In a McKinsey global survey, 90 percent of respondents said that building capabilities (anything an organization does well that drives meaningful business results) is a top 10 priority for their company. And clearly, they weren't kidding. In 2012, the Association of Talent Development reported that U.S. organizations spent $164.2 billion on employee learning and development.

And yet, only a third of McKinsey respondents thought their training programs were effective in improving business performance. Only 8 percent tracked their programs' return on investment.

I'm not going to lie: It's really hard to track the outcomes of learning and development activities, especially when your organization doesn't make or sell widgets that can be easily tracked or evaluated for quality improvements.

Now, I'm not saying that learning and development activities should cease--I'd be out of a job and employees would lack relevant job skills. But with the apparent disconnect between the amount invested and the tangible results, it may be a better option for companies to focus on building a culture of learning instead of buying one-off training programs to check a box.

One of my favorite resources is the book Work Rules by Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people at Google. In it, he shares three pieces of advice to help you develop a culture that emphasizes learning:

1. Engage in deliberate practice.

Bock advises organizations to focus on breaking down job performance into small, digestible pieces and encourage employees to practice them again and again (with clear feedback). 

For example, I played football growing up. As a quarterback, running a successful play meant getting hundreds of variables correct. Although everyone else appreciated the outcomes (successful drives and touchdowns), my coaches knew that none of those things would be possible unless I perfected the basics. Before I could even touch the playbook, hundreds of hours and thousands of repetitions went into aspects like taking snaps and making reads, and my footwork.

Unfortunately, many organizations skip the basics. They expect their employees to hit the ground running and never take the time to demystify ambiguous processes and teach the individual skill sets vital to the role's success.

Bock highlighted research from K. Anders Ericsson, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, who has studied the acquisition of expert level skill for decades. Ericsson found that people who attain mastery in a specific field approach learning differently than most. Bock writes:

"They shard their activities into tiny actions and repeat them relentlessly. Each time, they observe what happens, make minor -- almost imperceptible -- adjustments, and improve. Ericsson refers to this as deliberate practice: intentional repetitions of similar, small tasks with immediate feedback, correction, and experimentation."

So, how do you embrace this tactic? Here are three easy ways to reduce your work down into bite-size pieces:  

  • Identify the habits critical to your position's success. For my role in onboarding, critical skill sets include facilitation and public speaking. Examples of healthy habits are preparation, presentation design, and engaging body language. 
  • After doing anything, ask others for feedback. Specifically, what could you have done better -- and insist on receiving actionable advice until you get it. 
  • Always seek ways to streamline your work, and take it upon yourself to perfect your craft. 

2. Have your best people teach.

When it comes to organizational training, most companies' knee-jerk reaction is to look for outside expertise. But, the odds are, given that the "expert" hasn't worked for your organization, any advice, skills, and wisdom they provide won't be applicable.

It's improbable that sending employees to large conferences or hiring a keynote speaker will result in transformative results. In other words, consider the application and reinforcement component.

According to his research, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who revolutionized the concept of memory, found that after a single event, 60 percent of information is forgotten if not reinforced within two days. (That's right. Two days.) 

To improve the odds that information is both applicable and sticks, look to your internal subject matter experts to train within the context of your organization. 

3.  Invest in courses only when it's absolutely necessary and if they change behavior.

Sometimes, outside training resources are necessary. Rather than selecting courses at random and praying that behavior changes, do your best to articulate desired outcomes (like increased customer satisfaction) and measure the changes.

Bock suggests dividing your team into two groups (making them as similar as possible) and exposing one group to training. After a period of time, take a look at the results, and if "customer satisfaction" went up in the control group, the increase in performance can be attributed to the training. 

Creating a learning culture starts from within. By offering internal opportunities to learn and teach, you can emphasize the importance of development and increase training effectiveness--while simultaneously reducing costs.