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Evolving Training Programs

Whether your lab is growing or shrinking, training programs need to stay in sync with your changing requirements.

by Ben Culp
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Mergers, acquisitions, downsizing and organic growth can dramatically affect the efficient functionality of your organization’s current training program. While organic growth is often a slow and measured process, the addition of a new department or product group can cause a sudden increase in headcount. Most often the increase in headcount results in trying to fit a larger organization into a system developed for a smaller number of trainees. The training program that worked well when your organization had 10 employees might be strained by 50 employees and even become dysfunctional with 100 employees. Similarly, an organization that grew from 500 to 1,500 employees might also find its original training concept has become inefficient or even too unrealistic to be effective. Conversely, an organization that has experienced a staff reduction through a spin-off or downsizing may find its training program, designed for a large number of trainees, bloated. Five people training one person simply does not enable the trainee to learn five times faster. Not adapting to a growing organizational landscape may result in delayed deployment of trainees, incomplete training and the dilution of available training resources.

Your organization has added to the headcount to meet a specific need with an expected implementation timeline. If the individuals have not progressed through the training program in the allotted amount of time, the downstream effects may negatively impact the organization’s goals. Therefore it is critical that your training program be tailored to fit the needs of the organization. Training is not exclusively for new hires, as it will also include refresher training for current staff as well as training required on new or modified procedures. Some organizations have specifically determined refresher training timelines, and these must be factored into the size of the training structure. Which of these training scenarios best describes your current situation?

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Start-ups, mom and pops, and independent departments

Very small organizations often do not have a training “program” and they take an “as needed” training approach. The trainee is instructed by another person who routinely performs the procedure. The trainer’s talent for teaching is often trumped by his or her availability and knowledge of the process to be taught. An informal mentor relationship is formed, and the trainer generally is available to assist when questions arise, as the trainer often works side by side with the trainee. In these smaller organizations the subject matter expert (SME) who developed the procedure may instruct the trainee directly. In this ideal situation the SME is able to relay the history and evolution of the procedure to the trainee. This creates a more formal mentor relationship, and the SME experiences a greater level of comfort with the trainee’s ability to perform the procedure. Documentation of training is often similarly informal in these smaller organizations and might not withstand a robust audit by external groups or stakeholders.

Midsize organizations and the designated trainer

Midsize organizations often have a more formal training program for all employees. These programs often begin in the Human Resources Department, where organizational history, policies and new-hire orientation are relayed to the trainee. The trainee is assigned to a designated trainer in the receiving or home department. The designated trainer is often chosen for his or her expertise in most of the department’s procedures, teaching skills and a history of training successes. This trainer is often a department member who is not routinely included on production throughput. It would be unreasonable to expect the trainer to succeed at two full-time jobs (training and production) in a single day. Once training is complete, ideally the trainee is coupled with another seasoned employee who will serve as a mentor. This is often an informal relationship that is created through proximity. It is unlikely that one would trust a room full of novices without some level of seasoned guides present. Documentation of training is often thorough and consistent when a single person is responsible for the training. This level of training is near the tipping point of an organization’s being ready to use an electronic training record or learning management system.

Large organizations and the designated training group

Organizations that have a regular stream of trainees often find it most efficient to establish a designated training group to handle training for the most routine procedures. The clear advantages to this are in consistency across the larger organization and the ability to disperse new information rapidly. However, in every organization there are going to be pockets of specialty groups with a finite number of employees who will behave like a small company. It is important in that situation to retain the special training relationship that exists between the SME and the trainee. The larger training group must adapt and provide à la carte training and flexibility. Not doing so can promote the development of silos.

Mergers and acquisitions eventually result in the marriage of two diverse training programs. Often each of the two organizations continues to operate within their as-is training configuration until an external audit forces a change. While the level of subject matter training will likely not be disputed, the mechanisms for what triggers training and how training is documented will cause the most consternation. Documentation of training practices often intensifies as the organization grows larger and the number of external stakeholders increases. External stakeholders include regulatory agencies, clients and final product users.

Coordination of organization-wide training

Large organizations manifest themselves in multiple configurations. There may be one site with a large number of employees across a variety of medium/small departments, multiple sites that perform similar functions, or academic settings with a large array of small units spread geographically and philosophically. When these configurations are present, it is beneficial to have a single point person or unit. The point person is responsible for coordinating the variety of training approaches performed across the organization. The titles of these point people are often training coordinator or training manager/ director. While this function may be akin to herding cats, the benefits are that the wheel needs to be invented only once, no one group is left out of either critical information sharing or new process developments, and the documentation of training completion eventually becomes similar. Few things are as frustrating, from an outside auditor’s perspective, as having department A’s training documentation be configured in one manner and department B’s training documentation be the opposite or even nonexistent. These differences will undoubtedly be outlined as a critical deficiency in an audit or inspection report.

Why vs. how approach

Bigger is not necessarily better, and the benefits of having the scientist provide direct training to the trainee can be lost as the training organization expands. The scientist (or SME) who used to handle the one-on-one training may be required to delegate those duties to a designated trainer. The risk is that the trainer might not adequately explain the evolution and decision points of a given procedure. In these cases how the procedure is performed may win out over why it is being performed, and critical thinking may not be engaged when the activity is performed. When the trainee knows why a procedure is performed in a certain way, it is inevitable that potential problems will be identified earlier in the process. Here is a simplified example of where HOW wins out over WHY. A three-step process involves three people—the first person digs the hole, the second person plants the tree in the hole and the third person fills the hole. If the person who is to plant the tree fails to put the tree into the hole, then the third person should not put dirt back into the hole. Critical thinking would trigger the third person’s raising a red flag and addressing the deficiency rather than just refilling an empty hole. This simple example can be expanded to fit any of the processes that your organization performs. Training the why is an essential component, and care to do so must be exercised when your training program evolves to a larger size.

Triggers for change

How do you know when it’s time to migrate to a more developed, structured training program or to reduce the depth and/or scope of the one that you have in place? Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” The same can be said for training programs. Recognizing the need for an increase in training before the need arises is essential. It is critical for your organization’s administration to keep you informed of potential headcount changes. Further, it is important that you develop a game plan for scaling up your training organization in the event that occurs. If there are others in your organization who are also involved in training, you want to meet with them to discuss the “what ifs?” When the organization grows it will be to your benefit to be ready with your plan.

In the event of a 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in workflow, it is likely that the benefits of the larger organization’s training structure will be supported; however, in these situations it is important to keep an eye on the labor costs. Nothing will get management’s attention faster than disproportionate training labor costs. “Headcount is down, but training labor has stayed the same.” Hence, adjustments to the ratio of trainers to trainees become inevitable. Due to their technical value and broad skill set, trainers tend to weather business downturns well.

An evolved program

Your training program must evolve to stay in sync with the needs and size of the growing/ shrinking organization. It is critical that the benefits of ground floor scientist-based training that includes the why of a procedure is not lost as the organization grows. It is equally important, for example, that the sophistication of documentation developed by large training organizations not be lost when reductions in structure without disproportionate labor and other costs are necessary. Appropriately evolved training programs will be viewed by their parent organization as a component of its success and a positive contributor to the bottom line.