Creating a Successful Laboratory Training Program

Successful programs are relevant, aligned with business goals, and have management and staff buy-in

By Donna Kridelbaugh

Training to keep staff updated on the skills needed to meet business demands, address changing industry trends, and use new technologies is a mission-critical component of any lab-based organization. Lab managers can get the most out of training programs by being proactive in identifying relevant training needs, leveraging networks of training experts, and fostering a culture of continuous learning. This article features advice from three training experts on best practices for the effective design and implementation of training programs, including how to promote knowledge transfer back to the lab bench.

How to identify training needs

Training is required to prepare staff to respond to changes within an organization (e.g., meet new regulatory requirements) and stay competitive in a technologically advancing market. Thus, lab managers should research industry trends to forecast future training needs. For example, John Balchunas, assistant director of professional development programs with the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center at North Carolina State University (www.btec.ncsu.edu), recommends regularly attending trade shows and talking to vendors to stay apprised of emerging technologies.

Another focus area for training needs is to fill skill gaps. At the organizational level, a data-driven approach, as described by Scott Hanton and Todd McEvoy in a previous Lab Manager article1, can be taken to continuously analyze workforce capacity in terms of which skills are available, which new skills are needed, and which skills are at risk of being lost. From there, managers can determine strategies (e.g., cross-training plans) to fill any gaps.

Kevin L. Farris, training and qualifications manager for the health, energy, and environment programs at Oak Ridge Associated Universities (orau.org), also suggests managers regularly perform a gap analysis with individuals directly to determine which skills may need to be updated. As he explains, “It is as simple as discussing where you are now, and where you need to be. Once the decision is made on where you need to be, work together to create competency statements to define the expected knowledge, skills, and abilities that staff must meet.”

Another training need that can be fulfilled by industrystandard certification programs, according to Andrew Pokelwaldt, director of certifications for the American Composites Manufacturers Association (acmanet.org), is exposing R&D experts to the manufacturing sector, so they can learn how products are used in the field. This information can improve product design and inform new areas of research.

Define the objectives to get group buy-in

After identifying training needs, the specific objectives and learning outcomes need to be defined and communicated to staff. As Balchunas observes, “Far too often, I have potential clients come to me to schedule a training course before they have really sat down to think about what they need their employees to learn. Once they have a basic understanding of the learning outcomes they want to obtain for themselves or their team, we can work with them to design an effective program.”

Both senior management and staff buy-in are important for the success of a training program. Importantly, training needs to be relevant and in alignment with organizational goals. Balchunas expounds, “In developing an internal business case for a training endeavor, individuals and managers can benefit by demonstrating to senior leadership how training strategies and learning objectives are aligned with business drivers and needs.” And he continues, “Conversely, it is equally important that individual participants understand why they are taking a given course. Without selling participants on the value and purpose of a course, initiatives run the risk of failure due to boredom or perceived irrelevance.”

Change-management principles also can be applied to effectively communicate the importance of a training program and get group buy-in.2 As Pokelwaldt points out, “Sometimes the best way to put training together and find out what’s needed is to look at the pain points—where everybody has something vested in the training and will care about it.”

Leverage networks in creating training programs

A number of factors (e.g., cost, quality of training, staff expertise) should be considered when evaluating whether new training will be accomplished in-house or outsourced to a third party. Farris suggests taking a systematic approach. He explains, “Start by preparing a project management plan with a focus on a work breakdown structure, and analyze cost related to each component.”

Often, a hybrid of both internal and external training sources is needed to meet requirements. As Balchunas concludes in a recent article3, “In carefully leveraging a mix of internal and external learning and development partners to understand and address learning challenges, companies can minimize costs and bring outside perspectives, ideas, and subject matter expertise to move their businesses forward.”

The benefits of using an external training partner are many, including a curriculum based on industry standards and the latest technologies, the use of fewer internal resources (e.g., reduced costs and materials), and support from training consultants who can help tailor programs to fit clients’ needs. Also, Pokelwaldt underscores that training certifications obtained from an independent agency can be used for marketing purposes to demonstrate that products and services are being provided by qualified organizations, especially where quality and safety are of utmost importance.

Focus on active learning and engagement

Gone are the days of boring classroom lectures and noninteractive formats. Those training styles lead to complacent employees and make training an unwelcomed chore. As Pokelwaldt explains, “People have gotten so used to [the idea of] a training day and think they just sit there. And that’s usually not going to get very good results. Engage people in some kind of conversation about the topic.”

