TRAINING FOR CHANGING SKILLS IN ORGANIZATIONS

 

 

By Arnie Witchel

 

Copyright 2003: Witchel & Associates

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Abstract

Almost all descriptions of future work in organizations describe the workers as requiring more complex cognitive skills, as well as the need to maximize the potential of each individual worker. Increases in technologically sophisticated systems require a highly trained work force to operate the systems; unfortunately, the predictions are that fewer persons of this caliber are entering the work force (Goldstein & Gilliam, 1990). The call center industry is no different. The technological changes in the industry now demand far more service skills than answering a call to a support center for help. This paper reviews the literature associated with training to change skills successfully in the work environment and the mediating variables, both intrinsic and extrinsic, which affect changes in organizational behavior that go beyond the training environment. Recommendations for successful implementation and future research are offered.

 


Introduction

†††† Organizations develop a sustained competitive advantage by analyzing the way an organization competes (product strategy, pricing strategy), where it competes (markets selection, competitor selection), and the basis of competition (the organizationís assets and skills). Criteria for selection of key assets and skills is defined with respect to the competition, relevancy to the marketplace, feasibility and cost effectiveness and whether or not it will result in a strategic competitive advantage for the future. Routes to sustained competitive advantage include preemptive strategies and exploiting synergies between businesses that have complementary assets and skills (Aaker, 1989). Almost all descriptions of future work in organizations describe the workers as requiring more complex cognitive skills, as well as the need to maximize the potential of each individual worker (Goldstein & Gilliam, 1990). Increases in technologically sophisticated systems require a highly trained work force to operate the systems; unfortunately, the predictions are that fewer persons of this caliber are entering the work force (Goldstein & Gilliam, 1990). The call center industry is no different. The technological changes in the industry now demand far more service skills than answering a call to a support center for help. With the advent of the Internet, the demand for instant service delivered through the online environment to customers who order or need support through that channel has increased. The Internet grew from 171 million users in March of 1999 to 304 million in March of 2000, an increase of 78% (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2000). As noted above, development of skills that meet the demand for this growing segment of commerce and communication can foster a sustained competitive advantage for future competition.

†††† One of our major clients is a phone support out service for many large corporations. They have approximately 12,000 call center support associates placed throughout the United States. Our clientís business has evolved from offering call center services, to customer interaction management solutions that range from consultation, to establishing and maintaining the call center infrastructure for clients, to providing live online help to customers through the Internet. Clients who are active in customer order and delivery systems through the Internet have requested this newest service, of providing live online support. However, the associates of the company were hired for their phone skills, not their online skills. Due to the prevalence of the Internet and customer service needs, they must now learn email skills as well. The changes in the job related tasks from answering the phone to responding in the online environment have made new skills mandatory, with a rapid timetable for implementation.Management is not even sure if the employees have the skills necessary to make this transition to the new environment or how to develop them . Due to the nature of the change in service delivery noted above, the management of our client feels the urgency to change, but they are unsure how well they have communicated it, which is critical to a successful change initiative (Belasco, 1991). The client has hired Witchel, DeNigris & Associates as an outside instructional design firm to: 1) Assess the writing skills and abilities of its call center employees; and 2) To develop the knowledge, skills and abilities in authoring content and voice of email through a training program to effectively transition the organization into this area. This paper will review the literature associated with training to change skills successfully in the work environment, their application to the client, and the mediating variables that affect changes in organizational behavior that go beyond the training environment.

 

Literature Review

†††† Goldstein and Gilliam (1990) note that training programs are learning events that are planned in a systematic method, and are focused on the work environment. The first step in the learning environment is a needs assessment process. This assessment consists of an organizational analysis, task and knowledge skills and abilities (KSA) analysis, and person analysis (Goldstein & Gilliam, 1999). Organizations that construct training based on sophisticated needs analysis may have more effective training than those that do not (Morrow, Jarrett & Rupinski, 1997). The customized approach to assessing needs and implementing standards for quality programs allows the human resources function to link with the organizationís goals (Ludeman, 1991). The common feature that triggers training is the spotlight on a skills performance gap (Mabey, Salaman & Story, 1998).

