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training needs assessmentI recently met with a client who was preparing a industry consultation questionnaire for a new Training Product. Here is the crux of what he was planning to ask: What do learners need to learn?

This is one question you should never ask employers (senior leaders). You are asking a tactical question to people who function at a strategic level. Simply put, they don't know the answer. Senior leaders live in the world of results. So, ask them about results. You can then drill down into what employees need to do—and learn—with tactical managers in the organisation (supervisors).

Here is my interview guide for assessing "training" needs with senior leaders.

Start by asking: What are the company's goals for the coming year? Goals include both problems to solve and opportunities to exploit. For example, a problem might be to improve customer service scores and an opportunity might be to launch a new product.

Then, for each goal, you can dig deeper by asking the following questions:

  • Could you describe this goal in detail? This discussion helps ensure that you are completely clear on what senior leaders have in mind.
  • What operational results will indicate you've successfully achieved the goal? Knowing what senior leaders are aiming for allows you to make sure that the training product you design supports achieving these results.
  • What do you plan to do to achieve this goal? Who will support to achieve this goal? What are the tasks required to be completed? Listen for answers that indicate employees might have to learn to do something new or different. Such answers could include implementing a new system, changing job responsibilities, purchasing new equipment, launching a new product or service, entering a new market, and changing work processes.

At the conclusion of this conversation, you won't have all the information you need to fully develop the training product, but you will have a good idea of the job outcome, and tasks associated to that job outcome, criticla information to select elective units of competencies. We define this stage as a preliminary consultation that also provides information about where you'll need to follow up, and how to establish a continuous engagement for the whole life-cycle of the new training product. 

In other words, who will be "touched" by this new training product, stakeholders? During your industry engagement activities, you'll need to interview tactical managers and supervisors to access information about the workplace context (procedures, equipment, conditions, etc). They are in the best position to identify what employees will need to learn to implement the measures senior leaders are planning to take.

It is only after you talk to these supervisors that you'll have the answer to the question my client posed, "What do learners need to learn?" More importantly, the answer will be tied directly to the industry's strategic objectives.

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VET BalanceVocational education has been around for centuries, the ability to master some traditional trades has been passed from generation to generation in pioneer versions of vocational education and training (VET) systems, since the very beginning of our societies.

The application of the same VET concepts in modern economies is a powerful tool for organisations and governments to produce key benefits for industry and individuals, stimulating local economies and promoting an even playing field for social inclusion.

The practical nature of VET provides an extended definition of value to learning outcomes. The expectations of vocational education programs are linked not only to meeting learners' needs, but also industry's needs. This extended definition of value allows us also to set objectives for a vocational education program at five different levels:

  1. Reactions
  2. Learning
  3. Application
  4. Impact
  5. Return on Investment (ROI)

The dynamics of these five dimensions of value, are critical for vocational training practitioners to connect individual needs with industry needs, and from a national perspective, to set strategic directions to develop individuals and the economy in harmony with social goals.

For a VET system to work effectively, the environment where it is applied (country, community, organisation) must present the following conditions:

  • Industry relevance
  • Operational Standards
  • Global pathways.

Industry relevance of VET means that learning objectives of every training program must address standard industry practices. The skills and knowledge learners will learn during the training, must provide them with the ability to perform the tasks of a competent worker within a particular job role. Operational standards refer to the accountability of training providers within the system, in regards to the results of training, measured at the five dimensions of value. Finally, global pathways refer to the recognition and use of VET qualifications within the formal education system (including the school and higher education system).

Adopting a competency-based model

To ensure all stakeholders will receive the benefits of VET it is imperative that industry, government, training providers, content developers and students adopt a common model to specify learning objectives. The competency-based model works as a framework for stakeholders to set, communicate, apply, and evaluate the objectives, and impact of VET qualifications.

Industry uses competency standards to describe the attitudes, skills and knowledge of a competent person.

The accountability factor

During the design of vocational training, a critical process that must take place during an extensive consultation with the industry and learners is the definition of program objectives at the different dimensions of value. Training program objectives are linked to the needs assessment. Note that the dimensions of value have been aligned with the evaluation levels from the ROI Methodology. The current Australian regulatory framework has set minimum compliance requirements up to level 3 (Application). RTOs are encouraged to define objectives and evaluate training to levels 4 and 5 (Impact, and ROI).

Competencies are the link

Competencies are the critical link between learning and its application in the workplace. It is critical that competencies are used as the common measure for all stakeholders. Within the Australian system, the units of competency provide that link, working as the fundamental measure of competency.

