I recently interviewed a learning professional for a job. He’d spent many years at General Electric and told he that back in the early 1990s he approached a manager named Jeffrey Immelt about doing some leadership training for his team. Immelt, who a few years later succeeded Jack Welch as CEO, said to him, “Fine, but first you have to prove to me that the benefit will be greater than the cost of taking my people off their jobs.”
Hundreds of books and articles have addressed Immelt’s question, which in the language of training experts is, “How do you quantify training’s ROI, or return on investment”?
I have a different question that has to do with supply and demand? How did we get to a place where in large organizations the suppliers of training (learning professionals) have to generate demand for their services?
It doesn’t work that way in other departments. The IT team supplies services when the demand side – the company’s internal clients – asks for help fixing computers or installing new software. Operations doesn’t roam the halls asking department heads, “Can I rearrange your workspace?” or “Should I turn up the heat?”
But the demand for training – particularly soft-skills training – very often doesn’t originate from the managers and supervisors who, if training is really needed, should be clamoring for it.
Readers in small and medium-size businesses might be thinking this is only a big-company issue. It’s not. True, you don’t have a corporate learning department that pesters your managers to “do some training.” Instead, that pestering tends to come from the CEO, who read a book or talked to a buddy on the golf course yesterday and suddenly “got religion” about the urgent need for leadership or sales training.
In both instances, the manager who should be generating demand for training – because there’s a very specific, very urgent need for it in his or her department – is playing a passive role.
That passivity is the most glaring symptom of what’s wrong with talent development at most organizations today. Managers are accountable for developing their teams. They need to step back and ask, “What skillsets do my people need to excel at their jobs?” And they need to actively seek out content that delivers those skillsets.
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