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Training Triage:Prioritizing Needs for the High-Performing Workforce

For more than a decade now, the training profession has been quietly under siege. The apparent casualties—shrinking departments and smaller budgets—are not the primary victims, however. The potentially more damaging threat is the marginalization of training at a time when the need for it has never been greater.

Once routine, comprehensive corporate training has become increasingly rare. Organizations that once invested heavily in individualized training for all employees have significantly cut back in the wake of globalization and other socioeconomic forces. While many business leaders recognize the potential for an agile, innovative and customer-focused workforce to offset the pressure from low-cost competitors around the world, training has become disconnected from the larger strategic mission in many organizations. Absent a clear, line-of-sight role, training has become overly compartmentalized and, in many places, is now at a relative standstill. In others, training is completely reactive, occurring sporadically on the heels of lawsuits and regulatory actions. Consequently, when training does take place, it is implemented in a departmental vacuum and contributes little, if any, sustainable business value to the organization.

Understandably, the obstacles to training are formidable and on the increase: "We don't have the time"; "We can't take people away from their jobs"; "There is not enough money in the budget." These barriers are real and cannot be underestimated. The irony is that few, if any, organizations would deny their need for training; they just don't have sufficient bandwidth to make it a priority.

In a training-averse environment, the most
serious casualty in need of immediate
attention is the high-performing workforce.

Without a cohesive strategy to train individual employees for increasingly higher levels of personal effectiveness, organizations hit a performance plateau that is difficult to move beyond. Stagnation and decline become very likely outcomes in this scenario.

Fortunately, the prognosis is not all doom and gloom. Combining the concept of triage with insights into competencies of high-performing employees helps to equip organizations to emerge stronger than ever.

Cracking the Code of High Performance

What exactly is a high-performing workforce? In simplest terms, it is one that consistently delivers business results, making it THE competitive advantage of an organization. A high-performing workforce can exist only if the majority of employees who comprise it are high-performing individual contributors. The successful whole can be broken down into what high-performing people do and how they do it.

In recent years, extensive research has focused on identifying a core set of principles, behaviors and competencies that individuals must have to be considered high-performing employees. For example, in their book, The Value-Added Employee, researchers Edward J. Cripe and Richard S. Mansfield identified a set of 31 unique competencies through which individuals demonstrate proficiency and contribute to the effectiveness of their employer organizations. Some components of this set are timeless; others have emerged reflecting the impact of societal trends (e.g., globalization, technology, high rate of change) on learning and development.

While competencies themselves are essential, they are not the only element in the high-performance equation. There are five principles central to fostering a high-performing workforce:

  1. Integrity - honesty and truthfulness in all situations and adherence to the highest professional standards, no matter the circumstances.
  2. Respect - personal responsibility to assume good intentions and work through problems with professionalism, civility and fairness.
  3. Initiative - ability to anticipate problems, think through all potential consequences and offer and/or implement solutions before issues escalate.
  4. Confidence - self-assurance and poise to act decisively (even when a decision is unpopular) and to ask for help when needed.
  5. Purpose - persistence, commitment and drive to see the big picture and the ability to be flexible and understand what it takes to get there.

These principles reflect both the nature of the workplace and how employees operate within it. A high-performing workforce exists as a result of the successful combination of core competencies (what) and high-performance principles (how).

Finding a Path to High Performance

The very idea of training even one employee in a multitude of core competencies and high-performance principles is daunting; to entertain the notion of training an entire workforce borders on overwhelming. However, the difficulty does not negate in any way the value of doing so. What is needed is a way of pulling these components into a cohesive, manageable framework.

That's where the concept of triage comes in, providing an analogous methodology for quickly assessing critical needs and pinpointing what must be done immediately to ensure the best possible outcome.

The concept of triage grew out of the need to make delivery of emergency care as effective as possible within incredibly dynamic environments and under serious resource constraints. Through the decades, triage has evolved as a body of knowledge, procedures and statistically proven protocols. For the emergency and medical personnel for whom it becomes second nature, triage provides a mechanism that enables them to focus quickly and accurately on the most critical needs in front of them. When applied to training, triage yields both a practical diagnostic tool and an accessible model for delivering training precisely when and where it is needed most.

Triage for Training

Fortunately, workforce training does not rise to the dramatic level of battlefield trauma, nor does it typically involve life-and-death decision making. Nonetheless, the practice of triage already has a widely recognized business role, i.e., prioritizing projects on the basis of where funds and other resources can be best used, are most needed or most likely to achieve success. Certainly, that application is pertinent for allocating limited budgets and resources to training, but it needs something more. In order to harness the full potential of triage for training, a designated resource must be utilized for prioritizing needs and making quick decisions.

Training triage calls for a rational, competency-driven training strategy specifically designed for development of a high-performing workforce.

A system of guiding principles and protocols is also required.

The first protocol of training triage is to ensure a manageable scope. Practically speaking, individuals have their own unique combinations of competencies with varying degrees of each. Thus, the goal of training an entire organization to become highly proficient in 31 competencies is simply unattainable. A more realistic approach is to focus training and development on a subset of competencies that research indicates offer the most profound impact on lifting overall performance.

The second protocol of training triage calls for a logical sequence in which competencies build upon one another. With manageability and practicality in mind, VisionPoint® has developed a model that bundles and disperses core competencies across four functional categories (managing self, managing others, leading teams, leading organizations) and considers the logical path to high performance.

