Chris Nel

Training & Development ROI?

Why do so many learning and development programmes fail to deliver on their promises? The answer we believe lies more in the approach taken than the ‘quality’ of the course content…

Learning, especially for adults, is most readily undertaken when there is a pressing need for new knowledge and / or new skills. (See “Adults as Learners” Cross, K Patricia Jossey-Bass 1981). This well established research fact is all to often overlooked when purchasing and designing learning programmes. With the best of intentions, knowledge development opportunities are presented to an often training-weary management population. Time and again the outcome is disappointment for all involved.

In their book “The Knowing-Doing Gap” Stanford University Professors Jeff Pfeffer & Bob Sutton (HBS Press 1991) explored why it was that new knowledge struggles to translate in to changed behaviour. They concluded there were five powerful forces at work in the organisation that prevent converting new knowledge in to new behaviour. These are:

  • The preference for talk rather than action.
  • The tendency to rely on previous experience to guide action.
  • The effect of fear on peoples action.
  • The impact of measures on behaviour.
  • Internal competition as an inhibitor of new ideas.

Most of what goes on in a traditional organisational development programmes does little to address these powerful inhibitors of behavioural modification.

As professional educators, we often asked to parade our proposed programme content for scrutiny. What models, activities and clever tricks do we employ. Rarely will organisational purchasers of training and development want to explore with us how to create the appropriate context for learning. There is an assumption that attendance will result in change. Suggestions of follow up, supported practice & coaching are seen as scope creep and more than a little cheeky! Even when we suggest spending less on the knowledge development phase and more on the embedding activities the response is often distrustful.

Our experience is that the programmes that deliver the most impactful organisational change have thee components. In priority order:

  • A powerful & obvious case for change that has been translated in to a specific set of new practice demands on the individual.
  • Corroborating feedback / evidence that a change in personal/ team process & behaviours are required.
  • An effective learning framework with knowledge development, supported practice (coaching) and review phases.

The paradox is that most organisations do have an urgent and pressing need for their employees at all levels to learn new skills and upgrade the way they add value. This need is translated as ‘run a course’. Consequently development activity is often undertaken in a context vacuum.

If you would like to talk to us about what you can do to set up effective development programmes for your organisation please contact us at