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More Bang for Your Buck
Layering durable skills for high-impact training

If the objective of your training program is to give people the technical information they need to do their jobs, you may well be aiming too low. Training programs can achieve multiple objectives, and there are many secondary objectives that can add to the impact of a training curriculum. You're paying a lot of money to bring all these people together, why not get more out of your training program by taking a little bit of time to design it, carefully, with layered objectives in mind?

Company managers and HR departments like to categorize employee training into two camps: job-specific technical training and management and leadership skill-building training.

Most organizations have some form of technical training. It's industry-specific, or even job-specific. It teaches the required skills for employees to succeed at the job for which they've been hired.

Then there's the other training, the froo-froo, the fluff, the HR training, usually reserved for managers and often consisting of half-day seminars on topics such as conflict resolution, communication, problem solving, and team building. These are the so-called soft skills.

Too often, the soft skills training involves made up scenarios and role-playing. Oh, how corporate managers love role-playing. (Okay, they don't, usually.) These skills are important to build good managers and leaders, but so often the people that attend them view their time spent as wasted.

The junior people, on the other hand, are enrolled in the technical training programs. The higher-ups think they're not yet ready for the management-oriented soft-skills training. Or are they? Consider this: as your entry level and junior people grow within the company and move up the ladder to more serious management roles, these skills are absolutely the skills that they will need.

Building durable skills

We'd suggest that these so-called soft skills are actually durable skills, because they can be used at any level of the company, across organizations and even outside of the work environment. They increase the emotional intelligence quotient of your managers and employees, which impacts the efficiency, productivity and sophistication of your organization.

Here's our big question: why do companies continue to offer technical training and soft skills or durable-skills training as two separate training programs?


This deliberate initiative to reinforce more than one learning objective in a training or workshop is what we call layering. It means designing a program with both technical and durable skills in mind.

What we've found is that combining these two kinds of trainings is a powerful way to deepen the participant's learning experience for both types of content. The durable skills provide context for the technical content, and the technical content is made more relevant because of the durable skill-building.

Here's an example of what we mean:

Let's say we're training a group of junior insurance underwriters. It's not uncommon to give them a case-study; for instance a business case about determining if a claim is fraudulent or legitimate. Instead of just reading and discussing the case, layer in a real-life durable-skill building experience. Put the participants into several teams to study the case. Give them a challenge, for instance, to report back their findings in a comprehensive and succinct presentation.

When the case study is finished, the activity is debriefed, first of all, on its technical content. What was the pertinent information? What was the protocol required? What was the best outcome? What was the learning from the case study? Teams present back their insight into the case based on their discussion. The technical learning objectives are accomplished. It answers the question: what did we learn about our job?

Then there's a second element to debrief, using prompts to reinforce the durable skills: How did the team work? Who led the discussion? Was it effective? Who took leadership of the team, when, and how? When were you engaged as a team member, and when were you not? This part of the debrief answers the question: What did we learn about ourselves while doing the assignment?

And even a third layer to debrief. Part of the assignment was to make a comprehensive and succinct presentation. Discuss the content and delivery of the presentations and how comprehensive or succinct they were and how they might have been improved. Now you've added a third level of learning, with an additional opportunity for reflection on presentation skills.

The team experience is real-time and the content is not pretend or role-played. It's real-life. The result is a more memorable experience that is deeper on both the technical level and the durable skills level, in this case team leadership skills and potentially, presentation skills. And for those whom the technical content is easy, they have a whole separate learning platform to keep them engaged in the training.

A layered training: what else can you incorporate?

If you recognize that there are a number of learning opportunities that can be woven into a single training, then you can act deliberately to choreograph the training day so the objectives of your organization are better served by the training budget.

A few examples of potential layered training objectives:

Team building
This is the boot-camp phenomenon. Anyone who has been through a rigorous program with a group of people knows the ties built during an offsite multiple-day training can be powerful beyond explanation. This creates an informal mentoring and support network within your organization. It is an opportunity to build lasting employee relationships across platforms at every level.

