Working for a training and consulting organization, we do a lot of training (and we do it quite well, if I do say so myself). Organizations of all types, sizes, industries, etc. call us and have one of our providers come out and train their folks on a variety of topics. Some clients have very specific needs and do a great job of ensuring that our training is customized to meet those needs. Other clients just want us to come out there and do the training (usually to meet some sort of regulatory requirement).
Sure, it’s fun getting to interact with folks and have discussions about safety, but one thing that we rarely get called out to do is to do something that is the first and most important step in training development.
Stop right there for a second and think about – what is the “first and most important step in training development”?
I’m sure any number of really good ideas came to mind, such as “know your audience” or “customize the material” or something along those lines. These are important, but they aren’t the most important. The first step and the most important step in a training development process can best be described using the verbiage of the ANSI/ASSE Z490.1-2009 standard Criteria for Accepted Practices in Safety, Health, and Environmental Training:
“A determination shall be made as to whether training is the correct response to a given organizational need.”
Put another way, the first step in training develop is to ask the question – do we even really need another training course? This is called a “training needs assessment” and it’s often the part of a training development process that is taken for granted. After all, isn’t the point of training development to develop training? If the training development process eliminates training that doesn’t make sense.
The problem with this line of thinking is that it takes for granted that training is always a good solution to the problem. To test whether that theory is true think about your own experience – how many times have you sat through a training course, even a very good one, and then a short time after the training you can’t remember what you were taught? So how effective was that training?
A training needs assessment forces us to take a hard look at what problems we’re trying to solve and to really think about the best way to solve that problem. To put this into terms similar to the Z490.1 standard above, we need to figure out what the “given organizational need” is that is driving the training.
This sounds like one of those dumb questions that make people roll their eyes, but think about it for a second – why do we train our employees? Often it’s because there’s some knowledge or behavior we want them to have or perform so that they can be safe (at least that’s the stated goal). A big mistake many make which leads them to skip doing a good training needs assessment is that they think that the “organizational need” in that statement above is that the employees need to have knowledge or behavior, which implies that there’s a problem that training is best to fix. There’re two flaws with this line of thinking:
1. Even if there is a knowledge or behavioral problem, training may not be the best solution. What if the behavior problem is that employees are skipping a step in a procedure because the procedure is poorly written? Training is unlikely to fix this problem. In fact, if your training doesn’t match reality then employees are less likely to take your training seriously.
2. The organizational need is not the knowledge or behavior issue, it’s the need for employees to be safe. What if instead of doing training we looked at the workplace and redesigned it to eliminate the hazard – would that be better than training? This can apply even in cases where training is required by law. OSHA only requires training when certain conditions apply. For example, you only need confined space training when going into a permit-required confined space. What if you can find a way to not go into the space and still get the job done, or you could reconfigure the space to make it no longer a permit-required confined space, through re-design?
Furthermore, the training needs assessment forces you to think about the problems you really want to solve, which can help you solve the problem of ineffective training. So instead of just throwing employees in a training class, you might identify that they need training and then follow-up by their supervisor in a few months, or they need training and a new, user-friendly checklist to remember the safety critical steps. The needs assessment forces you to think through the problem and come up with a system that can deal with the problem. This makes the training work for your system, rather than your management system accommodating the training.