To know if your workplace training is effective start by clarifying your desired outcomes and then make sure the training program you choose reflects a good understanding of how adults learn at work. Click To Tweet

Once this is in place, ensure you know what to look for in the different phases of moving from knowledge to workplace change of behaviour.

We know training boosts knowledge and enhances skills but training is also important to boast employee morale and improve retention. The latter point is becoming increasingly significant for a cost-benefit analysis of investing in training. As our workforce becomes younger and younger, the strongest retention measure for both millennial’s and Gen Z is proving to be opportunities for training. When you consider training costs this way, training not only improves immediate needs and cuts down on unnecessary cost due to mistakes, but also has a long-term return on investment in terms of retention.

According to Training Industry Magazine, employee training costs in the US rose by 32.5% by the end of 2017, showing a five year trend in increased investment in training by employers throughout the country. The Canadian Conference Board research on employer spending for training has shown that Canadian employers are following a similar trend, with approximately $0.81 to every dollar Americans are spending on training.

The question that immediately comes to mind is, are these investments paying off? It is important to ensure that your training is hitting the mark. There are three parts to finding out if your idea to invest in training is going to pay off. The first part is being clear on what you want to improve. The second part is ensuring that the training program is based on sound adult learning principles. Finally, can your workplace context support the training? Without a context of support, the training can be wonderful but may not be applicable. Let’s look at each of these three criteria one by one.

What you want to achieve?

Before deciding on any kind of training, you have to be clear on what you want to achieve. What do you want the training to improve? What problem should the training solve? If you aren’t clear on what you want to solve or improve, then you will never know if the training is effective. Let me give you an example. One of my clients said that what they really wanted to see improve was “less wasted time on filling customer orders”. But their criteria for success was that every employee would simply jump whenever the owner wanted them to do something. The expectation was that supervisory training would improve employee capacity to obey instantly. Clearly the area of improvement and the expectation to jump whenever the owner felt like calling, were not compatible.

In contrast, another client wanted supervisor training to show improved retention. The measures they chose to look for improvement were, a) how many new and existing employees stayed over a period of one year b) the rate of complaints about supervisors over the period of one year and c) decrease in sick days and lateness. These three measures were very compatible with the improvement they wanted to see. The training then focused on motivating and encouraging employees, coaching them to do their jobs and improved listening and responsiveness of supervisors.

Those topics helped supervisors improve their skills and the measures of success demonstrated to what extent the training was effective over a period of time and what else needed to be addressed. An interesting summary of case studies showcasing employers who won awards for their effective training and can really knew what outcomes they were looking for, can be found in the 2017 industry training report here.

Understanding how adults learn at work

Once you know what problem you want to solve, an important aspect of workplace training is understanding how adults actually learn at work. Training providers should have a solid understanding of adult education and know what methods are most effective for training that results in change of behaviour. It is not uncommon for potential clients to say to me that they, “want to get these guys trained up” as if training was like grabbing something from a store, paying for it and walking out. Many decision-makers are convinced that one or two days of an information dump will be sufficient to see improvements in the workplace.

Remember this: Information is NOT knowledge, and knowledge does NOT change behaviour.

Just because I know something, doesn’t mean I’m going to do it. Even if I’m convinced that this new thing I know is important, I will not necessarily do it. This is absolutely critical to understand when measuring for effective training results.

Workplace learning for adults has other important characteristics. For example, adult learners improve faster when they are provided with an organizational outline, the desired outcomes of the training are clearly explained to them, stories, incidents, and case studies are used, and when the training is linked to their previous knowledge and experience. They need opportunities to discuss and interact as well as ways to feel they belong to a learning community. And finally, the training should be applicable to their jobs.

Another important aspect of workplace learning is that it doesn’t take place all at once or in one concentrated time period. There are phases of learning. At each phase you need to watch for different things.

Phases of training effectiveness

These are the questions to ask so at each phase to find out if it is effective:

  1. How will you know if the problem is starting to be solved?

What to watch for: employees will be talking about ways to solve the problem and showing signs of applying the knowledge and skills they learned during the first phase.

  1. How will you know if the problem is on its way to being regularly solved?

What to watch for: improvements in the problem you are trying to solve will start to be visible. Note that improvements are likely to be inconsistent at this point.

  1. How will you know when this problem is completely solved?

What to watch for: you may have forgotten that you ever had this problem! But when you are looking for it, you can see that there are consistent behaviours which prevent the problem or solve it quickly when it arises, that have become habit.

