By True North Learning Director and Senior Facilitator: Errol Amerasekera

In challenging economic times, it is imperative that organisations increase the effectiveness of how they train their people. Hence, organisations need to ensure that they get a significant return on the resources – time, money and staff – that they invest in training and development initiatives. We have found that organisations can increase the effectiveness of these programs by asking one key question, but more about that later.

From an organisational context, we see the purpose of training and development is to bridge performance gaps. Performance gaps (hereafter simply referred to as “gaps”) are the gaps between the current levels of performance (both team and individual) and the ideal or desired levels of performance.

One of the keys in designing and delivering effective organisational development programs is knowing which kind of gap the program intends to bridge. From our experience, there are two kinds of gaps. The first gap is a “technical gap”. This a gap created by the lack of skills or knowledge required to do the technical aspects of their role to the desired level of performance. These skills and knowledge are usually specific to the roles and are generally not transferrable to other roles where a different specialised skill set is required.

The second kind of gap is a “behavioural gap”. This is the gap between the way individuals and teams actually behave and the ideal set of behaviours. By “behave”, we are referring to what some may call the “soft skills” of business – it’s how people communicate, take responsibility and ownership of outcomes, how they build trust, have difficult conversations, collaborate, resolve conflict, etc. It’s all the aspects that go into making the culture of a high performance workplace. Behavioural skills are generally transferrable to a different role, even if the technical skills required are no longer applicable.

The key differentiator is how we train people in technical skills versus behavioural skills. Technical skills are generally better developed by what we would call traditional or didactic learning. This means attending lectures, reading, writing, research, and having knowledge imparted to you. Behavioural skills, on the other hand, are not effectively developed via didactic learning. This is because knowledge alone does not make a significant and sustainable change in behaviours. If knowledge alone was sufficient to change behaviours, people would not smoke, be overweight, drive too fast or end up bankrupt. Most people know that they shouldn’t do these behaviours and most know strategies on how to avoid them.

The most effective way to change behaviours is for people to have the opportunity to reflect on these behaviours. Via reflection, individuals can better understand why they behave the way they do, they can see the impact of those behaviours and also gain an awareness of the situations and triggers which elicit those behaviours. In short, the ability and opportunity to reflect on these behaviours is what builds people’s awareness of them. And it is only via awareness that behaviours can be modified or improved in a sustainable way.

Hence, the most effective way of bridging behavioural gaps is Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning usually starts with an activity designed to recreate the desired learning context. Then, via a facilitated debrief, participants are able to reflect on and therefore gain insight and awareness of their behaviours during the activity. Finally, participants make learning links between their behaviours with the activity and how they behave back in the office. They can ask, “How can I take what I learned during the activity and debrief and apply it back to my role within the organisation?”

Therefore, the key question to ask to ensure that training and development programs have the desired outcome is: “Is the performance gap this training is intending to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”

As an example, I was recently working with a team of project managers. One of the challenges that they faced was their tendency to, as a group, rush through vital decision making processes because they wanted to quickly get to the outcome they wanted. Unsurprisingly, the rushed decision making process led to poor decisions and as a result, they spend more resources “cleaning up their mess” than they spent making the actual decision.

In designing their previous training, the assumption was made that the gap was a technical one and therefore the training consisted of the technical aspects of project management. This, however, did not change the dynamic within the team.

As we observed them through a series of Experiential Learning activities and debriefed their behaviours after the activity, what became clear was that under pressure, their trust in each other diminished and therefore their ability to sit in the tension of the unknown without a clear direction was compromised. As a result, they rushed through those parts of the decision making process, simply to escape the discomfort of the unknown and subsequent lack of trust and cohesion. This highlighted their behavioural gap and therefore changed the question we as trainers asked. The question was no longer how do we provide more training on their project management skills, but how do we built a culture that is more robust and functions at a higher level in the face of pressure and an unknown outcome?

This example highlights the tendency of managers to assume the gap they are trying to bridge is a technical one. Sometimes it may well be, but if the assumption is wrong, it will lead to a training and development program that fails to meet its objectives.

So before training programs are designed and implemented, ask the question: ““Is the performance gap this training is intended to bridge a technical gap or a behavioural one?”