What’s Wrong with Finance Training

And how some companies are finding ways to make it work.

Like most companies, General Mills Inc. didn’t always devote the resources to employee training that it should have. “There was always some training, but it was haphazard, not consistent or actionable,” says Lisa Kline, director of finance and supply chain at the $11.2 billion food company. “People didn’t learn skills or techniques; they just got information.”

That information tended to be parsed out during brown-bag lunches or simply when time and circumstance permitted. Minneapolis-based General Mills has since adopted a much more effective approach to educating its finance staff, but many companies haven’t. “If you’re asking what’s wrong with finance training, my answer would largely be, what training?” laments Mark Beckstrom, a human-capital-management consultant at IBM Business Consulting Services.

That’s an exaggeration, but not by much. Training experts say companies continue to repeat old mistakes. They offer off-the-shelf courses or seminars that aren’t aligned with employees’ everyday responsibilities. They schedule classroom training when the trainer is available rather than when employees need to enhance their skills. They offer lectures, even though adults generally fare better with interactive learning. They pluck trainers from within the ranks, even though these subject experts are unlikely to be skilled facilitators. They allow managers to skip the training sessions offered to lower-ranking employees, which means they won’t know how to reinforce what their employees have learned. Worst of all, companies don’t follow through — they offer a training program, check the task off their list, and forget about it.

“Organizations do that all the time,” says consultant Marc Rosenberg of Marc Rosenberg and Associates, in Hillsborough, New Jersey. “They launch programs or events with great fanfare and then say, ‘Well, we delivered it, we gave them a feedback form, and they liked it.’ Then people go back to the same bad work environments, where they don’t have the tools or reinforcement they need to carry what they’ve learned over to their jobs, and no experts to turn to if they have a problem. Those organizations are not designed or structured to support what employees have learned in class.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. Training professionals have plenty of experience with what does and doesn’t work, as do many companies. General Electric Co.’s management training program is legendary. IBM Corp. created its first “education department” in 1932, and today spends approximately $700 million annually furthering the education of its 329,000 employees around the globe.

Granted, it can be difficult to budget time and money for training, especially with so many competing options for scarce resources. But it’s also becoming increasingly difficult not to invest in training, especially at companies where the finance function appears to be impeded by a skills gap. Jonathan Schiff, president of Schiff Consulting Group, in Monsey, New York, and founder of its Finance Development and Training Institute, says the areas most ripe for training include internal controls, budgeting, financial-reporting systems, understanding process-improvement strategies (such as Six Sigma), and developing the ability to explain technical and accounting issues in a clear and compelling manner.

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