  1. Develop high-performing work habits
  2. Demonstrate integrity and professionalism
  3. Exhibit interpersonal effectiveness
  4. Take initiative
  5. Influence others
  6. Navigate organizational politics
  7. Prepare for the future
  1. Manage performance
  2. Manage work processes
  3. Manage customer experience
  4. Manage risk
  1. Facilitate change
  2. Develop and retain talent
  3. Promote teamwork
  1. Lead a culturally-diverse workforce
  2. Create customer loyalty
  3. Drive innovation
  4. Transform the organization

As represented by the High-Performing Workforce Model™, training for increasingly sophisticated functions in managing and leading moves left to right and upward. The structure and flow of the model is such that each successive competency builds upon those previously acquired. The model's objective is to provide a diagnostic tool, a compass and a roadmap all in one.

Training Triage Applied

Scenario: Individual Triage

Recently promoted from the rank-and-file, a new manager is having difficulty making the transition. Metrics used to monitor productivity in her department are down across-the-board by comparison to those posted under previous managers. In addition, two long-time employees have left the company and several more have applied for transfers to other departments. The challenge: stop employee attrition while positioning the new manager for success.

Status: Training has been identified as part of the solution.


  1. Identify likely deficiencies among the manager's current competencies (a.k.a. gap analysis) and determine the appropriate focus for training that will strengthen required proficiencies (a.k.a. training prescription).
  2. Scanning left-to-right across the model, the area most applicable to this scenario is Managing Others. Competencies in this category (#8 - 11) include managing performance, managing work processes, managing customer experience and managing risk. Given the manager's relative lack of experience, a likely starting point is in the first competency, managing performance.
  3. Condensed from the knowledge base that supports the High-Performing Workforce Model™, the definition of managing performance includes a broad set of analysis, problem-solving and communication skills that enable the successful day-to-day direction of others in the course of delivering desired business results from their combined efforts. And the training focus emphasizes the balance of all management responsibilities; giving and receiving feedback, conducting performance appraisals, practicing progressive discipline, motivating high performers, conducting effective job interviews, delegating with accountability and communicating and managing expectations. Assessing the manager's skills and experience relative to each of these activities will help zero-in on precisely what is needed immediately to help ensure her survival in the position.
  4. In addition to Managing Others, the model can be referenced to assess and validate the manager's competency profile in the previous category, Managing Self, as it is entirely possible that gaps or deficiencies among critical competencies in this prior category could be contributing factors to the manager's lack of effectiveness. Looking at competencies #1 - 7 allows for evaluating the manager's work habits, professionalism, interpersonal impact, level of initiative, influencing ability and savvy within the organization.
  5. Based on the review of necessary competencies against the manager's performance, a targeted training prescription individualized for that manager can now be generated.

Scenario: Organizational Triage

In addition to its application to individuals, the High-Performing Workforce Model™ can be used to assess organizational competencies necessary for ensuring specified business outcomes. In this case, the organization is poised to implement a multimillion dollar strategic initiative that will have far-reaching impacts on all employees. The success or failure of the initiative will depend on how well the organization adapts to change.

Status: Front-line and senior leaders have been asked to facilitate large-scale change.


  1. Identify likely deficiencies among the leaders and all employees (a.k.a. gap analysis) and determine the appropriate focus for training that will strengthen required proficiencies (a.k.a. training prescription).
  2. Scanning left-to-right across the model, the areas most applicable to this scenario are Managing Self and Managing Others. Relevant competencies for all employees include initiative, influencing, political savvy and future focus (#4 - 7) and for leaders, facilitating change (#12).
  3. Focusing on the leaders first, the definition of facilitating change is minimizing disruptions to productivity, quality and morale while adapting to change in the shortest amount of time possible. The training focus emphasizes navigating change as a leader, conducting a change analysis, implementing a change plan, being a change champion and overcoming common obstacles/challenges to change. Skills and behaviors associated with this competency include coaching day-to-day impacts of change, taking positive action to make change successful, influencing others and gaining commitment, holding others accountable and personally supporting the specific change.
  4. Applying these insights, change leaders can assess their personal readiness to facilitate change and can also review the relevant skills and behaviors for the entire organization's overall readiness to execute by asking questions such as:
    • Are our employees change resilient?
    • Do our teams exhibit flexibility and accountability?
    • Do managers understand what is required?
    • Is the change plan sufficiently detailed?
    • Who are the identified champions for the initiative?
  5. Based on the review of necessary competencies for both the change leaders and all employees, a targeted training prescription for an organization-wide initiative can now be generated.

In a profession with a long history of a "Ready! Fire! Aim!" approach, the bottom line benefit of the High-Performing Workforce Model™ lies in connecting critical competencies directly to targeted training. The concept of training triage provides a new perspective on delivering the right training for the right reasons, to the right people at the right time.

As training and development practitioners, we can choose to hunker down in the trenches and wait for the siege to end. Of course, to do so is running the risk that we will emerge to find a workforce unprepared for the challenges of today and tomorrow. Or we can stay in the fray, rally the troops with core competencies and harness the true power of training.

About the Author

Laura E. Bernstein is an acknowledged master trainer and innovative business executive. Her contributions to the training industry are reflected in the development of award-winning training programs, her tenure on the board of ISA (Instructional Systems Association) and prior leadership experience at The Dow Chemical Company, Delta College Corporate Services, AchieveGlobal and American Media. Ms. Bernstein is the author of several perspective papers and reference guides including Target Results, Not Delivery Methods: Technology's Role in Training for High Performance; Generations: Harnessing the Potential of the Multigenerational Workforce; Training at the Point-of-Change: Strategies of a Change-Responsive Workforce and Peer Today Boss Tomorrow: Navigating Your Changing Role.

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