May 4, 2022

Learning and the development of talent are often the charge of a company’s human resources (HR) department. Two exceptions to this arrangement, particularly in the US, are the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, collectively referred to as the life sciences industry. In the life sciences industry, organizations typically an operational department, often Quality or Quality Assurance, in charge of the training function, at least as far as operations go--that is to say, if there is a operational reason for training people to do a task, or to have knowledge about a regulatory process or procedure, it is left to operations to perform such training.  The “higher order” functions of talent development, leadership/management training and professional development are often left to the HR department to manage.  Below, we explain how HR managers could better achieve their development goals and improve business value by following the approach of the quality and compliance departments.

Improving training utilization rates

From the perspective of HR, there is certainly an attitude that people are in charge of their own careers.   If employees want to rise through the ranks, and they don’t already possess the right stuff in terms of aptitude, education or experience, they need to seek out for themselves the skills and knowledge required to help them advance.  I don’t dispute that thesis at all, but I believe it is one of the central flaws in the way HR pursues its charge to develop people. If HR builds it, they will come, soo HR spends a considerable amount of money on infrastructure to make the opportunity available for employees to develop themselves, but they often don’t. For example, there are two learning management companies I am aware of that offer leadership and development content with a utilization rate of about 30%.  Who is developing in those cases?  Is it the key performers that the organization is counting on for its future? I doubt it, those people are busy.

They are often so busy in fact, that if they and their managers determined a set of professional development objectives for them at the beginning of the year, this type of person is rushing through a set of modules in the week before the December year-end holidays. Massed practice before a prolonged period of doing nothing related to the objectives of the training is one of the worst sets of conditions for learning retention you could possibly construct. Better to encourage that action in January to benefit from the investment for the next 11 months of the business calendar.  For some employees developmental training is not even part of their annual objectives. And in such cases the training may not even get done. Training for developmental purpose is more of what I call “pull’ training, whereas training from the perspective of the quality and compliance departments is very different, and I would argue more effective, even if not more pleasant or enjoyable.

Tying training to operational imperatives

What is different about quality and compliance training? To begin with, these departments view their training as an operational imperative designed to improve business performance or reduce risk.  Therefore the training is more “push” in its planning, design, and delivery. An example would be sexual harassment training. Sexual harassment training is a typical annual or biannual training requirement for most US companies. In some states, e.g., California, it is required by law that organizations of a certain size have two hours of sexual harassment training each year. Most companies provide such training regardless to reduce their risk of costly lawsuits. And of course, companies do this training because they want to send a message to their employees that this type of behavior will not be tolerated in their workplaces. So sexual harassment training is pushed to all employees.  Sometimes there is different training for individual contributors as compared to managers, but this training can prove a pretty blunt instrument: not enjoyed or looked forward to, but nonetheless key to reducing business risk.

Does it work?  Well, it is not like a vaccine, but the US Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has reported that the number of sexual harassment claims has dropped over the last decade.  Further, since the courts have held employers liable for infractions,  training programs and policy work targeting sexual harassment have likely reduced damage awards for corporations.

Quality training considerations

Quality training is even more carefully planned, not a blunt instrument, and is much more precise than its legal compliance counterpart. Organizations that are good at quality training define sets of job roles for their people at the enterprise, division, location, department and specific task level to meet the letter of the law for the development of their products. In summary, companies are required by law to make sure their employees are trained to do their jobs; that their training is done by qualified employees; and that training is done on a continual basis with appropriate refresher training. Organizations also need to be able to prove that such training was done when an auditor asks.

Meeting the law leads to some beneficial side effects:

  • Training is provided before you do a task
  • Training is specific and relevant to the job you are doing
  • Training is provided more often, and there is refresher training which helps with retention
  • That training is tracked more closely – that which is measured gets done

Training is viewed not only as a way to reduce risk of manufacturing or service defects, but as a way to ensure adequate operational performance. People who are properly and consistently instructed in the way to perform a specific task are going to do it better, faster and with fewer mistakes. The only doubts people have pertain to the necessity and effectiveness of that training. Employees don’t always enjoy their quality training, but when done well they see the relevance of that training to their everyday work lives and tolerate it as a cost of working and doing business.

Assessing whether quality training is effective

Is training effective? That is a very important question for which good data are not always available. However, we do know that when companies have issues with product quality or productivity, one strategy they use to address that is to improve training. The result is an improvement in productivity and lower defect rates. So companies demonstrate by their operational behavior that the strategy works. Available empirical studies have also shown effectiveness of such approaches. Companies’ main operational concerns relate to the optimization of the amount of training related to the improvement in performance, or return on investment (ROI). To be clear, not all quality training programs are effective, either (don’t get me started on Read and Sign Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)!). Despite those concerns, companies recognize the value of the training for reducing compliance risks and improving operational performance.

To achieve better results for developmental training, we could recommend the following practices for life science HR departments to follow:

  1. Define role-based training requirements for each position 
  2. Require training assignments to be completed
  3. If you must use yearly requirements, make them due early in the year so you reap the benefit sooner
  4. Track completion regularly, and provide feedback to management
  5. Look for changes in business performance in order to optimize your training program

Mark Lee, Ph.D. is Senior Business Development Manager at UL ComplianceWire®.

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