Bonus Content

Six Steps to Building an Effective in-house Training Program

By Carol Katarsky

Good training can improve performance, retention, and morale, which is why most employees clamor for development opportunities. Yet too often both management and employees complain that the training provided didn’t have a significant impact. 

Whatever your goals for employee training, this six-step plan will help you create an effective, low-cost training program that gets measurable results.

1. Get buy-in – from everyone.
The best training ideas are useless without support from both upper management and frontline employees. But when budgets are crunched and workloads are high, training is frequently the first thing put on hold. Changing that takes a two-prong approach. 

Getting buy-in from upper management requires demonstrating how your program will aid strategic goals. “Find out what [management’s] expectations for the training are, detail how you are going to measure the results, and make sure you do so,” advised Lorri Freifeld, editor-in-chief of Training magazine. 

“Upper management wants to see how the training is going to address an organizational need,” noted Courtney Vital Kriebs, senior director, education, for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). “That doesn’t mean all training has to have a direct connection to business results. Providing general professional development opportunities helps retain employees and keep them engaged. It’s simply about ensuring that the activities tie to a larger strategy.” 

To get employee buy-in you have to find out what they want to learn. “If training feels like a ‘check the box’ activity employees aren’t going to take it as seriously,” warned Roxy Torres, sales enablement community manager, at ATD. “But if you approach the training as a consultant to your employees and take into account their needs and wants, you’re going to get much better buy-in and results.” She advised interviewing a representative sample of employees to find their pain points. You may discover their most critical goals differ from upper management’s. If so, then your training program needs to be adjusted. The goal: addressing employee concerns in ways that align with management’s priorities. For example, if management wants to increase sales, and employees feel they don’t have sufficient product knowledge, you’ll want to plan your training to increase product knowledge in a way that helps employees identify new sales opportunities. 

2. Set the stage.
Just like you would market to your customers, you need to market your training program to build employee interest. “You want learners to be excited about the training,” advised Freifeld. She suggested creating more excitement with interesting descriptions and using examples of how training will help them. “Don’t state learning objectives. Instead, talk about what they’ll discover,” Freifeld said. 

“Talking about the features of training … is helpful, but people are more interested in how much they need to sacrifice and what they’ll gain by participating,” noted Dan DeNisco, vice president, Robert Half Management Resources. For example, DeNisco noted that employees might be wary of attending training if they anticipate a heavier workload afterward. Addressing those concerns directly can help them go into training with the right attitude.

3. Create your training agenda.
This is where the rubber meets the road – deciding how, when, and to whom you present the information. This depends to some degree on the material you want to cover, but you should also take into account specifics of your employees’ work environment and interests. 

“There is no silver bullet, one-size-fits-all training, but we’re seeing more nontraditional learning where the company provides the resources and allows employees to self-direct their training,” said Torres. “Think of it more as learning rather than training.” She added that in companies where some employees, such as salespeople, are mobile, training is moving to a model where employees pull information as they need it, instead of a manager pushing it to them. 

Don’t provide too much information too soon. “Content overload is a common mistake in training programs,” warned Torres. “It’s better to pick one or two things that will effect the most change and really stick with them.”  Freifeld added that if sessions run long because they are jam-packed, it could create bad feelings toward training. 

When deciding how to present information, the experts all recommended including a variety of formats, including interactive exercises, group discussions, games, breakout sessions, short videos, etc. Using multiple approaches ensures you reach everyone, regardless of their learning style and repetition reinforces the information. 

Freifeld also recommended “flipping the classroom” by letting employees complete training exercises before the in-person session. In this case, the classroom instructor isn’t there to provide information but to help set individual goals, evaluate performance, and provide coaching. 

Torres suggested splitting up different groups of employees for different types of training. For example, the highest performers probably can’t increase their results by much more. But focusing traditional training on mid-range performers may significantly improve their output. Other activities, like strategy sessions, can be offered to high performers.

4. Select and prep instructors.
Next, you need to decide who is providing the instruction. If you’re doing it all in-house, the best candidate may be you, or other expert(s) within the company. Torres noted that to be credible, the training has to come from someone with experience in the topic. DeNisco suggested bringing in some of upper management for at least part of the session as a way to keep their support and show employees their commitment to the program.  You may also want to consider tapping long-serving or high-performing rank-and-file employees to lead some of the instruction. Doing so lets them show off their expertise and other employees will like learning from someone who can relate to their day-to-day work. 

5. Keep it moving forward. 
For your training to stick, it has to be an ongoing process – but that doesn’t mean you have to commit to time-intensive programs. “The reality is that people will forget 80 percent of what they learned during a training session within one week,” said Freifeld. To keep the momentum going, she advised giving out tip sheets and other learning aids employees can refer back to, as well as short surveys after training to find out how confident employees and their managers are about what they learned. You can also do a follow up in a few months to see if what they learned is still being used. 

Freifeld also recommended keeping training topics fresh by using informal follow-up sessions, brown-bag lunches, or discussion groups to get everyone together to discuss challenges or results they’ve seen while implementing what they learned. 

6. Track results. 
To prove the benefit of your training program, you need to track how well it performed. 
“Fundamentally, you want to look at two things: how have the employees applied what they learned on the job and what change or impact there was to the business,” said Kriebs. 
 “It’s helpful to link the training to achievement of a corporate strategic goal. That gives you a metric to measure,” said Freifeld. She recommended focusing on those that can indicate either behavioral changes or results. The reason? Even when employees think they learned a lot from training, they often go right back to doing things the way they’re used to.

Depending on what your goals are, Freifeld suggested the following metrics: return on investment (training dollar vs. financial benefits seen post-training), return on value (tracking less tangible results like decreased turnover, improved personal performance, etc.) or balanced scorecards (a mix of financial and non-financial measures that are compared to a target value for each goal). 

To track results long-term, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples. Torres warned that often the metrics shift over time as company priorities change, making it difficult to get a true sense of how training continues to impact performance. 

Outside options for training
There are other methods to have continuing training options in place for employees. 

Instead of handling all training in-house, a relatively inexpensive option is to encourage individual training for employees who want it. Simple steps such as allowing employees time out of the office to pursue outside training, providing flexible hours so they can take continuing education courses, or offering tuition reimbursement for relevant courses they take won’t bust the budget. And they go a long way toward showing employees the company is committed to their ongoing development. 

More importantly, since these courses are optional, you know employees are signing up for courses they are truly interested in, and are more likely to actually absorb and retain the information. 

If time and budgets allow, third-party vendors are another way for companies to address specific training needs or quickly implement changes that would be challenging to design programs for in-house. This outside perspective is particularly effective when you want to develop managerial/leadership skills or work on team building exercises. “A consultant can help you analyze the gap between current and desired performance and work with your organization to implement programs and processes to close those gaps,” noted Kriebs. 

To decide if an outside trainer would be a good fit for your goals, consider the types of training available. “It’s going to depend both on the budget and resources you have.  Online training modules will be more cost-effective than classroom training and employees can take the training as they have time,” advised Freifeld. Also consider the content you are delivering. “Online training works fine for compliance training but might not be effective for leadership development, where a blended approach probably would work best,” she added. She also suggested taking into account employees’ preferences on how they prefer to learn. 

Think an outside vendor is too pricy? You may be surprised. Some smaller companies have worked together to hire a vendor and split the cost. Another option is to send only a few select employees to outside training, and have them share what they learned with the larger group at a later in-house session or lunch roundtable. 

Carol Katarsky is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at

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