Train Me a Habit – How Organizations Are Using Training to Gain a Competitive Edge

It was a sound I hadn’t heard before, a ‘ping’ followed by a long silence. This sequence was repeated until the executive answered his phone. This distinctive ring tone was like the sound a NASA deep space probe might make as it searches the outer reaches of our solar system.   While this executive was one of more than a dozen seated in a non-descript conference room, this distraction was enough to break our concentration and further prohibit a few key messages from developing out of his organization’s presentation for a multi-million dollar opportunity. I started thinking about NASA’s Galileo probe crashing into Jupiter’s moon, Europa, while the executive answered his phone. Now there was one long ping followed by continuing silence. As he hung up his phone, I wondered why voice mail was even invented.  

How does a speaker compete with cell phones going off in the same room as the presentation? What about other executives walking in on a training class to yank a key employee out of the room? It might be even more challenging to implement a training program when the team being trained is expected to be performing their regular jobs too. According to the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), US Corporations spend $109.25 Billion on employee learning and development annually with one quarter of this amount going to outside training sources. This translates into $1,616 per employee in 2005 over an approximate 43-hour period.

How can an organization make sure their investment in training is being properly realized?   And how can training be used to gain a competitive edge? For starters, organizations need to change their definition of training. They also need to realize training will improve their performance and the best place to gain a competitive edge in training is through the use of technology.

Change the Learning Mindset
The key to an effective training program is more than requesting cell phones to be placed in the off position and holding a training class off-site to minimize distractions. The key to creating a learning organization is changing the training mindset. In Learning Organizations: Developing Cultures for Tomorrow’s Workplace , by Fred Kofman and Peter Senge, the authors state, “Why do we derive our self-esteem from knowing as opposed to learning? Why do we persist in fragmentation and piecemeal analysis as the world becomes more and more interconnected? We are discovering that moving forward is an exercise in personal commitment and community building.” True organizational transformation first takes place with personal transformation and the commitment to a lifetime learning process. In other words, the role of the motivated individual who wants to learn more and grow will always be pivotal to the training process.  


At Hickok Cole Architects (HCA), an award-winning regional architectural firm, their main motivation for providing training to 21 of their key designers (architects) was to improve their presentation ability in front of potential clients. The reasoning went as follows. If their designers were able to spend more time honing their presentation in the Quality Quadrant, they would be able to increase the ability to connect with their client audience. This connection would happen over a few simple, yet powerful messages. These powerful messages could make the difference in getting a project approved or obtaining the sale. However, as the program progressed and they began to see improvements in terms of employee excitement and presentation results, the topic of conversation shifted from one of mere training to creating an environment of ‘presentation excellence.’ They felt the time invested in presentation content and delivery would ‘raise the bar’ for the entire firm a little bit at a time.  

HCA also integrated their current client workload with their desire to make an investment in their employees. This meant they started their training program a few hours before the start of a normal business day. I have often heard this thinking referred to as ‘taking one step backwards in order to get two (or more) steps ahead.’ Real self-improvement of any kind is really an investment in oneself and something that taken collectively within an organization will definitely provide ‘an order of magnitude’ benefit. Even though the major training program has been completed at HCA, they have shifted their mindset to spend as much time as possible in the Quality Quadrant. It is no secret that this commitment to training came from the top.  

Training as Strategic Value
C-Level Perceptions of the Strategic Value of Learning , a joint research paper by ASTD and IBM, written in January 2006, echoes this change in mindset. The paper highlights research conducted with 53 C-Level (CEO, CFO, CTO, COO, etc.) Executives and stated, “Learning provides strategic value to the enterprise, business unit and individual capability level of an organization.” The paper went on to further state, “Perceptions of stakeholders are a key indicator of learning’s value.” Clearly HCA successfully shifted the perceptions of their designers through creating a culture of presentation excellence and one thing that was done successfully was to properly set expectations and then monitor the training as it progressed along the way.  

Larger organizations have taken this mindset to an entirely new level by creating Corporate Universities. However, only changing the name of the training function within an organization is not enough. In The Corporate University Workbook: Launching the 21 st Century Learning Organization by Kevin Wheller and Eileen Clegg, “A true corporate university has moved beyond training and education and into the daily challenge of getting results. It provides leadership in supporting people and processes to achieve bottom-line success for the organization.” A Corporate University is part training, part marketing and part business development. It is training with specific intention.  

Many organizations have created a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) position to run the Corporate University and other training initiatives. This person is responsible for interacting with the executive-level management team to provide significant value to the organization. One of the ways this C-level executive’s performance is measured is through value to the bottom line. Herein lies the danger, getting too caught up with demonstrating ROI in financial or accounting terms. Many organizations even try to implement proprietary measuring systems and fail to provide a direct cause and effect when it comes to training. This is where the mindset of the learning organization needs to be further influenced. Furthermore, a key finding of the ASTD/IBM research paper was that CLO’s should not work so hard to convince the C-suite of the value of investing in learning. Instead the C-suite’s value the trusted relationship with the CLO’s more than the ROI data!  

Instead of trying to find a direct bottom line benefit to training, organizations must realize training has an overall value that does not need to be quantified in specific terms. Knowledge Asset Management, a firm based in Bethesda, MD, traced the S&P (Standards & Poors) performance of public companies for three years. They tracked companies who spent twice as much as other firms on employee development. Their findings showed organizations with the largest investments in people performed 17 to 35 percent better than the S&P index over the period measured. Training does have an impact on the bottom line and it is also a further way to retain employees.  