Essentially there are two main phases to workplace training to ensure effectiveness. The first is gaining new knowledge and understanding of new skills. A second phase involves applying skills to the work place until they become automatic.

A. Knowledge phase: starting to solve the problem

Participants need to have the right mindset for learning and discover what obstacles their mindset is putting in the way of their success. It is critical for them to understand what’s in it for them, so that they feel invested personally in the company initiative. They need to enjoy the training, because if they don’t, they will simply turn off and nothing will stick. After the knowledge portion of the training, they should be able to identify new knowledge and name skills they are expected to develop. But this is not even the beginning of learning in the workplace.

Training will be effective if: participants commit to the training, enjoy the training, can explain what they learned, know how it applies to their skill development, and feel personally that they have benefited from the experience.

B. Application phase: practicing new knowledge and skills to solve the problem more and more consistently

After passing the mindset, personal investment in the learning, and new knowledge and skills piece, there is a set of application phases where the effects of training become increasingly visible.

  1. The first application phase is testing; trying and gaining confidence with using the new skills, applying the knowledge to new contexts, and getting comfortable with the skill set.
  2. The next phase shows more intentional consistent use, but not mastery.
  3. The final phase shows mastery where the learning becomes incorporated into the employees existing skill set and feels natural to them. At this point of mastery you can finally say that the problem is solved or the improvement has been made.

This phase of the training typically involves coaching, either by the trainer or by internal people in the workplace such as immediate managers and HR people.

Training will be effective if: the workplace context is supportive, there is a combination of external and internal coaching, decision-makers understand that application takes place over time according to the three phases identified above. In the application phase, in contrast to the first phase (new knowledge and skills) which was the responsibility of the trainer, the effectiveness of sustaining training is primarily on the shoulders of the employer by providing the context in which training can take root.

Is your supervisory leadership training effective?

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Ensuring sustainability

Workplace learning is social.

Sending an individual away to “get trained and then help everybody else”, has very little effect on actual changes on the floor. Unless workplace learning takes place within a group and the workplace setting allows the new learning to take root, no amount of knowledge and skills training will be effective, no matter how good the quality and alignment with business objectives. For example, if the immediate manager undermines the training the individual is expected to apply, is not likely any changes will be observed from training. Training a group brings a much better return on investment because the group holds itself accountable and begins to use a vocabulary and skill set that everyone is developing at the same time. Training a group of supervisors has a bigger effect than training a group of employees. Training a group of managers has a farther reaching effect than training a group of supervisors.

If you really want to see a change in workplace alignment with desired business outcomes, consider that manager and supervisor training alone account for 80% of employee changes to behaviour.

One final note on the sustainability of training is the importance of standardization. If you train one set of supervisors with one program and then do nothing for five years, but train three or four more with another program, the effect will be minimal. If you choose a program that you are likely to use over a period of years with existing supervisors, new supervisors, and those who being considered for the position, it will be easier to integrate and sustain the training. The reason for this is that individuals entering an existing culture that uses the same vocabulary and skills come into a learning environment.

This concept also applies to manager training at the higher level. If you send one manager away to do one kind of training and another to a different kind of training there will likely be very little effect on your alignment with business objectives. The exception to this is coaching following training. Individual coaching is always helpful to sustainability of learning, and it is particularly effective in small doses during training and in more concentrated sessions following the knowledge portion of training.

In contrast to group coaching, individual coaching does not have to apply specifically to the business objective to produce significant change to that individual’s behaviour. If you want to see effects on the company culture however, it is best to have coaching for individuals following the training program.


In conclusion, before investing in training it is important to be very clear on what problem you want to solve and how you will know when it is solved. Identify the desired outcomes and then choose a trainer or training program that shows an understanding of adult learning so you can clearly align the training to your desired outcomes. Identify measurements that are compatible with your desired outcome so you have a way to measure the effectiveness of training.

Once you have these things in place, remember that adult learning takes place in two main phases: A) knowledge and skills are understood and b) application of knowledge and skills becomes observable in the workplace. Within the application phase there are three components: first tentative attempts, then improvements as confidence and skill, and finally mastery as the skills become habit. It bears repeating that training is only truly effective if the whole workplace is engaged with encouraging and sustaining it.

Towards this end, for the biggest return on your investment, focus first on the top and front-line management levels of your organization. They have 80% of the impact on organizational change and employee behaviour, and will be the sustainers of training efforts for other levels of employees.

See how you can increase revenue and productivity across the board by 30% by getting to the root of the issues.




About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: or 780-454-5661