Compliance training: Why we need to get back to face to face

Something’s wrong with learning today, Says Tim Parkman.                                  

Within the space of 100 years, the musket had completely replaced the longbow as the weapon of choice in the (as it then was) English army, despite the fact the latter had greater range, accuracy, rate of fire and killing power. The musket’s key advantage? You didn’t have to be an expert to know how to use it.

We might say the same about the rise of elearning over face-to-face training today. Classroom training requires skill and dedication. It can be time consuming to build a good capability in it. Elearning is easier, you buy it and it’s there – millions of people trained, with no experts required. 

But even though generals with machine guns at their disposal aren’t clamouring for a return to the longbow, as an industry we need to question whether elearning has it over face-to-face training in quite the same way.

With the amount spent on compliance training in recent years you would think that things would be getting better, that firms would by now be complying more with integrity related rules and laws. The evidence, sadly, suggests otherwise. International companies continue to attract massive fines and other penalties for their compliance failures. 

Nothing, it would appear, has improved much.

You will have seen the headlines: $2bn paid in fines by HSBC for anti-money laundering failings; $9bn paid by BNP Paribas for sanctions violations; more than £500m paid by Deutsche Bank (money laundering, again); around £671m paid by Rolls Royce in respect of corruption charges. These cases are the high-profile ones and are just the tip of the iceberg.

With the amount spent on compliance training in recent years you would think that things would be getting better, that firms would by now be complying more with integrity related rules and laws. The evidence, sadly, suggests otherwise.

Companies like these are not short of resources, and they and others like them have (I know) dedicated a lot of effort to provide training on compliance issues. So what’s gone wrong? Why is compliance training failing to make a difference to achieve real change in the way companies and their representatives do business?

Well I’m no Luddite, but I would argue that at least part of the problem lies in the relentless shift towards elearning as the primary vehicle for delivering compliance training. 

The rise of the machines

Many companies are now almost completely reliant on elearning to meet their compliance training obligations. There are lots of reasons for this:

  • It’s good at conveying facts and information
  • It’s cheap on a per-person basis
  • It’s continuous
  • It’s consistent
  • It’s data friendly – providing easy ‘evidence’ that the company has met its compliance training obligations.

Nor does elearning require a cadre of suitably qualified trainers. Elearning solves the problem by simply replacing the need for any kind of trainer at all.

Elearning undoubtedly has its advantages and I am not arguing against elearning per se. But there are other needs that cannot be met by elearning. For example elearning does not have the capability to:

  • Tackle difficult questions and side issues
  • Deal with criticism, cynicism and other forms of ‘pushback’
  • Explore or discuss scenarios other than those that have been included in the elearning
  • Engage with individual learners around their specific concerns.
  • Engender personal trust between staff and the compliance team

With compliance training people need to learn to think, to challenge and to make judgements for themselves. That’s how attitudes change, and attitudes change behaviour.  This needs an experienced and trusted facilitator, and management action to back it up, not just an e-learning programme.

Learner perceptions of compliance elearning

Consider also the perceptions of the learner. Companies tell their staff that their values are important and that adhering to them is crucial. Yet one of the key drivers towards elearning is its relatively low cost. Companies tell staff that they are interested in their views and concerns. Yet one of the effects of elearning is that it removes the opportunity for discussion, challenge and debate. 

What message does this send to learners about the value of the training they are getting, or the value of the behaviours and standards that it champions? Unsurprisingly, learners who have been subjected to mandatory compliance elearning are often bitingly contemptuous of it. 

It doesn’t answer the questions they want to ask. It’s viewed as just a ‘tick-box’ exercise to show that training was provided, and to protect their employers from being held responsible if anything goes wrong.

The answer? We need more face-to-face

Somewhere along the line, we lost sight of something very important. We stopped trying to bring people in our organisations with us, and instead focused on creating digitalised records of their ‘compliance’. For training programmes to make a difference and achieve real behavioural change there needs to be a shift away from elearning. 

Elearning has its place in the compliance training mix, but it needs to be part of a wider package of learning experiences, including a healthy dose of face-to-face.


About the author

Tim Parkman is managing director of Lessons Learned Ltd, a UK based integrity and compliance training company specialising in both elearning and face-to-face training.


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