Anybody who has been in charge of training for a company will understand that beneath the glamour of being held in high regard, implementing training strategy to line staff is actually a nightmare. In my communication with colleagues in the training industry, I got to appreciate the sheer slope they had to overcome, especially in an SME environment, in order to implement their Total Learning Plan.
Top leadership that drives training consistently are features of high-performing, sustainable organisations and I had the blessing of working in 2 companies that upheld these beliefs.
What’s interesting was that, be it in these training-driven organisations or in SMEs trying to meet future demands, inertia from ground up is a common obstacle that all Training Managers face. Convincing frontline staff the importance of picking up new skills and refreshing current competencies overtakes planning as priorities for training for Training Managers.
Why Do We Even Need Training?
There are 2 ways training address the needs of the organisation: To fill current competency gaps, and to fill projected competency gaps.
Given that an organisation is already running on lean operation (which is actually a stark reality considering Singapore’s current tight labour market), the former can mean the staff are presently over-stretched and line managers cannot afford to spare staff to attend training, without increasing workload on the remainder staff.
The latter means managers have to deal with human latency; Human beings are bad at forecasting future needs and if their current skill sets are sufficient to fulfill current needs, there will be even greater inertia for staff to pick up new skills for competencies that may or may not be needed in the future.
The mismatch between training objectives and reality on ground presents the greatest obstacles for the training department.
There were some learning points that I had picked up over the years that can be applied to overcome the obstacles; tried and tested enablers of training that helped me achieve various KPIs set by the upper management.
Direct communication Between Leadership and Ground
Engagement is the buzzword for the past few years, and Singapore Prison Service had been one that epitomises that. After all, it was named Aeon Hewitt’s Top 10 Best Employer in the APAC back in 2013 for a reason. Skeptics may point out that SPS is a small outfit, with barely over 2,500 core employees. However, add in the fact that 3/4 of the staff are on the operational front and each prison is its own ‘town’ with independent operations, and “Engagement” becomes a joke.
Try organising a Prison Family Day for your staff who are on 3 different shifts (bearing in mind that each institution has its own shift pattern), and dragging out physically tired officers through multiple security to a location that is not so far that it deters people from participation, but not so near that it felt like going back to work. On a smaller scale, when I had to organise an institution retreat, it had to be held over 2 (non-consecutive) days and required weeks of manpower planning before I could even safely say that the event would cover 100% of our staff population.
It was therefore an amazing feat that my Commander then wanted to make sure he had lunch with every staff under his charge.
It became a special portfolio and it took the whole village over a few years for him to achieve that, but he did it.
It was through these engagement that they tried to impress upon the ground staff about (a) the direction the prison was taking in the mid to long term, and (b) the relevant skills they had to equip themselves with.
There were skeptics, of course, but officers being generally respectful of their top leaders accepted the belief more readily than when the message came from a lowly executive-level officer. That seemingly effortless act signified firm support from the top management for the rolling out of training initiatives.
Methods of Communication as Enablers of Training
Other than direct communication from top leadership, the lower management who had to roll out the plans had to consider various methods of communication. As mentioned previously, the prison officers were highly dispersed; with their jobs being highly manual, there was little reason for them to access the intranet while on duty. Even when they are off duty, the intranet could not be accessed from outside of the prison. The job intensity of prison officers was such that it was constant work from the time they stepped into the Housing Unit till they leave the workplace, so there was little time for officers to sit around in offices to pore over the intranet messages or email broadcasts.
Constant Update to Managers Who Are Accountable
Luckily, prison officers largely work in teams, with the Officer in Command (OC) managing teams working different shifts. These OCs are then the Line Managers who are accountable for the training proficiency of their officers.
Many of them complained that they did not know the status of their officers’ proficiency, so my team constantly updated them with information such as expiry dates of certification, class forecasts, while highlighting data that required their immediate attention.
Not all managers are proficient to manage their staff’s competencies, but many found that information useful. At the very least, when their own bosses (the Superintendants) asked for updates, they have an idea what was happening on the ground.
For example, when one of their staff is ‘detailed’ (prison jargon for ‘rostered’) to attend First Aid recertification, the OCs were informed 1 quarter in advance and the officer’s certification expiry date would be given upfront, so that if the HU could not meet the date, they can make the decision to re-schedule either the training date or personal plans; all they need is sufficient information to make that decision.
Roadshow to Explain Rationale and WIIFM
As with all civil service agencies, SPS conducts a yearly corporate retreat to make plans for the next FY, and a corporate advance to inform officers of the plans. As only a small number of officers could attend the advance, roadshows were a yearly feature where bite-size information about the plans were set up at common meeting place (like the staff canteen and institution’s staff lobby).
In 2013, SPS changed its vision, so on top of the usual advance, special facilitation sessions (very much like townhall sessions) were conducted to reinforce the message. After all, a vision has to be seen by everyone, no?
