Organizations and leaders accept that a key competitive advantage lies in the skills and capabilities of their employees. It follows that leaders and organizations recognize the importance of investing in training and development initiatives. Unfortunately, this is rarely done well. Indeed, some research has suggested that 80% of training expenditure is wasted. That’s particularly concerning in times of tight budgets and attention on ROI.

So what’s wrong here? Why is so much training wasted?

Well the answer is quite simple. Too often training is seen as an event. It is treated as a one-off. A gap is identified and then a training event is provided with the content that addresses that gap.

Unfortunately, that’s not how learning works.

For learning to stick, training needs to be treated as a process.

Many of you may be familiar with the 70-20-10 rule, and it’s worthwhile to keep that in mind here. Only 10% of learning happens in a formal classroom situation, a further 20% comes from peer learning and sharing, and 70% comes from application and experience. We also know from the learning sciences that reflection, integration, and repetition are key for memory retention and behavior change: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Research shows that pre-event learning accounts for 26% of learning effectiveness, the event itself accounts for 24%, and post-event learning was responsible for 50% of the learning effectiveness. Unfortunately, that same study also found that training expenditure was 10% for pre-event, 85% for the event, and only 5% for post-event learning. No wonder 80% of training expenditure is wasted!

One of my colleagues was involved with auditing the online learning materials for the faculty of an Australian university. Before conducting the audit, he and the other auditors met with the clients for a short training session covering the auditing requirements and the process to follow. While each of the auditors left the training meeting feeling confident in their process and knowledge, they all found that while completing the audit they came across learning sites that presented challenges and uncertainties based on the auditing system they were following.

So what did they do? Like most capable knowledge-workers, they fumbled through and discussed with each other the best way to audit those sites that didn’t fit the mold (which was close to a majority of the sites). This small example is interesting for a number of reasons.

  1. It highlights that even universities, centres of excellence and knowledge, still don’t have optimal training all of the time—so you don’t need to feel bad about your organization.
  2. The client treated the training meeting as a one-time event, not a process. They focussed on the 10%, not the 20% or 70%.
  3. The auditors relied on their own gut feelings and some communication with other auditors to fumble their way through.

This presented issues, as there were some differences in interpretation of the auditing purpose and criteria. It also highlighted the control that the client was forced to relinquish by not ensuring there was ongoing training and learning—this may not be a problem in all cases, but if you require consistency it may not be the best way to do things. It also presents challenges to efficiency—the auditors took far longer on learning sites that did not easily fit the process, as they contemplated the best way to interpret the criteria.  

So, what are the critical success factors for your training?

  • View training as a process or a journey, not as a one-time event.
  • Ensure the training is relevant and integrated into daily work.
  • Provide frameworks for participants to revisit and reflect on what they’ve learned.
  • Ensure participants are supported with their learning and the implementation of their new behaviors. This can be achieved through peer and manager support, feedback and an accountability loop.

In other words, while you want to continue investing in that 10%, you also want to have a plan that facilitates the 20% and 70% on an ongoing basis. In your training programs make sure that people commit to change in their daily work. How will they integrate their new knowledge? How will they be accountable to those commitments? When and how will they reflect on their new knowledge and behaviors?

It’s up to you as a leader to ensure that when you bring in an external training provider they are able to supply you with a training program that embeds the learning and maintains the momentum. If they try to sell you a one-off event, then maybe you need to look for a different trainer. Of course integrated training may be more expensive, but what is even more expensive is wasting 80% of your training dollars.