Building presentation skills
Consider this: a training course is a presentation in itself. External presenters are often skilled presenters. You can take advantage of this expertise by simply asking your presenters to be overt about the process they use to present to the group; this provides a separate learning platform for group members who are tuned in. Now you're using the training curriculum as an opportunity for internal presenters to hone their presentation skills as well as building technical content and knowledge.

Plus a training course is packed with opportunities to make presentations. After breakout groups do their work, someone has to report back to the full group. Instead of two boring talking heads at a flipchart, inspire participants to make their presentations dynamic and compelling.

Feedback skills
There's a whole curriculum about giving feedback and other related communication and conflict resolution tools. It can be incorporated into any technical training in the simplest ways. For example, give participants some general guidelines on giving feedback, and then ask them to use it as they give participants feedback on their presentations when they report after a breakout session. The presenting participants can get feedback on their presentations, and the whole group can debrief how that feedback was given. Everybody gets to practice what they need to learn.

Debriefing as a leadership skill
Debriefing is a valuable business tool. In order to have something to debrief, build exercises into the training. Indeed, a training session without exercises is not a training - it's a lecture. Not only will doing help people remember what they learned, it will wake them up. And, an exercise is an experience, and all experiences are real even if they take place in a training environment. Exercises give practice run-throughs and debrief opportunities. Debriefing invites the participants to educate each other on both content and process.

Mining for organizational challenges
For leadership programs, try not to spend too much time on contrived pretend-scenarios. You can teach leadership skills and tackle important organizational challenges at the same time. It makes sense, since leadership requires the capacity to thoughtfully address the primary challenges facing an organization. If you're going to role-play, do it on a real challenge, that's real-time, right now. People will pay more attention. The skills they gain through the activity will be authentic. And there's a greater chance of really addressing any challenges or conflicts if you're examining it in the focused environment of a training experience. Don't be afraid of real life!

Creating internal consulting teams within the organization
People who have been to a 'layered' training together develop a camaraderie, shared experience and shared skills, and often loyalty as they get that the organization is investing in them. Imagine that a breakout group bonds while working on a case study during a training. After the training, an organization can leverage these performing teams by creating opportunities to work on special projects, to help solve specific challenges. In fact, identification of these challenges often occurs during training classes. The organization need only have some loose structure in place to reap the benefits of these teams continuing to work on challenges faced by the organization.

Promoting the organization's core values and mission
Make your mission more than just words on a page. Use debriefs to touch upon and reinforce the company's vision, mission and its core values. If a company's mission is authentic, it is intertwined with every aspect of how it functions, day-to-day as well as in training programs. If your training program - even a very simple technical training - doesn't reinforce your company's core values and mission, you're missing an opportunity to bang a drum that needs to be played every chance you get. It's also a chance to help employees learn and determine if their values are consistent with the company's values, and vice-versa!

Layering to leadership

Identify the most important durable skill that your organization wants to reinforce. Maybe it's teamwork. Maybe it's feedback skills. Whatever it is for your organization, layer this in. For junior level trainings, this may be the only durable skill that gets layered into the curriculum can just touch on one key aspect of the manager's training.

Introduce durable-skills into training programs and many good things can happen. You'll get a sense of which of your junior people have the skills to grow as potential managers. You'll create a common language between junior and senior people as the junior people begin to understand what their bosses are learning in their training. In addition, the company underlines its commitment to its people by giving them a taste of skill building beyond their current job description.

In short, increase the bang for your buck

A good training program will inspire participants to deliberately expand their own self-awareness while on their path to greater leadership. You can speed this process by finding and implementing layering opportunities. Increase the bang, decrease the bucks, and build a training regimen that reinforces the culture you want to create in your organization.

2009 by Tim Dunne and Maggie Dugan

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