Beyond Butts in Seats: Building an Elite Program

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Woody Allen once said 80 percent of success is just showing up. For situations such as a job interview or date, this certainly is true. Today, however, in a group setting, personal technology makes it all too easy to be 2,000 miles away mentally.



No one faces this more than learning and training professionals, who want to make their program efficient, entertaining and helpful at the same time. The phrase “butts in seats” refers to a type of program whose purpose is to simply fill up seats, or it refers to a metric based on participation and attendance.



Although no one would argue participation is essential to a learning program, leaders are beginning to look beyond that way of thinking and into more personalized, tailored learning — the ultimate goal being to make professionals feel as if they need to attend and not just lure them in with free doughnuts.



Dr. Allison Rossett, San Diego State University professor of educational technology, is a training consultant and sits on the board of Certification Magazine’s sister publication, Chief Learning Officer, says “butts in seats” is only one part of a larger blended solution.



When only concerned with the bare numbers of attendance, you might get lots of attendance but the wrong butts in the wrong seats, which would hurt your organization in the long term, she said. Rossett added that the key to this is embracing bottom-line culture into learning.



“If you have a real partnership between learning and performance, you don’t want people participating in a lot of training — you want them serving, fixing or selling and manufacturing. You want less training and more knowledge where it’s needed, in which case, because this is a new form, we must measure participation and satisfaction,” she said. “What good is a buffet if no one stands up to fill their plate?”



The answer is, “Not much,” if learning isn’t incorporated into performance management, where new technology can help place trainees in the right program. Embracing those can help diversify your program to go beyond ‘butts in seats,’ but Rossett reiterated that the same method could be applied to the new technology just as well as learning in a classroom. Her book “Job Aids and Performance Support: Moving from Knowledge in the Classroom to Knowledge Everywhere” deals with this matter.



“The technological equivalent of ‘butts in seats’ is ‘hits on sites,’ which is easy to track,” Rossett said. “What you have in a participatory measure, which has obvious value when people are choosing to be involved, given all the choice that they have. Use and participation matter when learning and support are in the workplace. What good is an online community, an e-coach or an online support tool if nobody uses them? It’s a very legitimate issue.”



“Butts in seats” isn’t meant to be taken literally, and no matter how advanced your e-learning program might be, it still could be the crux of your metrics, the problem being that it doesn’t ask why you measure (which can lead to an answer of “unproductive training methods.”)



As a consultant, Rossett makes sure she understands the “whys” of an organization’s need for training. Because none of its reasons for training is just to put butts in seats, why should that be the main metric? Part of that responsibility lies on learning professionals’ ability to align with other goals of the organization, a job that is as much about defense as it is offense.



Six years ago, Rossett wrote that training professionals were worried for their jobs in the wake of e-learning and the like. Now, she said she feels the market couldn’t be better, and organizations — now more than ever — need an authority in blending classic metrics such as “butts in seats” with performance management’s advantages.



“The world of the instructor is changing. Now, they must deliver expertise that adjusts and adapts to the worker and workplace,” Rossett said. “I might find myself leading an online community, creating and distributing podcasts, serving as an e-coach, even meeting with employees to talk about obstacles in their workplaces.



“I work as a performance consultant to help people use what they are learning in their environment. This is a new way of being an instructor and a subject-matter expert.”

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