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Best Training Practices
Will Kenny
3927 York Ave N
Robbinsdale, MN 55422

Popularity Is Not ROI

changing employees' behavior is not a popularity contest

(reprinted from The Training Tipsheet)

Recently, a somewhat breathless article about making a boring corporate training topic exciting caught my eye. (To protect the guilty, I'll skip the details, but rest assured there are many more examples of similar discussions to be found.)

Excitement, interest, and popularity were clearly important to the article's author, and to the company the developed the training. And who's to blame them? We'd rather not churn out boring training activities, and we certainly want to engage participants.

And engage them this company did. As they cast about for ways to make sure these key business issues, including ethics, got the attention of employees, they came up with the idea of a little video series. In the end, they followed the lead of the popular broadcast television program "The Office," complete with a boss who hasn't a clue about what constitutes appropriate behavior when dealing with employees.

While the article didn't go into costs, this was no small effort. They shot ten "episodes" of the "series," and even with simple production equipment and on-line video distribution, one must assume that design and scripting required significant time and staff (or consultant) attention. The topics were important to the company, and they made a substantial investment in this training program.

When you finish reading the article, it certainly sounds like a success. The article reports that, "The episodes were an immediate sensation." Evidence of their excellence comes from e-mails praising the training, from phrases and characters from the "show" entering the corporate vocabulary, and especially, from thousands of viewings by employees before the episodes were even assigned.

There is no doubt that they got employees' attention, that the people they were training enjoyed what they saw, and that they even wanted to see more. So how was the Return On Investment (ROI) from this project?

Who knows?

I certainly don't, as there isn't anything about that in the article. Oh, sure, this training was wildly popular. But was it any good? In other words, did it actually make a difference in how employees performed on the job? The article is silent on that.

Given that huge numbers of employees went out of their way to watch these video segments, I can see three probable patterns of impact:

  1. Direct Positive: Perhaps the series did a great job of educating employees and influencing their decisions and behavior. The appeal of these programs helped them to have a major impact on how the company worked.
  2. Indirect Negative: It is just as likely that the programs didn't have much effect, that they were fun, but not effective in changing behavior. In that case, the net impact on the company would be slightly negative, in the form of reduced productivity while everybody watched these things. It is no different than wasting time watching a popular YouTube video about, say, a water-skiing squirrel. And, of course, if the training didn't work, a lot of staff time and money went into activity that produced no return.
  3. Direct Negative: It is even possible that the program made behavior worse. Perhaps laughing at the boorish boss made his behavior more acceptable than it should be, for instance.

Of course, maybe the company did measure the outcomes of this training effort, and the article just didn't report that. But the article still serves as a cautionary tale, reminding us how easy it is to be seduced by "buzz" and popularity and enthusiasm, to the point that we forget to ask whether the training helped the company. The author of the article was probably so distracted by the remarkable way employees embraced these (presumably) dull topics that he forgot what training is for.

The training function is there to make the company more successful. Entertaining employees is not an end in itself. And, even if adding some style and appeal to training activities can boost their impact, that is only a good thing if we have other reasons to believe that impact will be a positive one.

© 2010 Best Training Practices -- Will Kenny

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