American companies spend enormous amounts of money on employee training and education—$160 billion in the United States and close to $356 billion globally in 2015 alone—but they are not getting a good return on their investment. For the most part, the learning doesn’t lead to better organizational performance, because people soon revert to their old ways of doing things.
As a change strategy, training rarely works, as we have found in our experience in advising dozens of companies. One manufacturer, for instance, suffered multiple fatalities at its operating plants despite a $20 million investment in a state-of-the-art center for safety training and innovation. Participants in corporate education and leadership programs often tell us that the context in which they work makes it difficult for them to put what they’re taught into practice.
Lack of training isn’t the issue. Rather, senior teams have frequently not articulated a clear strategy and corporate values, so managers don’t understand what practices and behaviors are expected of them. In addition, senior management frequently doesn’t create a shared, collaborative environment where each department is heading in the same direction. Instead, there’s often internal competition for talent, growth, and recognition. Clearly, companies need to tackle these systemic issues before they can implement any productive learning program to see measurable and consistent returns.
Problems need to be initially diagnosed from the ground up. This requires addressing management practices and leadership behaviors that shape the environment before training employees and leaders. To do that, organizations should answer the following questions, first and from the top:
- Is the leadership team aligned around a clear, inspiring strategy and set of values?
- Has the team collected unvarnished employee feedback about barriers to effectiveness and performance—including senior managers’ own behavior?
- Has the team redesigned its organization, management systems, and practices to address the problems revealed by that diagnosis?
- Is HR offering consulting to help employees learn on the job so that they can practice the new attitudes and behaviors required of them?
- Do corporate training programs properly support the change agenda?
If your answer to any of those questions is no, your company is probably (with the best of intentions) over investing in training and education and failing to put strategic change in its proper context.