As part of our monthly theme, Robin Hoyle focuses on the shortfalls of Training Needs Analysis and what we can do about it.
Training Needs Analysis. Sounds like a good idea – you check out what skills you need, assess your workforce, define the gaps and deliver some programmes to meet the requirements. Easy. What could possibly go wrong?
I should be clear that in theory I think Training Needs Analysis is a good thing. So why do I think it might be needless (apart from getting a cheap gag in with the acronym, of course)? I genuinely believe that it is done with such varying quality that in many organisations they'd be best advised not to bother. In fact, poorly conceived and implemented TNAs damage the reputation of the L&D team and fuel the often unkind commentary about our relevance from other business functions.
The process of TNA requires the definition of the skills required – a competence framework perhaps or at least something similar. The competence framework, or at least the application of it, is one area where things go wrong.
The process of assessing individuals – and a good TNA requires some kind of individual assessment - is one of the responsibilities delegated to line managers as part of the annual appraisal process. The trouble is most managers – though not all – consider this process an unnecessary chore. In fact, in a survey I did of around 700 managers a couple of years ago, more than one third quite specifically said that this is a role which should be carried out by HR.
"Defining unambiguously what individuals need to do requires a great deal of detail. The trouble is that most statements of capability don't define what 'good' looks like in a way which the team leader or coach can support."
One of the reasons for their reluctance is that the competencies are defined in 'trainer speak'. With good reason. Defining unambiguously what individuals need to do requires a great deal of detail. The trouble is that most statements of capability don't define what 'good' looks like in a way which the team leader or coach can support. If the shift manager can't make head nor tail of what is written then the whole process comes to a halt and the individual's training, if it is discussed at all, is relegated to a performance appraisal afterthought.
Think about a skill most of us are familiar with, eg driving a car. A competency statement could be: 'Can smoothly shift into the correct gear for the speed of the car and the road conditions.' You might want to put a few caveats around that: How do you know which is the correct gear? Is it just that the driver doesn't stall the car or do you want something more, such as the sound of the engine or the read out from the rev counter? So as well as the statement, you might have a number of measures.
The problem is that that's just changing gear. Once you break the task of driving a car into such small competence statements, you need hundreds of them just to drive to Tesco. These become unwieldy when we try to break down all the tasks someone would undertake to such a degree of granularity.
So why not make them simpler and more wide ranging. Problem number two. We want the training needs identified to be as actionable as possible and to be applied fairly and objectively. The less precise we become, the more likely these are to be interpreted subjectively. If we link TNA into the performance appraisal process, we get a reluctance to define someone as 'incompetent' when issues of performance-related pay are added to the mix. Using our driving example again: 'can drive safely with regard to prevailing road conditions' sounds OK, but what does that mean? If you've ever had a white-knuckle experience as a passenger you know that what driving safely means to one person is a different matter to others.
So, competencies can be unwieldy and most line managers don't take the time or effort to understand them and apply them correctly. It's entirely the line manager's fault. Not really. I think as L&D professionals we have to take some of the blame. We define roles at such a granular level of detail that the people supervising the staff actually doing the job find them difficult to understand and interpret. Then, because we have different pay grades, we add to the complexity by differentiating the exact same competencies across the hierarchy.
"We might seek to revise or create our competencies by consulting widely with the line managers. Getting them on board at the start is a great idea."
To overcome this process, we might seek to revise or create our competencies by consulting widely with the line managers. Getting them on board at the start is a great idea. Again, my experience of doing exactly that has been somewhat flawed. In a previous life, I was involved in making business and management TV programmes. I interviewed many hundreds of people who were good at something. I found that many peak performers are actually not very good at articulating what it is they do. In the absence of an analysis of what makes them effective – or at least the language to express it – they fall back on homilies and clichés which don't give someone new to a role much to go on. I was recently working with a team who had used the interview method to define a series of competencies. One of the ones they came up with was 'Demonstrates a can do attitude'. What in the name of everything sacred to a training professional does that mean? How do I train that? How do I measure it? Most importantly, how do I know it when I see it and will it look the same in both Penge and Paris?
This article concludes next week.
Robin is senior partner at Learnworks. He is a writer, trainer and consultant helping global businesses develop people and improve performance.