How do we know that we have learned something? Look for behaviour changes and create space for them to happen.

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If you are interested in professional development, you probably have asked yourself that question a couple of times. Of course you want to have a return on the investment of your valuable time. If you are responsible for professional development in your organization or if you make your living by helping others develop in their professions (as do I), this is the most critical question of all. How do we know whether the money an organization spends on training and coaching is worth the outcome?

So we need to evaluate the outcomes and there are some established approaches (the so-called four levels according to Donald Kirkpatrick), each with their pros and cons:

  1. Self-assessment along the lines of e.g. “Did the course meet your expectations? Did you find the training useful? Would you recommend it to your colleagues?” Pro: Very easy to do with a simple short set of questions. Con: Does not really say much about the effect of training.
  2. Formally testing the acquired skills. Pro: Quite easy to do with a quiz. Con: Still does not say whether the new skills are actually transferred to the workplace.
  3. Looking for changes in behaviour at work, e.g. by interviewing participants a couple of months after the training. Pro: Measures the actual transfer of knowledge to the workplace. Con: More time-consuming than 1. and 2.
  4. Measuring impact on e.g. bottom line, quality etc. Pro: Since one of these things was the reason the training was undertaken in the first place, this is the best measurement. Con: Very time-consuming and requires measuring both before and after training.

I prefer no. 3, since it has the best value-for-money-ratio of the four: You get data that is useful without spending a lot of time to gather it. Plus, no. 4 has a substantial drawback: You only measure what you have defined beforehand and thus might overlook unforeseen beneficial effects. So this approach is not really suitable for knowledge workers in a rapidly changing environment.

So we need to look for behaviour changes. But, those are very hard to accomplish, as anyone who has ever tried to break a habit (smoking, biting nails, auto-munching chips while watching TV etc.) will confirm. Also, numerous studies have shown that education does not necessarily lead to behaviour change. Or have you ever met anyone who lost weight by reading diet books or became strong and flexible by watching yoga videos on YouTube?

That´s why we need to create a space for behaviour changes to actually take place, as well as incentives:

  • Space can be created by combining training with coaching. A study from 1997 has shown that training increased productivity by 22%, while a combination of training and coaching increased it by a whooping 88%.
  • Participants in training can also create this space on their own by reserving time in their schedules for reflection, goal setting, trying out new behaviours and evaluation (also know as self-coaching).

Incentives can be external (“After I have had this difficult talk with my colleague, I will treat myself to a walk in the park and ice-cream after lunch”) or internal (“If I start off each project with clearly defining its scope, I will provide great client service and that is my main motivator in my profession”).