Employee Training: Guaranteed to Be One of Your Firm’s Best Investments

A recent TechnoLawyer exchange prompted this writing. The exchange started out with a post regarding case management software. It morphed into a diatribe regarding the complexity of CMS and various other kinds of software. Ultimately, one attorney pronounced that in his opinion well written and designed software should be usable without need of any training. Yeah, right. He went on to say he would not buy or keep software which did not meet this benchmark. I sure hope he enjoys using that quill pen.

In 1986 a law firm asked me to figure out why it’s staggering investment in a state-of-the-art word processing system had not resulted in increased productivity or reduced staffing levels. It took me very little time to determine that lack of training was the problem. Staff were using the equipment and software like electronic typewriters. And in many cases, the lack of training actually caused people to produce work slower than they would have on an actual typewriter. The investment was more a liability than asset. In fact, I theorized that the firm’s staggering 67% employee turnover rate was in some part directly attributable to the technology implementation.

The managing partner and executive committee were not convinced. From their perspective, people were busily producing work on the equipment provided. Moreover, they felt that having state-of-the-art technology would draw and keep people at the firm. Nonetheless, I was given a free hand, albeit non-existent budget, to devise and implement a training program.

The training program included specific task-related software training. By that I mean that the people being trained were asked to provide input on what tasks they needed to perform with the software on a regular basis, and the training was specifically designed to address those tasks. Regular feedback and additional discussion with staff revealed a whole host of related areas–procedures and other equipment–which required codification and more training.

The training program expanded over time to include not just the word processing system, but copiers, fax machines, telephone and vmail, cost control equipment, time & billing and accounting procedures, file opening and closing procedures, and so forth.

Current employees began to participate in the training and orientation of new employees. And in doing so, they both improved their skills further, and made additional suggestions on how to improve the program. New employees were surveyed at the end of their 90 day introductory period to determine how effective the training and orientation program was, and how it might be improved. Continual tweaking fine tuned the process.

The impact of the training and orientation program became quickly apparent. Turnover dropped dramatically. In one year it fell from 67% to around 35%. In another year turnover was further reduced to 17%. By the end of the third year turnover was under 5%, which was lower than the average for the geographic region.

As turnover reduced, morale improved for both staff and attorneys. Unexpectedly, the attorney turnover rate started to drop as well. Profitability improved significantly.

During the same time, productivity increased dramatically, and staffing ratios began to morph. The firm was able to migrate from an attorney/secretary ratio of 1:1 to a 1.5:1 ratio by the end of the second year. After almost four years the ratio was mostly 2:1. This further enhanced profitability.

There is no doubt that training and productivity are strongly related concepts. They go hand in hand. But it goes much further than that. Effective training performs a dual function: it educates people and it motivates them to work harder and better. There is a reward that organizations reap when they pay attention to people and show them the organization is concerned about them. In simpler terms, we know that people spend such a large portion of their daily lives at work that they need to have a sense of belonging, of being a vital part of a team. When they do, they produce better. It’s simple motivation: pushing the right buttons to everyone’s benefit; employee and employer.

There have been actual studies regarding the effects of training. Results of one such study on human and social capital was presented at a Joint Conference of the European Commission and European Investment Bank in late 2003. The study measured the rates of return on training capital in terms of value added to the organization, taking into account any reduction in value due to an increase in the separation rate. (I find that one of the chief concerns of investing in training is that employers fear it will make employees more valuable in the marketplace and therefore increase turnover. This study took this factor into account.) The results? In France the ROI was 288%. In Sweden it was a whopping 441%. The conclusion regarding investing in training of employees reached in the study stated “. . .Enterprise training . . .appears to favor innovation, and this should be the source of rises in productivity and competitiveness. Moreover the rates of return are provocatively high.”

A study by an organization called VitalSmart conducted at Sprint, a Fortune 100 company, showed that productivity improved 93% with an investment in employee and management training. As if that wasn’t enough, customer care improved, the external image of the company as an employer improved, turnover reduced, and client satisfaction ratings were significantly higher.

I have been designing and implementing training and orientation programs for law firms for almost 25 years. In every single instance, the return on investment on the part of the firm has been far-reaching and significant, often in surprising ways.

Ok, so here’s the bottom line. I can appreciate the desire of the attorney who posted on TechnoLawyer to purchase only software programs that require no training. I can appreciate that the same way I appreciate my own desire to be a size 6 again. Sigh! Both have about the same likelihood of happening. The simple fact is that today’s more powerful software programs are more complex. And that includes Word and WordPerfect. In order to get the “bang for the buck” out of your investment, you need to train. Then train again. Then do follow-up training. Studies show that people, no matter how smart, and no matter how adept the trainer, will only retain about 40% of what they’ve been trained in. And that 40% is a “use it or lose it” proposition — if you don’t put the new-found knowledge to work immediately, retention starts to drop dramatically and quickly. Hence the need for repeated retraining.

Similarly, our firms have become increasingly complex organizations. It’s no longer realistic to expect people to “just know” what to do. If you want to hold onto people, and if you want to maximize productivity and profitability, you need to invest in people to ensure that they can hit the ground running, and have the stamina to go the distance. Your firm will always reap a greater reward than it’s actual investment.

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