†††† Prior to a needs assessment, an organizational analysis may indicate the approach to change that management should take. A strategic approach would view training and development as activities that are aligned with the organizationís overall business strategy, while at the same time aligned with the overall Human Resources Management policies and strategies that would include recruitment and selection, appraisal and assessment, reward and recognition, and career development (Mabey, Salaman & Storey, 1998). Generally, an approach to change may take three forms: re-engineering, total quality management (TQM), or the learning organization approach; an ideal approach might be a combination of TQM and the learning organization (Dervitsiotis, 1998). However, the approach should be contingent on the organizationís situation and the environment. While change is more easily accomplished when it is proactive and does not present a pressing need, the need for a fast, dramatic change in performance through restructuring or an infusion of technology would favor the re-engineering approach to jobs over the TQM or learning organization strategies (Dervitsiotis, 1998). It should be noted, however, that re-engineering has two major impairments: It often lacks shared vision, which hampers employee commitment, and it sometimes offers superficial changes that may not address deeper issues (Dervitsiotis, 1998).

†††† Similarly, Campion and Thayer (1997) describe four approaches to job design, each with its own outcome and trade-off. As with the approach to change, the type of design varies with the situation. The mechanistic approach to job design structures jobs so that they can be staffed by virtually anyone, with short training time, and few mental demands or errors expected. This uses a scientific management design. The biological approach is concerned with work physiology and ergonomics. Perceptual/motor job design links physical skills with how information is processed. This is similar to the biological approach in that it goes beyond job content and tries to link the entire work environment with the equipment to reduce injury. The motivational job design approach enlarges or enriches jobs in order to make the job meaningful through variety, feedback and achievement. Re-engineering is often associated with redesigning jobs that enlarge jobs for greater efficiency. These jobs, however, take longer to train and have greater mental demands, which can lead to increased stress and more errors, and can also lead to longer staffing times due to the skills involved (Campion & Thayer, 1997).

†††† When competency is low or unknown, as noted above with redesigned jobs that are enlarged, and there is low commitment on behalf of the followers, as might happen with a re-engineering approach, management should adapt its leadership style to fit the situation. Managerial approaches that work when employees are highly skilled, competent and willing to accept responsibility for their outcomes are not appropriate in other situations. Blanchard (1995) suggests that there are four styles of leadership that need to be considered. Directive leadership may be called for when development is low, even if commitment is high. If the development is low to moderate, the leader may consider more of a coaching style to build confidence and enthusiasm. Employees who demonstrate a moderate to high development may look to a leader for a supportive style. A delegating style is reserved for followers who demonstrate both high competence and commitment. Low skill levels, therefore, especially in a re-engineering situation that is using job redesign or job enlargement, may call for a more directive approach that begins the process leading to high performance by telling followers what to do and how to do it (Blanchard, 1995).

†††† This does not mean, however, that the training style to teach new skills must be a lecture from the podium format. Simulation as a form of training duplicates some essential features of an activity without portraying reality itself, allows greater control and opportunity for manipulating an event and understanding subsequent behavior, and provides concrete examples of how the organizationís values are reflected in problem solving (Thornton & Cleveland, 1990). Simulation is more likely to be effective when used in conjunction with more structured training methods such as lectures and demonstrations. It also provides significant opportunity for transfer of training because many of the conditions for transfer are present and employs many principles of adult learning (Thornton & Cleveland, 1990) and also fosters factors that are commonly found in successful organizational development efforts: open communication, collaboration solving problems, inquiring and experimenting (Porras & Hoffer, 1986). Bloomís taxonomy of adult learning would confirm these observations on simulation. Bloom identified six levels in the cognitive domain, from simple recall or recognition, to increasingly more complex and abstract thought that ultimately leads to evaluation; its application to training has stood the test of time (Niehoff & Whitney-Brammerlin, 1995). The taxonomy identifies the ascending levels of development as knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Simulation likewise aids adults in moving from the knowledge base to an eventual evaluation of the effectiveness of the skill being taught. Bloom describes this experience as ďthe putting together of elements and parts so as to form a wholeĒ (cited in Niehoff & Whitney-Brammerlin, 1995). Myers (1999) recommends that a high percentage of practiced and assessed learning objectives teach at the comprehension, application, and analysis level of Bloomís taxonomy. In the same vein, Usova (1997) describes how use of the taxonomy can be used to validate test scores and create more discriminating measures of learning assessment.

†††† Assessment of training effectiveness is difficult to measure. The traditional approach totraining effectiveness measures four criteria for assessing training effectiveness: affective reactions or responses to training, knowledge acquisition and retention, changes in job related behavior, and improvements in organizational results (Kirkpatrick, 1959a, 1959b, 1960a, 1960b). Since Kirkpatrick (1959a, 1959b, 1960a, 1960b) advocated the measurement of training benefits after the training occurs, studies have increasingly sought more sophisticated methods of assessing the effectiveness of training in the workplace.

