What goes into the best courses, and who makes the most apt student? Addressing these vital issues of executive education as a business outsider, Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London, puts together his personal recommendations for a fulfilling experience.
Management education is big business. From business schools to personal coaches, organisations spend fortunes in the hope that they can get the best out of their managers. Some think talented people are more likely to join organisations that offer good and regular development and training. Others believe it is a necessity, not an option - if you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.
Companies often make sly distinctions about the type of education they offer their employees. 'Training' is often for the troops, while 'development' is reserved for officers. You are sent on a training course, but rewarded with a development programme. The former is compulsory, remedial and sheepdip-like, the latter is elective, distinguished and personalised. Education and development are prizes, rewards for being talented or senior, but training means that you don't have the skills or knowledge to do the job properly - maybe you have fallen behind or don't seem to have what it takes.
The most important question an organisation should ask when it comes to business education is: what's the return on investment? What exactly is the training you offer for? And how do you develop and maintain its impact on employees over time? Nearly all forms of education are expensive in terms of time and money - note the time commitment of a part-time or distance-learning MBA. And what the grey ones of the bottom line want to know most of all is how to measure training success, though this simple question is tricky to answer. Is it enough to measure responses to the course through evaluation happy-sheets or by whether the trainee's boss, colleagues or subordinates notice any positive difference?
There are other, just as important questions: does training for 'soft' skills, such as emotional intelligence, work better than training for 'hard' skills, such as IT? Or is it the other way round? Can you really teach leadership, for example? Is training intended to increase self-awareness, improve job satisfaction or increase employee productivity, or is it aimed at improving staff retention and promotability? The aim of business education should fit with a hypothetical shareholder perspective - ie, to make the company more successful through better-informed, more versatile or more perceptive staff.
There are well-established, yet often ignored, principles of training and education. First, it's known that people learn the most and retain more when they are actively involved and engaged in their training Second, they do best when given prompt, continuous and positive reward for progress - they need real and honest feedback. Third, 'modelling' (learning by copying others) works very well. And finally, it's better to teach a course over a couple of weeks rather than deliver the whole thing in one session, although this often takes too much effort for the training department to get their heads around.
Apart from the cost question, the really difficult issue with training is called 'generalisability' or 'transfer of training'. Do the skills and knowledge learned during a course transfer back to the workplace and hold up over time? It's all very well being able to do something in the training room while the tutor hovers over you, but what happens when you're back in the workplace facing angry customers and a computer that's on the blink?
It's known that transfer of training occurs much more if the skills are thoroughly learned and if the learners understand the why as much as the how of what they are supposed to do. Of course, the more realistic the simulations and role-plays, the better.
Training should also include ambiguous, risky or unusual problems, issues and situations, so that trainees find their own solutions outside regular procedures. …