New Language

The competency-based model jargon is also new for potential and current learners. The government needs to invest in an informative marketing campaign dedicated to educate learners and the community in general in the objectives, processes, and outcomes of VET, if we are to exploit the system to its maximum capacity.

Students and the community need to understand the benefits of VET in all its dimensions. How VET can support their lifelong learning, how VET can serve as a bridge for employment and further studies.

This is important not only so students are able to understand core VET concepts, but also to understand the application of VET courses.

Conclusion

In a results-driven economy with continuous and radical changes in workplace practices, Vocational Education and Training's value can be re-defined to meet the needs of learners, industry and communities.

A VET system can supply "job ready graduates" to industry, can provide a career pathway for learners, an alternative but convergent route to education embedded into the higher education system. VET can deliver the "just-in-time" "work-integrated" learning required by employers, can address gaps in strategic skills identified by the government, but for this to happen we need certain conditions to promote an even playing field.

Those conditions require a balance between three main areas:

  • Ÿ Industry relevance
  • Ÿ Operational Standards
  • Ÿ Global pathways.

Maintaining the balance between these areas will ensure all stakeholders will benefit from the system. When there is an unbalanced mix in the system some stakeholders can obtain circumstantial benefits but the system loses credibility and generally is abandoned. In my experience, the same principle applies to VET systems used at organisational levels, nation wide or even on an international scale.

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boring training croppedCompliance training, in too many training organisations, is dangerously close to an oxymoron. No matter how rigorous and compelling our Standards for Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) may be, compliance related training programs, especially in e-learning, are routinely boring, stale, and lacking in any real impact.

For any compliance related training, we build the courses because we have to, and our learners watch them because they have to. But no one pays any more attention than the absolute minimum required. This second-rate status is only natural. Unlike the majority of vocational training programs, which are born directly from an industry need or opportunity, compliance-training programs are foisted upon us without any perceived need from within.

Even if we see the importance of the subject—as most of us would on issues like workplace health and safety, first aid, business ethics, and industry standards —the broad mandates of compliance training often make it difficult to see where any real, individual learning will occur. Instead, students throw up their hands, check the boxes, and move on as quickly as possible. Such compromises are understandable. In real life, compliance training had become a commodity for training organisations with seemingly infinite demand.

It is time for the VET industry, including the regulators, to shift a little more love toward compliance. And I am not talking to have more compliance requirements for compliance training, I am talking about more meaning, results, and value.

The need is certainly there. After years of hasty compromises, many learning programs are lost in a sea of lip-service compliance tutorials that barely even pretend to carry any real meaning. Their dead weight is a burden to designer and learner alike, posing a serious threat to the long-term health of our VET industry.
If we can't bridge the gap now between compliance and learning, we may soon discover that we've failed at both.

We Are Undermining Our Role as Trusted Training Providers
Those organisations that spend most of time ticking regulatory requirements boxes, and don't incorporate the applications of their training objectives into their instructional design, are hitting our learners over the head with compliance training that doesn't apply to their needs. Learners, and industry in general, will gradually lose faith in the Nationally Recognised Training (NRT) as a brand, and begin to view our offerings with skepticism instead of trust. That vantage, if it sets in, makes teaching and learning almost impossible. This is a great risk that regulators and policy makers should address immediately.

Are We Wasting Valuable Opportunities for Real Learning?
In many industries, mandatory training initiatives for all employees can be almost impossible to achieve. The only place where we're guaranteed to have all eyes focused on us is our compliance training programs, where laws or policies have already taken care of the mandate for us.
The question is, what do we do when all those eyes are watching? If we can find a way to meet the letter of the law and hit the real learning needs, compliance training could become a critical tool for achieving our desired learning and development outcomes.

We Might Not Be Complying at All
The arbiters of many policies and laws are getting wise to the myth of compliance learning. We may see in the near future demands not just for training, but "rigorous and effective" training.

Training must be measured for its effectiveness, what are participants' skills and knowledge before and after training? How well and often are students applying those skills and knowledge in their workplace? What has changed/improved in the workplace as consequence of the training? This is a high, somewhat intimidating bar to hit. And if we don't change our approach soon, it's likely only to get higher.

We must be accountable for the value of our training programs beyond the learning objectives, and measure application and impact. There are proven methodologies used elsewhere for years, such as the ROI Methodology, that help training professionals to evaluate the effectiveness of training.

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