associate director Huthwaite International
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‘Embedment’ is a real word, and a real thing

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23rd Nov 2015
associate director Huthwaite International
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Training is more than simply organising a few courses and hoping something sticks. David Freedman offers his advice on how to build ‘embedment’ into your training.

The various terms people use to describe what should happen after a trainer or training organisation has delivered an event are often treated interchangeably. Reinforcement is a favourite, and so is sustainability. Both describe desirable states, but they don’t perhaps get to the heart of the primary requirement. I first heard ‘embedment’ from a non-native-English speaking client and assumed it was an ugly, hybrid concoction. But it turns out that it’s a perfectly legitimate borrowing from structural engineering vocabulary, to convey the permanent fixing or embedding of one substance (eg stones) into another (eg cement) in order to enhance overall strength.

Given that the aim of any training intervention is to fix new behaviours permanently into an organisation or cohort in order to strengthen performance, the word seems entirely appropriate. The process of embedment of skills into pre-existing modes of behaviour, hoping to alter their state and improve the outcomes, is surely what boards pay good money for when they buy the stuff. So, why does training often fail to embed, and what can guarantee that embedment is effective?

Too often, when the time finally comes for L&D to make a decision on which training to implement, they have lost their sense of the original overarching behaviour change goal. Then they get caught up in the detail of implementation planning. By this time, the strategic aims first laid down by the board have drifted away amid a torrent of practical or financial concerns and the objective becomes simply to get it done, rather than to get it done well. If the chief executive’s or responsible director’s motivation for initiating the training was, say, to increase sales by improving observable sales behaviours, then the outcome has to be measured in those terms. And the tools used for embedment have to be directed to that end.

A more important question than, 'What content should we choose?', or 'How do we want to blend digital and physical elements of the training?', or 'What will the trainers be like?' is this: 'What do we want the outcome of this to be, and what are all the elements we’ll need to make it work?'. Whether the training project involves an external supplier or internal design (or both), questions about embedment should be asked very early in the design and planning process, and at the highest level.

Indeed, if the outcomes were defined at board level (and surely, they always should be), the levers to make it happen must – to some extent – be exercised by those at board level. The key here is timing. That L&D project drift I mentioned has echoes elsewhere. Boards get, well, bored. Or at least their priorities change. What started out in January as an urgent mandate from the top of the company to make large numbers of employees better at a certain thing has become a distant memory by July when you have to go back to get your plans signed off, the budget agreed and the organisational implications considered – and they’re all busy worrying about an acquisition in South America or a rising competitor in Singapore. Unless, that is, you talk the language of embedment from the day you first undertake to make the project happen, and recruit a champion of your cause at the top table who is versed in the salient details of the project. That someone will (to take just a few possible examples) have to defend the case for dedicated resources to produce customised learning material, support the recruitment of internal coaches against competing demands on those professionals' time, stand up for the right of experts to measure behavioural outcomes, and interpret that information back to the board however uncomfortable the findings might be. 

They must be prepared to make it consistently and repeatedly clear to everyone involved that there will be planning; that there will be people who need taking away from their day jobs to complete learning tasks before any training room events; that budget and key experts’ time will be needed to make sure the LMS or CRM can integrate the new digital pre-learning modules or cloud-based post-learning toolkits; that the last day of the last classroom training session is probably barely even the midpoint of the overall behaviour change process; that learning successful behaviours is an endless road on which most of the travellers in the organisation probably haven’t even set out yet – if indeed all of the travellers are even part of the organisation at this point.

If the attention span at the top of the organisation can be extended, and the application span among the L&D implementers never loses sight of the corporate imperatives, and if both have a full appreciation of the sheer size and scope of an end-to-end behaviour change project, then there’s a foundation for success. With that pressure from both sides being applied, the people who live through the behaviour change and the organisation will experience embedment, and the initiative will begin to prove its worth. Then the other favourite and more familiar word - sustainability - becomes possible. 

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