Employee training and development take many forms.

The word “training” itself can mean many things — a new employee orientation program, a series of customer service workshops or proprietary software classes. Training can be even more extensive, such as a lengthy program to help employees understand a new product launch and how it impacts each department.

Corporate training, no matter the type, is often more task-specific and geared toward a short-term problem or opportunity that employees need to learn about or understand. In today’s economy, with the need for businesses to keep up with so many advancements in technology and an increasingly dynamic environment, training and development programs must address the organization’s overall need to adapt.

Employees, especially those who have absorbed additional responsibilities due to restructuring, need the opportunity to participate in programs that educate them to think their way through myriad business issues that now face them. Programs that can do this will provide the best return on a company’s investment.

Goal oriented

Having very specific goals for a company’s training and development programs is vital to their success. Unfortunately, lean times often dictate that the organization focuses only on the short-term benefits of training.

In survival mode, the long-term benefits of educating employees seem too far removed from what’s important now. As a result, a company’s most important asset — its human capital — ultimately may not be as productive as it could be.

And while employees need those internally focused training programs to understand how to do their jobs better, they also need to receive education from outside sources. If employees understand the bigger picture of how they and their company fit into this competitive, fast-changing external environment, they can contribute to improving the company from the bottom up.

To do this, it’s imperative to have them participate in a learning environment where they are exposed to ideas and perspectives of people from all walks of business and life. There are many sources to tap into for this type of business-related education.

Local, state and national trade associations and professional organizations have regular educational programs that help people in certain professions or industries learn about trends, new methods and systems. And, local chambers of commerce offer low-cost business-specific seminars.

Continuous education

Beyond this, many companies continue to encourage employees to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree through a corporate tuition reimbursement program. Yet just as the return-on-investment must be evident to fund internal training programs, business executives are also demanding the same return from their tuition reimbursement expenditures.

Fortunately, today’s models for educating working adults have changed dramatically, with many colleges and universities using real-world learning situations to help students apply what they learn to their jobs. This is really an extension of a company’s training programs, and helps develop employees who have the ability and knowledge to make that company a success.

Many of the colleges and universities that cater to working adults are also working closely with local businesses to help them evaluate the effectiveness of internal training programs, and are even helping businesses develop new training programs that are specific to its particular needs.

While the corporate-education model has changed due to the focus on bottom-line results, some organizations still understand the value of ongoing employee education. According to the American Society for Training and Development’s 2003 State of the Industry Report, service organizations led the way in a 2002 benchmarking study, with small increases in training expenditures as a percentage of payroll and spending per employee, while actual training hours per employee increased in all types of businesses.

More important, the study showed that revenue and overall profitability were positively correlated with training expenditure in the service organization sector during 2002.

This study shows that many organizations do understand the important role employee education plays in our highly competitive business environment. But it is vital for business and higher-education leaders to make sure that the education programs being offered to working adults are real-world focused and help build the kind of educated and adaptable human capital that will be able to help U.S. businesses grow and prosper. Eric Ziehlke is associate campus director for the University of Phoenix-Columbus Campus. The University of Phoenix is the nation’s largest private university, with more than 186,000 students at more than 139 campuses in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Reach him at (614) 433-0095 or [email protected]