†††† While some studies have examined Kirkpatrick's taxonomy and suggested improvements and revisions in its design (Alliger, Tannenbaum, Bennett, Traver & Shotland, 1997), others have advocated strategies for evaluating training within organizational constraints (Tannenbaum & Woods, 1992).

†††† While the literature tends to focus on the reactive evaluation of training as a strategy for measuring its effectiveness, intervening variables also complicate the predictive outcomes and efficiency of training. As Tracey and Tews (1995, p. 42) point out: "Simply put, effective training depends on events that occur before, during, and after a training program, which do not necessarily relate directly to training activities." These variables are either intrinsic to the trainee or extrinsic. Intrinsic variables include individual characteristics that the trainee may have. Individual characteristics, such as the trainee's attitude and motivation toward the training, are extremely difficult to quantify and predict. However, they do moderate training effectiveness. Not only do the individual's attitude and motivation toward training affect the success of training, so do factors such as perceived situational constraints (Mathieu, Tannenbaum & Salas, 1992). These situational constraints can negatively impact the trainee's motivation and vary from involuntary training (versus willingly participating in the training) to lack of information about the training, lack of time to devote to the training, or lack of necessary materials to complete the training (Mathieu, et al., 1992).As Alliger, et al. (1997) point out, this is a step that Kirkpatrick failed to identify in his use of the term "behavior" as a criterion for training effectiveness. There is a difference between can do and does do or will do (Alliger, et al., 1997). The intervening variable (motivation) between retaining the knowledge and transferring the skill affects the measurement of the training's success after the fact, but it is also critical in predicting whether training the individual will lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency on the job, demonstrating an increase in the trainee's performance.

†††† The intrinsic intervening variables are not limited to motivation or perceptions of situational constraints, however. Other individual characteristics that serve as intervening variables in delivering successful training include individual knowledge, skills and experience, which should be used as antecedent criteria to evaluate the trainee's readiness for training (Tracey & Tews, 1995). As noted above, training should be developed after a sophisticated needs assessment of the knowledge, skills and abilities of the trainees. Less clear is the issue of job commitment. Tracey & Tews (1995, p. 40) assert that if "individuals possess a high degree of commitment to their jobs and the organization, it is likely that they will view training as worthwhile and be committed to the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and skills." Other studies find no support for the hypothesis that high levels of career planning or job involvement affect higher training motivation (Mathieu, et al., 1992).

†††† Likewise, self-efficacy affects training effectiveness (Mathieu, Martineau & Tannenbaum, 1993). Self-efficacy is not concerned with the skills one learns, but with judgments of what the trainee can do with the skills the trainee possesses or gains. Self-efficacy levels at the conclusion of training, and in the process of training itself, have significant correlations with the transfer of training and the measurement of job performance (Mathieu, et al.). While motivation, skills, knowledge and abilities serve as antecedents for the development of self-efficacy, efficacy is obtained through repeated task related experiences (Bandura, 1986) and is measured during and after the training takes place. Mathieu, et al. hypothesize that self-efficacy is affected by initial performance, achievement motivation, choice and, as noted above, situational constraints.

†††† Although not predictable, there must be some type of positive judgment not only about the efficacy of the training by the trainee, but also positive reactions to the training itself during the training experience. This positive affective reaction moderates the relationship between motivation while training and the actual learning that takes place during training (Mathieu, et. al., 1992).

†††† In contrast to intrinsic intervening variables, there are also variables extrinsic to the trainee that will affect the training's efficiency and effectiveness. Primary among these is the work environment itself. There may be a direct link between an organization's culture and climate and the use of skills learned in training (Tracey, Tannenbaum, & Kavanagh, 1995). The social norms of the organization and open encouragement to use the new skills can also affect the transfer of training into performance (Tracey & Tews, 1995). The maturity of the organization will affect the training outcome if it approaches training as a valuable entity. Trainees report greater intentions to use the training when organizations hold employees accountable for the training they receive (Baldwin & Magjuka, 1991). Training professionals definitively state, ďthat there must be some type of accountability for trainees to use their newly acquired knowledge and skills. Performance appraisal systems should also be used to account for the training employees are expected to demonstrate" (Tracey & Tews, 1995, p. 42).