A Human Capital Strategy
The knowledge that training provides associated value to an organization is proof enough to justify continued investments in training and education. According to the article “Training Revs Up,” in the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) HRMagazine, Hewlett Packard’s training budget for 2005 was $300 million, a 10% increase over the year before. The article went onto state, “Companies like HP recognize that it is more cost-efficient and competitive to develop talent from within rather than compete for talent on the outside. HR experts and trainers have been arguing for this strategy ever since ‘the war for talent’ dominated the labor market in the late 1990s.” Organizations are finally realizing the importance of training and are making a long-term sustainable strategic investment in training. Organizations are increasing their training, but the emphasis has shifted.

However, training isn’t something that should be done at the last minute. When training is introduced gradually with active involvement of the participants, the results are more long lasting and there will be greater retention of the knowledge. This idea comes from a Chinese proverb that says, “If I hear it I’ll forget, if I write it down I’ll remember, but only if I do it will I understand.” To create a true learning environment an organizations needs to have consistency by ‘raising the training bar’ over the long-term. The way to do this effectively is to build a Confidence Baseline among all employees so the consistent training over the long-term will continue to produce higher quality results.  


The term many organizations have been adopting for this sustainable investment in training is known as having a human capital learning strategy. This strategy is frequently divided into knowledge transfer, customer education to sell more products and services, government compliance and managerial skills training such as training executives to increase their communication power.   Moreover, as the world becomes more interconnected, there will be a continued requirement for many training functions to be centralized so as to deliver consistent training to many locations around the globe. The delivery of effective training programs by a Corporate University or spearheaded by a CLO will increasingly involve the use of technology.  

The Technology Advantage
As the CLO or training function within an organization starts to augment delivery through the use of technology, there will be more collaboration between the CLO and the CTO (chief technology officer). The CLO and CTO will be charged with delivering the training to employees in remote locations through the use of downloadable Podcasts, streaming video and audio programs. In addition, there will be continued momentum for content to be created by employees in order to preserve corporate knowledge.

While some training will be augmented by technology, technology will not replace instructor-led training. This is primarily due to the value of being in the same room with colleagues as well as being able to benefit from the body language of the instructor. In a groundbreaking study in 1971 on the importance of body language in communication, Dr. Albert Mehrabian of ULCA found that visual communication makes up 55% of the total communication picture. This means that technology will only be able to deliver the 7% of verbal and the 38% vocal component making up 45% of communication. Remember the best way to learn will always be face-to-face with an instructor or speaker augmented by technology.

The effective use of technology is perhaps an organization’s hidden advantage. Peter Senge’s groundbreaking book, The Fifth Discipline, was recently updated after 14 years. He said, “In the long run the only sustainable competitive advantage is your organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” The best way to do this is to compliment an organization’s investment in training with technology. I know this all too well as a member of the National Speakers Association (NSA). In addition to one annual and regional conference, a learning University, monthly meetings and a magazine, I receive an audio CD. I frequently play the audio CD in my car and transfer key tracks to my iPod for repeat listening. I also have the opportunity to download Podcasts from the NSA website for further learning and reinforcement.   However, I am highly motivated to learn too.  

Podcasts Reinforce Learning
According to eMarketer, an Internet research group based in New York, the number of Podcast users grew to 11.4 million in 2005 and is expected to reach over 55 Million by 2010. Perhaps Apple Computer stock is still a good buy as the demand for iPods will continue to increase. With the upcoming release of Apple’s iPhone in June 2007, organizations will have the potential to deliver high-quality streaming audio and video (in the form of Vcasts) to employees all over the world from a single platform. This delivery method is in contrast to just 10 years ago when I worked at one of the technology-leading companies of the time, Silicon Graphics. They invested heavily in employee training and it was entirely done through instructor-led learning. While this might seem somewhat contradictory to Dr. Mehrabian’s study, it shows the continuing evolution of training; a base of instructor-led programs augmented by Podcasts and Vcasts to reinforce the lessons learned.  

Capital One, a Fortune 500 financial services company based in Richmond, VA, has purchased over 3,000 iPods for their E-Learning program. The iPods are used to download courses from the Capital One University and provide an effective way to augment traditional learning methods. In a Capital One employee survey on Podcasting, 92% said it is a worthwhile investment and 93% said it’s an effective use of their time, especially if the learning is conducted while in the car or during the commute to the office.  

IBM takes Podcasting a step further and offers employees the ability to generate content. It has become an internal tool allowing anyone from software to services to post a Podcast. In another IBM/ASTD research paper, Closing the Generational Divide, shifting workforce demographics and the learning function , a key issue is “Passing the torch of experience.” This involves transferring knowledge from parts of the workforce that are retiring or leaving so as to retain this key knowledge. Technology makes this very feasible and affordable and allows younger employees to ramp up their learning curve by being exposed to the bigger picture right away.  

The big picture view of helping to set expectations is very important. I often mention the Latin word for education, educare , which literally means to bring forth or draw out. I let audience members know their unique experiences and memories are very valuable and these can be a contribution to the process of learning. By changing the rules of how the training is delivered, I am able to engage my audience in a unique way and get them to participate in the learning process. This helps executives realize the work they are doing to improve their presentation to a client is much more important than their cell phones or PDAs.   

When organizations move from viewing training as an expense to training being part of a long-term investment in their employees, a true learning environment will be created. A true learning environment means employees are recognized as unique contributors, are rewarded for their value and given consistent training over a long period of time. By investing in employees, an organization will be more productive and be better able to retain top talent. In order to further develop talented employees, an organization needs to augment their training with the appropriate use of technology. In this way organizations will be able to gain a true competitive edge.

As a C-Level Leader, here’s how to integrate the lessons of this article:
(1) Change your mindset from training as an expense to creating a long-term investment in your employees (a learning environment).  

(2) Recognize the strategic value of training as an effective way to retain top talent and to increase productivity.   

(3) Leverage technology to enable your employees to learn faster than the competition, as this is your true competitive edge.  

Source by Mark Sincevich

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