these executives understand and embrace the value of learning, it helps programs take hold and strengthens the overall culture of learning." She suggested each business unit leader play an active role, familiarizing themselves with the engagement data so that they can properly reward advanced learners and encourage those falling behind.
Pagano also told employers to find the right advocates. "There is tremendous social value in endorsement from peers they respect. Every organization has its cheerleaders, but if you can identify a few people who tend to be more reticent to participate and turn them into advocates, it can actually have a much bigger impact. When the folks who typically resist change get excited, people notice."
#9: WIIFM: What's in it for me?
Business needs can't work in a vacuum. If the employee doesn't get something out of the training, she's less likely to participate in it. "Each L&D program should be designed to benefit the employees and the company as a whole," Pagano said. That means employers need to communicate exactly how the organization's growth benefits the employee, aligning that growth with business needs.
#10: Gauge effectiveness
"Don't test for knowledge," said Kensey, "test for application. Can your employees retain and apply the lessons and not just regurgitate them? If so, you're doing your job."
Pagano suggests measuring against key performance indicators, as well as some metrics. Adoption tracks usage, logins and participation, for example. Are people actually accessing the program materials? Engagement metrics outline how learners are using the program, tracking what they interact with.
"It's important for HR leaders to make a plan," Farishta said, "but also plan to make changes as they test and learn what works best for the company." Come into every program with a mindset that's ready to learn, she said, "as there will be a significant amount of changes along the way." The best way to gauge effectiveness is to ask, she said. Create surveys with standardized questions, then take the time to review the feedback and make changes as needed.