†††† Extrinsic variables in the work environment also will affect whether or not the training is reinforced. Trainers consistently report that the most depressing part of their job, upon follow-up, is when they find that participants in the program arenít applying the standards or skills to their jobs (Ludeman, 1991). Part of the reason may be that management positions are not included in the training program, so the trainee feels no obligation to make specific behavioral changes (Ludeman). Weiss (1977) found that subordinates tend to adopt the work values of their immediate supervisors.The social norms of the organization, and whether or not there is encouragement to transfer the training of performance standards into performance behavior can also affect the trainingís success (Tracey & Tews, 1995). In order to reach high levels of performance with new skills, management must tell them, show them, let them try, observe, and manage the consequences (Blanchard, 1995). Similarly, when training is aligned with the other Human Resources policies and strategies, such as reward and performance appraisal systems, trainees report greater intentions to use the training they receive (Baldwin & Magjuka, 1991).

†††† Training must be maintained for some time in order to be effective (Matthieu, et al., 1992). That is why training must be constantly reinforced and re-evaluated. There is only one way to measure if training is actually transferring into behavior: pre- and post-measurement tests (Ludeman, 1991). Letting the trainees know ahead of time that they will be measured on the implementation of the training will increase their motivation to add the new performance standards to developmental behavior (Ludeman).

†††† Training and development, when viewed as a strategic consideration and part of an integrated Human Resources strategy, changes from an event based activity to a strategy that helps the organization manage its overall performance. Part of managing that performance is dependent on training the employees on the skills they need, and how they must behave in order to meet those standards and successfully navigate their way through the organizationís expectations. However, for any training to truly be effective, obstacles to implementing the strategy and the desired behavior such as time, exaggerated expectations, carping skeptics, procrastination, and imperfection, must be anticipated (Belasco, 1991). In a similar vein, Porras and Hoffer (1986) note that numerous alterations in an organizationís internal environment are often required to deliver a consistent message about desired training behaviors, and that more than just one system element often needs to be addressed. While a technological intervention might introduce new computer skills, social factors, physical setting and organizing arrangements might also need interventions to sustain the training development.

Summary and Recommendation for Future Research

†††† The literature indicates that our client should take the path that it is currently on, by first assessing the knowledge, skills and abilities of its staff in delivering the new service requirement of its clients. Due to the urgency of the change, re-engineering the jobs through redesign is warranted; however, this may affect employee commitment to the new, desired behavior and offer superficial answers to deeper problems. While training through simulation, using an instructional design approach based on Bloomís taxonomy, delivers the opportunity to transfer skills and to try the new behavior prior to implementation, there are many intervening variables that will affect the training efficiency and effectiveness. Some of these variables are uncontrollable by the organization because they are intrinsic to the employees. They include self-efficacy, motivation, attitude and perceived constraints. Others are extrinsic to the individual and include the organizationís commitment to training and improved behavior, as well as the organizationís culture, climate, norms and level of accountability to the new performance standard. The training must be maintained over some time and the organizationís reward system aligned with the performance standards expected.

†††† To more strategically monitor the need for training and reduce the urgency, however, our client should move beyond the training to focus on the bigger picture of the skeletal framework affecting and being affected by the change. Porras and Hoffer (1986) note that the organizational arrangements, social factors, physical settings and technology, as noted above, affect individual behaviors in performance. In order to achieve this long-term view, the organization should consciously move from a re-engineering effort to a TQM or learning organization approach that works well when the need for change is not under pressure, by placing the organization on a path of small, continuous improvements that can lead to breakthroughs (Dervitsiotis, 1998). The organization can also use the personnel system to empower change, by screening for the desired knowledge, skills, and abilities needed now, and in the future (Belasco, 1991). The training needs to be reinforced by using examples of catching the associates doing something right so team performance develops (Blanchard, 1995). In addition, the reward systems should be aligned to support the training. Those that are able to develop the skills needed by the organization and excel at it should be rewarded appropriately, in order to make the job more satisfying, rewarding and motivating (Campion & Thayer, 1997).

†††† It is recommended that future research be conducted to identify skill gaps for call service employees resulting from future trends in Internet technology, including live video capabilities, and assessment tools created to help identify the knowledge, skills and abilities of the current labor force and the potential labor force in those areas. Research should also be conducted regarding the effectiveness of the proposed face-to-face training program and the delivery of skill based simulation training through distance education. The client has a distance delivery system and owns a company that does instructional design for distance training. A pre-test post-test measurement using two groups, with the method of training as an independent variable, would aid in determining if substantial costs in training delivery can be saved in delivering this type of skill training. In addition, utility models should be developed that will allow the organization to measure dollars gained by increased output by employees who have successfully transitioned to the new behavior and reward systems adjusted to reinforce the recognition of these skills.

 

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