Related Article: Developing a Successful Health and Safety Training Program

To do so, Pokelwaldt uses a variety of activities, from interactive polls to demonstrations, to keep trainees alert and to address different learning styles. Likewise, Balchunas reports that his programs have adopted a 50/50 split between time spent on classroom activities and hands-on experience operating laboratory and production equipment.

And training doesn’t always have to be a formal process. For example, Farris recommends integrating regular topical discussions (e.g., technology review, scenario-based situations) during normally scheduled staff meetings. Such activities also promote collaboration and team-building skills. Additionally, he suggests holding focus groups to ask employees which learning activities engage them most.

Assess value of training toward objectives

Assessing the value of training programs can take two approaches: evaluating the overall effectiveness of the program toward reaching organizational objectives and measuring proficiencies at the individual level. At the organizational level, assessment can be tied to key metrics (e.g., fewer safety incidents, increased productivity) and monitored over time. For individuals, learning outcomes and trainee satisfaction can be determined with the use of pre- and post-surveys and course evaluations. But Balchunas recommends keeping this data anonymous so employees don’t fear repercussions. Also, Farris points out, there are industry standards (e.g., Kirkpatrick Model), which evaluate both organizational and individual results4, that can be adopted for internal use.

Another key aspect to motivating staff and improving learning outcomes is setting expectations for post-training performance. Farris emphasizes that annual performance plans can then outline any desired competency levels and mandatory performance requirements. Training can also be tied to an individualized reward structure (e.g., paid time off). Pokelwaldt advises that employees be made aware of any incentive in advance, especially for voluntary training programs. He also has found that one of the best incentives is making the training a requirement to qualify for applying for a promotion to a different position.

Transfer knowledge to the lab bench

The training experts recommend a number of ways to promote knowledge transfer back to the lab bench. These include revising procedures to integrate elements of the new training, providing opportunities for employees to apply their new skills and showcase progress, and using a recertification process with a continuing-education component. Also, a training mentor could be assigned who can serve as a go-to resource and can share process knowledge. This is helpful especially with mentors who are nearing retirement.

Pokelwaldt emphasizes that repetition is key to retaining knowledge (e.g., standard operating procedure) acquired from training. He suggests continuing to present the material to employees on a regular basis, but in different formats. For example, he often supplies clients with quick stand-up meeting materials that can be integrated into weekly staff meetings. As Pokelwaldt emphasizes, “Best practice is sometimes not what’s done for a lot of different reasons, but if it’s in front of them all the time and they are constantly seeing a review of it then they tend to do a better job. It becomes second nature.”

Model continuous learning in the workplace

Overall, it is important to model a culture of continuous learning in the workplace. Technical staff members tend to be curious by nature and are self-actuated learners. Balchunas encourages a two-way communication flow between managers and employees to understand employees’ ongoing challenges and interests that will inform training demands. Likewise, Farris advises, “Hold staff accountable for retaining knowledge, but also permit flexibility to allow them to attend seminars, symposia, and technical meetings related to their areas of expertise.”

Pokelwaldt notes that open lines of communication during training and assessment should be encouraged because it can yield useful insight for process improvement. For example, if employees are observed deviating from a standard operating procedure learned during training, then a root-cause analysis can be performed with staff input to determine why and how to correct it.

Finally, competency-based training can be a good way to keep employees engaged and satisfied professionally. Pokelwaldt points out that outdated management practices (e.g., raises based on years of service) may drive employees to leave, especially early-career professionals. As he explains, “For employers, retention gets harder and harder, especially at the technician level. I don’t think a lot of places do a really good job thinking about how to keep these people, especially if [they’re] young people who are really hard workers and doing a great job. Promote them quickly, give them other responsibilities, or get them into some type of leadership position, because if you don’t they are going to go somewhere else.”

References:

1. Hanton S. and T. McEvoy. (2016). Skill Training. Lab Manager. http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2016/04/skill-training

2. Kridelbaugh D. (2016). Leading Your Staff Through Change. Lab Manager. http://www.labmanager.com/leadership-and-staffing/2016/12/leading-your-staff-through-change  

3. Balchunas J. (2016). Advancing the Biopharmaceutical Community Through Learning and Development Partnerships. Bioprocess International (Supplement) 13 (8), 4–8. http://www.bioprocessintl.com/business/careers/advancing-biopharmaceutical-community-learning-development-partnerships/ 

4. The Kirkpatrick Model. https://www.kirkpatrickpartners.com/Our-Philosophy/The-Kirkpatrick-Model 

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Know The Rules

Published: March 9, 2018

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