Laura Lorber, writing for The Wall Street Journal online, reports what Jack Phillips has to say about small businesses maximizing the return on their investment in employee training. His “tips” include:

1.Align the training with a business need. 2.Get managers on board. 3.Seek proof that it works. 4.Ask for an evaluation [from the vendor]. 5.Set goals and follow up.

Although, in general, I agree with these suggestions, I would expand on a few points. I would add to “get managers on board” that it is about more than just manager endorsement of the training. Managers should be active in helping learners set goals for training, supporting them during the learning process, giving them opportunities to apply the new knowledge and skills, and providing feedback after the training. To “seek proof that it works,” business owners should make sure that the evidence is from businesses and situations that are similar to their own organizations. Customer service training in a call-center might not have the same success as that same training delivered to restaurant personnel. And when business owners “ask for an evaluation” from the training vendor, they should be leery of vendors evaluating their own programs. I’m not saying that they can’t do a good job at this; I’m just saying that there is “evaluation” and then there is “evaluation.” Business owners should make sure the method the vendor uses produces valid and reliable information that is useful in helping the business owner make decisions about training.

One statement from the blog post that I have trouble with is:

The most valuable and easiest follow-up is often a survey at the end of the training session to see if employees found it useful, practical or motivational, among other reactions. "That's important," says Mr. Phillips. "If employees don't react positively or see a need for it, they often reject it."

I agree that a survey at the end of training is the “easiest” evaluation to do. But “easy” doesn’t necessarily mean useful. And it is certainly not the “most valuable” way to follow-up on training. Unfortunately, reaction surveys at the end of training programs have become the norm for evaluation. The problem with this is that there is little relationship between the findings of these “reactionnaires” and the impact of training. If business owners really want to understand the impact of their investment in training, they should have someone talk to learners and their managers sometime after learners have had a chance to apply the new knowledge. In these interviews, the interviewer can establish a logical connection between what the employee learned and what that person is doing in the workplace. Too many internal organizational factors (e.g., feedback from managers) and external environment factors (e.g., business markets) can affect the results of training, both positively and negatively. Business owners will not know how these other factors came into play unless they hear from people about how the training was used, what helped and what got in the way, and what difference that new learning was making for the company.