Infogram to Explain Roadmaps / Plans
Roadshows have to present big plans in bite-size formats. Throughout our formal pre-employment education, we had been told again and again never to fill our presentation slides with words; each line should only contain less than 7 words. How many people followed that?
Similarly, the presentation of such information was important, even during roadshows.
When infograms became common at the turn of 2010, I made use of such media to catch the attention of officers who were rushing to report to work (or to their wives). After all, given the diverse education backgrounds (and hence comprehension levels) of the officer, the information had to be simple enough for quick consumption.
On a side note, even for our monthly In-Service Training, the agenda items had been scheduled to last only between 20-30 minutes, so as to address the issue of short attention spans by officers who were innately hands-on (i.e. kinesthetic and tactile) learners.
Hall of Fame to Celebrate Success
Everybody laud such methods, but few rarely did it. For one, there’s this consolidation of data. Also, if it were a quarterly update (like updating the status of IPPT completions) before the annual consolidation, it meant constant updating (with approvals to be obtained prior to these updates) and hence more work for the task owner.
This ‘old-school’ method still works well; I had observed an uptick in discussions of related topics, which in turn, acted as an inception for others to start taking actions.
At the end of the day, this method that acts on the principle of ‘praise in public’ is an age-old tried and tested implementation that should be in everyone’s ‘marketing’ strategy to push for training plans.
Leverage Mediums of Communication as Enablers of Training
Since social media infiltrated all aspects of our everyday lives, everybody believed that information has to be disseminated online.
Interestingly, the staff I worked with had been excruciatingly slow to embrace this. There’s this belief that the company would spy on their online contributions (in the first place, why would one wants to bad mouth the company on the intranet?) and that they prefer the good-old-way of being addressed personally (perhaps it boils down to the fact that both companies I worked employ people who are very people-focused).
However, all is not gone.
For example, “Hall of Fames” can still be published on noticeboards at staff canteen. In fact, such commendations can also be via direct supervisors.
There were certain ‘good news’ (like being selected for a special scheme or achieving the best record of the cluster) that we would first inform the staff’s direct supervisor. That supervisor would then take the opportunity, during handing and taking over sessions between 2 shifts, to announce the good news. It worked on the ‘praise in public’ principle, celebrating success, and adds a personal touch to the delivery of such good news. It is possible, and all supervisors want to play the role of the good guy, so they would not turn down such offering of good news too.
Back to the use of intranet, an interesting observation I had was how the information, kept online for a few years, could work “magic” a few years later. There would be people who would “stumble” upon the old information and start spreading the information amongst the ranks.
“Look at that! SGT XXX received such an award before!”
The locker-room talk seemed like a gossip, but imagine yourself being the one praised even after a few years have lapsed. That, in itself, is a form of motivation to continue working hard!
Moral Courage to Reprimand Detractors/Non-Compliance
The not-so-pleasant aspect of implementation of training plans is to ensure those who do not comply with the rules are being addressed.
The problem with people-focus organisations is that humans do not want to reprimand other people. However, people-focus or not, employees gossip. When someone did not comply with the rules and got away with that, everyone in the company would know. They will either test the system themselves, or lose trust in the company over time (especially if such incursions are repeatedly un-addressed).
Therefore, all non-compliance must be addressed, but using the “Reprimand in Private” principle.
Champions vs Implementors (IPPT Champions vs PTIs)
One other enabler to implement training strategy is to leverage on Champions and Implementors. Both have similar (and sometimes overlapping) job scopes, but they play different roles altogether.
Champions help to disseminate the message, sometimes through organising events (like team bonding) while Implementors are like trainers to guide staff through the process of change.
In the example of achieving IPPT completion rates, Champions are the ones who helped disseminate infograms, organise training sessions and spark discussions about maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Implementors are the Physical Training Instructors who roster themselves for training sessions to train the officers, support the claims of Champions on what training methods to adopt in order to improve fitness, and to pace the officers during their 2.4km runs.
The absence of either one is not a deal-breaker, but having both on board will definitely ensure higher rates of success.
The training industry, especially in Singapore, is still like Wild Wild West. Add on the casual attitude by most companies to just assign someone without training in training (pun intended) to assume a training role, the success of training plans usually end up as random, luck-based.
Therefore, the next time you are tasked with rolling out a training plan, take a look at whether you have the enablers on hand, and create them if you don’t, and turn the odds in your favour.
Disclaimer: I am a casual social commentator, who speaks because it is logical and rational, so my points are not necessarily based on established research and studies. As much as possible, I will refer to theories and knowledge I picked up through formal education. If you do agree to my ideas, please feel free to contaminate others in your social circle. If you disagree, though, it would be good to provide sources and credits, so that I can learn from my mistakes.