skip to main content
Business Journal
How to Make Training a Catalyst for Real Change
Business Journal

How to Make Training a Catalyst for Real Change

by Craig Kamins

Training alone isn't enough to transform ingrained habits or culture.

Efforts to achieve broad transformational change tend to vary from one company to another. But there's one constant that is common to most of them: the enterprise-wide training program. You probably know it well. This is the program that brings different groups of managers and employees together for a couple of hours -- or a couple of days -- to learn about the change or "new corporate culture."

These programs are usually well-received by the participants. The concepts themselves can be quite uplifting, and there's often an openness to the discussions that doesn't exist in the day-to-day work environment. Yet even though sessions like these may generate goodwill, they rarely create lasting change. Within a few months, company leaders are ready to write off the training as a failed expense, while participants often look back on the sessions as little more than just another required class.

What these companies don't realize is that training programs can be an effective catalyst for change if leaders and managers at the enterprise and local levels place them in the proper context and properly support them. Well-designed training sessions can be extremely powerful, but training alone isn't enough to transform ingrained habits or culture. It can be difficult for participants to absorb what they learn, no matter how strong the content is. And it can be equally difficult for managers and employees to apply what they've learned if the messages they hear in training aren't reinforced. The most common concern participants raise about training programs is that they feel artificial and don't account for the barriers and other challenges that exist in the real world. When people feel this way, they tend to dismiss the training and revert to how they were operating before.

Problems that require a transformation change tend to run deep in companies, and the initial steps to solve them -- such as a training program -- may seem to have little immediate impact. This lack of perceived movement can create the impression that the change isn't working. But that's not necessarily the case. Before any company can create lasting change, employees must first become aware of why the change is necessary. And a well-planned training program can lay the groundwork by opening people's eyes to a problem and altering attitudes and behaviors. Even in successful change efforts, companies may not feel the broader impact for three to five years or more. Organizational change of any magnitude requires critical mass.

Here are four strategies to create real change:

  1. Reinforce key messages following the initial training. As mentioned earlier, participants often give positive feedback immediately after training, so leaders assume that the messages have taken hold. When this happens, there is little follow-up. But participants need ongoing communication and support to make the change permanent. Leaders should repeat key messages consistently in communications, team meetings, and one-on-one sessions. Companies should provide coaching for people who are struggling with the change and opportunities for participants to discuss their experiences and share best practices with one another.
  2. Hold participants accountable for what they've been taught in training. When change is left to the discretion of participants, there likely will be low rates of adoption. Often, those who embrace change are already top performers in the company. Without some level of accountability, the rest of the participants will perceive that the company was never serious about the change and will quickly revert to their old habits and practices. With each new initiative or change effort, they become more cynical about the process. Leaders should set clear expectations for the processes and behaviors that must change and provide a mechanism for follow-up 60 to 90 days after the training. Job descriptions and performance reviews should also include the new expectations and behaviors.
  3. Address systemic barriers that may be blocking the change. Managers and employees often believe that some issues are beyond their control, such as staffing, workload, and resources. This may be a symptom of a victim mentality that can develop in any organization. But it's also likely that there are real problems the company must tackle before the change can take root. The company doesn't need to solve every problem all at once. Choosing one or two problems for near-term action can be enough to start with, particularly if that generates some quick and visible wins. These successes will send a message that leaders are committed to the change process -- and that they aren't putting the solution entirely on managers' and employees' shoulders.
  4. Make managers and employees part of systemic solutions. Leaders must drive the action, but ad hoc or cross-functional teams can be quite effective at proposing solutions and sharing best practices for implementing change. They bring a local context to the discussion, and including their viewpoints can give them a sense of ownership over the solution. These types of teams can be effective only if they:
    • feel like they are empowered to act. A strong and visible sponsor can help.
    • have a clear and limited charter. Teams should have a clear mission and purpose: "We are here to do [x]." Teams with open-ended agendas can meet constantly but rarely get anything accomplished.
    • are encouraged and recognized for active participation and accomplishments. Team members need to know that they're not putting themselves at risk by proposing bold solutions.

Companies attempt transformative change initiatives when they need to fix a profound problem or capitalize on a major opportunity. It's beneficial when an initial training program is well-received, but the short period of goodwill that follows doesn't offer a business any permanent advantage. It takes real, lasting change to solve problems or seize opportunities. Make sure that training is a catalyst for change, and the intended transformation is much more likely to occur.

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030