Investing in employee training can create a more loyal, skilled, and innovative workforce. But it has to be done the right way, or it's just a waste of money — something budget-conscious middle market companies can't afford. So how can you best bolster your workforce's employability skills?

businesswoman pondering career

Leah Houde is the Executive Director of Duke Corporate Education, which has been ranked by BusinessWeek as the No. 1 provider of custom corporate education in the world, and where I serve as part of their Global Educator Network. She says companies need to "start with the business outcomes." In other words, you should ask yourself what challenges the business is facing, and how executives can be better prepared to meet them. "What do they need to know, do, and believe differently?" she asks. "Once you've established those business and associated participant outcomes, you can design an intervention to close the gaps."

When you've launched a training program, it's important to evaluate it regularly — not just at the end. "As in any other strategy, the goals of a learning intervention may be clear, but the business context within which it's happening is constantly changing," says Houde. "So, you need to be ready to constantly modify your approach to delivering to those outcomes."

That tracking and adjustment pays off because it means companies can often see relatively rapid results: you don't have to wait years to judge whether a program is working. "If you plan it well," says Houde, "you should be able to get clear about the outcomes you're trying to achieve, including milestone indicators along the way, that you can look for and track to see whether you're on target."

One common type of evaluation is the "smile sheets" that participants fill out at the end of a training ("Did you find this workshop enhanced your employability skills? Rank it on a scale from 1 to 5"). That can actually be valuable, says Houde, especially if participants write down one concrete takeaway they plan to apply at work, which makes them more likely to implement it later. But that's only a small part of how to assess efficacy, she says.

"We'd recommend a variety of methods, such as interviewing participants, managers, and team members after the program to see whether there is movement on the learning and business outcomes." And some training programs lend themselves well to statistical analysis. "In one intervention we delivered for young professionals," she recalls, "the business was losing 25 percent of them, and a clear business outcome was reducing this turnover. Over the course of a year, we did a matched sample analysis and showed that turnover was reduced to 15 percent for participants who went through the program."

Some companies debate whether to conduct in-house training or hire outside specialists. Houde makes her living from the latter, so "I'm clearly in a biased position here," but argues that a smart company can benefit from both. "Outside experts bring new thinking to the table and can stretch leaders beyond the bounds of what is capable internally, because even if you have the best of the best leading and teaching in your internal training efforts they are still inherently biased by the company's point of view." But training provided by internal experts is valuable, she says, because "it is critical that whatever learning is happening [should] be put in the context of the unique business environment and challenges of the organization, which only someone from the inside can do well."

Employee training can be the best investment your company makes. But it's essential to ensure you're getting real results and are avoiding costly missteps. Starting with a focus on the business results you wish to see, evaluating the process thoroughly and repeatedly, and mixing internal and external voices will help keep your company ahead of the curve.

How have you used training to stay ahead of the curve?

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor, marketing strategist, and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.