Aligning Training Programs with Business Objectives

One of the best kept secrets in modern management is how to align the training program with organizational objectives, and how to measure the alignment. Traditional methods fail flat, because they focus on what "The Manager" (or The Teacher) wants. They ask: Why do you want to train your employees?

The answer is simple, but not useful: you invest in training because you expect a reasonable return, but training is expensive, and its ROI is difficult to measure. Throwing money out of the window is expensive too, but we have learned not to do it because there is clearly no return on this action. The problem with training is that even if we are not getting any results, but we continue to send employees out to be trained.

Some training program managers are happy to state that they bought and delivered the budgeted amount of training hours, and that’s it. Let them be. They won’t understand. Let’s focus on the managers that want to get results, and ask them why they send their employees to training. Most of the time I get answers like:

- "To award prizes to deserving employees."
- "To motivate them." (whatever that means)
- "To comply with policy/law/regulations."
- " To find out how to solve a specific problem."
- "To comply with law, a quality model or corporate policy."
- Or, "To earn a certificate (and maybe get a contract)."

After some conversation on the importance of training and its impact on the organization, most managers will complain that training brings too few significant changes back to the organization. Aha! So they are expecting employees to change through training. Now we’re talking. It’s only one more step from there: Defining what kind of change they expect. Managers want to see an improvement, of course. They want to give their customers something cheaper, faster, simpler, bigger or smaller. But if you don’t know what you are buying, there is no way you can measure ROI. Only once you know that you are shopping for improvements do things become clear— although not necessarily easy.


It is common knowledge that the organizational training program (when there is one) should be aligned with organizational goals. Once those goals have been stated, a weak alignment means low effectiveness, high costs, low morale and lost opportunities. Common knowledge it may be, but it’s also useless: simply knowing does not stop managers from happily throwing their training dollars out of the window (only to wake up next day with a strong headache and a desire for solitude and quiet).

What can they do about it? The answer is easy: focus on learning more than on training.

Let me describe a simple model that I have found useful: Suppose knowledge is not something you can push from the teacher’s head into the student’s, as if you were charging a battery pack. Suppose knowledge is developed by the individual, and it takes a lot of energy. This suggests that there’s no such thing as teaching. There is only learning, and if we are to learn, we have to be open to revise and change our mental models. We need a reason to believe that learning is good for us, and we need plenty of resources: mainly time and energy. To learn, one must be open, willing to change, and have access to enough resources. Many managers don’t see it that way. They may need to learn a few things themselves before they can help others.

If you agree that the active verb is "to learn", the next question is: What can you do to facilitate learning? How can you help employees to learn what the organization needs?

Of course, you need to know what the organization needs so you can communicate it to me. But if I am to learn, you also need to convince me there’s nothing to be afraid of. Give me a reason to learn and make resources available where I can use them.

Let’s go back a few steps. Back to the basics.

To begin with, the organization must clearly define where it’s going. By organization, I mean a group of individuals who have joined their forces in an organized way to do something together that they couldn’t do on their own. A healthy organization feels like "We", not like "They".

Next, let’s look at the individuals in the organization. We already agreed that they should know what they, as an organization, want to achieve; a larger market share, customer satisfaction or world peace. I am a declared romantic who believes that some individuals want to develop skills to succeed and they positively want to learn.

When I ask participants in a seminar why they are here, most of them give me a canned answer: "To develop my competencies, and learn how to be a better and happier worker bee." Or, "They sent me here, and nobody bothered to explain why."

I used to think they didn’t know what they wanted, but now I know better. After breaking the ice and acknowledging their right to be mad, I tell them that there’s no way out. I explain that since we’re all here for the duration of the seminar, we might as well find a good personal takeaway, something each one of us wants as an individual member of an organization. I promise I will make a special effort to help them get what they want, besides what was advertised in the brochure (and paid for by the sponsor).

And then I listen, hard. The lists I get are something like this.

- "To get tools that help me simplify my work."
- "To understand what they expect from me."
- "To do work that is appreciated."
- "To learn from the group."
- "To learn something I can use in my personal life."

Then we can start measuring our success as we go through the learning process—sometimes even in terms of ROI.

In a healthy organization, each member knows where everybody else is going. Each member, not just the manager, knows what it will take to get there and is empowered to plan and develop his or her own skills. An effective learning organization gives all members a reason to improve, an environment where they are not afraid of failure and the resources they need to learn.

If you don’t have such an organization, you may want to go back to the drawing board. If you are among the lucky ones, you still need a training program and a training program manager. Never mind the title: you need an individual with a clear understanding of your organization at the strategic, tactical and operational levels; an individual who knows what it takes to execute the business plans, and understands how to build the skills needed to make products and services the customer wants to pay for.

A successful training program manager, in short, has seen the vision, understands the mission and knows what it takes to reach the business goals. The training program manager must also understand how and why people learn.

Let me summarize:

  1. Training is a way to develop skills and competencies, not a way to award sticks and carrots.
  2. Training is a process. If we don’t understand the purpose of the process, measure its performance, and plan for improvement, then we will not be able to assess the benefits of a good training program. If you don’t focus on the improvements, you will only see the cost.
  3. Focus on improved performance, rather than on training activities. Ask the employees what kind of training they need and how they will measure their own success. When they answer, listen.

Just like pulling is not the same as pushing, teaching is not the same as learning. Managers cannot push knowledge into the employee’s head, but they sure can help the employee know what he/she is looking for, and support the search.