As most of you know, for at least part of my professional existence I delivery training workshops. Mostly in project management, sometimes in strategy, occasionally straying into things like business cases and value realization, and more increasingly diving into the murky pools of uncertainty and complexity.
It’s not the only work that I do, to be clear. In fact, I’m not sure it could be the only work that I do. It’s exhausting. It’s exhausting in a good way, mind you, but when done well (in my experience) there’s very little left of you by the end of the day. It takes a lot of energy, focus and mental agility to stay focussed on the material, meaningfully respond to questions, lead discussions and keep the whole enterprise moving forward on a reasonable schedule.
If I’m honest, though, it’s some of the most meaningful work that I do. It is also often the work that has the most enduring and sustained impact. Even where organizational change efforts haven’t gone anywhere, or have been subsequently unwound, the training impact has endured. While there may be no remnants of the corporate processes, there are individuals who participated in workshops that they found valuable.
As a result, they have taken ideas, concepts and strategies and made them their own. They have changed their work practices, their tools and templates and—most importantly—their thinking as a result. And that’s kind of awesome. It’s pretty amazing when you can run into someone several years later and have them thank you for helping them to learn a new skill or adopt a different mindset. It realigns what you think about when you evaluate the impact of your work.
A few weeks ago, I was having a discussing with a colleague about just that question. In particular, she had asked me for my perspective about what impact means and how it can be evaluated in the context of delivering training. Reflecting on that question, I felt that impact isn’t one dimensional. If we are going to really measure impact, there there are a number of different perspectives and outcomes that need to be considered.
What I came up with as a starting point were the following four perspectives:
Currency. Is the content keeping current with research and current practice? Does it discuss and explore what is currently being done, why, and the relevance (or irrelevance) of those practices?
Delivery. Is it delivered well and in an interesting way? Do participants engage and participate? Does the delivery provoke thought? Are they interested enough to want to learn, and in particular to learn more?
Relevance. Does the content relate to the roles of participants? Does it address and respond to challenges they are encountering, and does it offer strategies and guidance for how to address those challenges? Can participants see themselves using the content, and being successful in doing so?
Application. Are participants able to actually apply the content? Do they have the understanding and ability to translate what they have learned in an education setting into their practical role? Do they understand what to do, and do they understand how to build support and commitment to take action and make changes?
Each dimension has its own challenges in terms of realizing success. It’s not just about having good content or delivering well; it’s also about delivering content that is relevant and relatable to participants, and that they can actually apply.
Application is probably the hardest part, and the challenge is multi-dimensional. Part of the challenge of application is internal and personal; part of the challenge is external and structural.
When I first talked about the ability to apply the results, I did so largely from the perspective of whether participants could, as a result of the training, actually make use of the training. In other words, did the results translate from theoretical concept into practical guidance? Could people see how to make use of what they learned? Was the training helpful and practical enough to extrapolate all of the way from ‘know what’ to ‘know how’?
Knowing how to practically apply training results is inarguably important. It’s also only part of the problem of application. The other side of the equation—and one that I didn’t consider initially—is whether we feel we are allowed to apply the training results in our actual work.
That’s not an idle consideration. There have been numerous instances where I have had workshop participants that didn’t know why they were there. They had been sent by their employer, but with no real context or expectation of how the results of the training should impact their work. Worse are those participants that see the relevance of the training, but bemoan, “I wouldn’t be able to apply this where I work.” In the majority of these instances, the participants were not only attending with the knowledge of their employer; their employer was picking up the tab.
Given that corporations have in many instances sponsored or otherwise permitted attendance at a training course, you would think that there would be an implicit expectation of use and application (if not an explicit one). And while the employer or manager sponsoring the training may think there is in fact such an expectation, perception is otherwise. In the view of the participant, they are not expected to or able to apply the training results. They do not see an environment where it would be allowed or encouraged.
The ability to apply training in the context of structural barriers or enablers therefore gets at a slightly different question. Looking out from the perspective of the person being trained, what are the barriers they see in applying and using the skills being developed? What support and assistance exists in being able to apply the training? What additional support, coaching or reinforcement would be necessary to fully apply the results?
The role of perspective here is important. The questions are not about what the actual barriers are (and a supervisor or manager may not even think that there are any). The questions are about the perceived barriers. They are aiming to get at why workshops that were encouraged and enabled by an employer are not seen as relevant or applicable in that self-same employer’s organization. Perceptual barriers are still barriers. They have no less of an impact for the person being trained; in their head the answer is still “I can’t.” And for the manager or supervisor addressing them, they have the added challenge of being less tangible and visible, but no less real and necessary to deal with.
One of my fondest memories of the impact of training I have delivered was a chance encounter in an airport. I met someone I had trained years before, who recognized me as the person responsible for helping with a project management implementation at their employer. The project management work—two years of my life—was long gone. Several changes in executive leadership at the top had led to a very quick undermining of the change efforts initiated by previous administrations. Process, tools, templates, training and all of the change management efforts that went with them had disappeared.
And yet here was someone who remembered the training. Who thanked me for it, and said that it was one of the best workshops that they had ever attended. And that, in their own personal way, they still used the techniques and approaches from the workshop in managing and organizing their own work. Even though there wasn’t organizational support for the tools, and no one else used them in their immediate orbit, they were still making a difference for that one person. They were able to apply the principles, leverage the ideas and make differences that matter—to them.
We don’t always know where we will have impact. Sometimes the impact isn’t what we had hoped it would be. It isn’t as big, or prominent, or visible or far reaching as we might like. But sometimes we simply need to shift our perspective, and see the problem in a different light. In that example, I didn’t help change an organization in a meaningful or lasting way. If I am honest, the organization really didn’t want to change. But some of the people wanted to change, and I helped them to find ways of doing so and perspectives of adopting that meant something. And years later, they got to tell me that. That’s pretty cool.