Corporate training is broken; so why are you still doing it?
Libby Drake takes a critical look at some of the key issues with current L&D practices
The annual UK spend on training has been estimated at around £50bn and yet much of this is wasted because it doesn’t result in behavioural change in the workplace.
In this article, I will ask why little is changing and what the L&D and training profession can do to remedy it.
Issue #1: You know training alone won’t solve performance issues – so why are you still doing it?
Send them on a training course! That’s often the stock response to performance issues but does anyone really believe that things will miraculously improve if all the development they are given is to attend a training course? No one really believes it will. It might help a little but everyone knows that a lot more than an isolated training course is required if behaviour on the job is to change permanently. So why are companies still doing it? Why are people still being sent on courses when no other support is provided?
There have been numerous studies on this issue over the years. One study by Dr Brent Peterson1 indicates that 25 per cent of learning effectiveness comes from the learning event, 25 per cent from preparation for the learning event and 50 per cent from follow-up activities.
No surprises there then but where is your company spending its training budget? Probably the bulk of it goes on the learning event, which only produces 25 per cent of the effectiveness. Dr Peterson’s 2004 study2 showed that 85 per cent of training budgets were spent on the learning event, 10 per cent on preparation and 5 per cent on follow-up activities.
We need to ask ourselves why we, as an industry, are doing this. Why are we investing the bulk of our training budgets in the activities that are least effective in changing behaviours? Is it because it’s comfortable or it’s too difficult to sell a more complete learning experience to stakeholders? Investing more time in preparation and follow-up activities will ‘inconvenience’ other people by giving them ‘extra work to do’. How will we get their buy-in? Or is it because to develop a new approach to training will take time and money? Are we afraid to fail in implementing the required changes?
We need to ask what is the real reason I’m not doing what I know to be right? It’s time to face our fears and transform our training operations.
Issue #2: You know that failing to get line management support is potentially fatal – so why are you still doing it?
Everyone knows that a person’s manager has huge influence over his attitude, behaviours and morale and we’ve all heard that people quit managers, not companies. People take more notice of the attitudes and behaviour of their manager than they do of what they are told during training.
There is plenty of research to back up what we already know to be true. Studies continually show that managers are the most important influence on the transfer of learning. Cromwell and Kolb found that people who receive support from their manager used and retained more of the learning than those not receiving support3. Ford et al4 and Axtell et al5 both found that, when managers are supportive, their people practise their new skills, which leads to greater transfer of learning.
So why are we not ensuring that manager support forms part of the process every time an employee undertakes a learning event? Many large organisations will have procedures stating that, whenever someone attends training, they meet with their manager before and after. But how often does this happen in reality? If it does, how effective are the meetings? And is this really enough anyway? The manager needs to be seen to support both the learning and the learner and provide the opportunity for practise in a safe environment.
It may seem easy to blame the manager for not dedicating enough time and energy to each team member who attends training, but where does the buck stop? Are managers themselves given the training, support, tools and incentives to provide the support required for their people? Managers need support like anyone else. They need to understand exactly what the purpose, content and objectives of the training are. They need to know the expectations of the learner when they return to work and the importance of the training to the organisation. They also need to understand the impact of their own attitude towards the training and the work environment.
Leimbach and Maringka found that the more managers are trained in how to support and coach the skills their employees learn, the more those skills will be used and sustained in the workplace6.
Issue #3: You know that neglecting to invest in post-course follow-up can seriously affect transfer of learning – so why are you still doing it?
Post-course follow-up is vital for transfer of learning to the job. Learners may come back from training energised and wanting to put what they have learned into practice but, if opportunities are not presented or they do not get support from their manager and peers, it’s all too easy to revert to their old and more comfortable behaviours. In fact, the longer they wait to practise a new behaviour, the less likely they are to do it at all.
Using the new skills is important, for reinforcement, making the new skill a habit and for learning how to apply the skills or principles to the specific work environment. One of the limitations of training events will always be that they are artificial environments. The new learning still needs to be applied to the learner’s specific role in his specific organisation – while dealing with all of the daily procedures, interruptions, personalities and office politics. If he is not given assistance, learning transfer can be doomed to fail.
A 2006 report by the American Society for Training and Development showed that 70 per cent of training failure could be attributed to lack of follow-up after a training event7. Factors included no manager support, lack of peer support, no incentive to use new knowledge/skills and lack of feedback and coaching. There is no reason to believe that this will have changed substantially in the intervening period.
There are many methods that can be used for effective post-course follow-up that range from the free to those that can be costly but effective. For instance:
- regular follow-up meetings with the manager. The first should be immediately after the training and revisit the pre-course meeting and should be specific to the learning event. Alternatively, action plans can be used for the basis of the meetings
- post-course activities can be included as part of a total training programme, the intention being that learners are not accredited with that training until the post-course activities have been successfully completed. Sign-off can be by the training facilitator, or by the manager if appropriate support is provided
- peer-group meetings for follow-up and support after the course. Peer groups should be set up during the training event and people should get to know each other. Meetings can be peer-facilitated, or facilitated by a trainer or external coach, with a purpose such as discussion of progress towards shared goals
- one-to-one external coaching. This would only be recommended for high-level or high-potential learners as this can be a costly option. However, the level of individual attention and support will result in maximum transfer and additional learning – so the whole learning experience is taken to another level.
So why do we invest such a small percentage of our energies and budget in post-course activities when we know that they can make or break the effectiveness of the learning event? We’ve seen that it cannot be for purely expense reasons as many methods don’t need to cost much. Is it because of potential difficulties with developing effective procedures, developing tools, educating managers and of changing the culture of the organisation so that ‘this is the way things are done around here’? It sounds like a lot of work but why aren’t we doing it when we know it’s right and it will dramatically improve transfer of learning?
Taking stock of issues one to three
There is a definite theme running through these first three issues. Training in isolation will have minimal effectiveness in changing behaviour. Training events should not be seen as the solution to a skill or knowledge gap; albeit they are an important part of the solution. But rather than talking of training events, we should be talking of learning journeys or learning paths, which include preparation for the event, the event itself and follow-up.
This means a different way of thinking about training. It also means providing direction, guidance and support to the organisation. This doesn’t mean writing up a few notes in a procedure manual. It means changing the learning culture of the whole organisation.
Issue #4: You know that ineffective L&D design hampers storage and recall from long-term memory – so why are you still doing it?
I suggest that the true measure of training success is how much learners can retrieve from their brains and apply when they are back at work.
We’ve all seen fantastic presentations – and then forgotten key points because the information wasn’t stored effectively in our long-term memory. The science of memory and recall is often overlooked by learning designers when it should be at the very heart of learning design. This is possibly because many people ‘do not know what they do not know’.
Physiologically, getting information into long-term memory involves a process of physical changes in the structure of neurons (or nerve cells) in the brain. Whenever something is learned, circuits of neurons, known as neural networks, are created, altered or strengthened. These neural networks are made up of a number of neurons that communicate through junctions called synapses. In a synapse, the axon snaking out from the cell body of one neuron releases neurotransmitters to the receiving neuron. In this way information becomes encoded in our brain.
Memory retrieval requires the brain to search for information through the neural network, replicating the pathway from the initial memory. Each time a particular memory is recalled, these pathways are strengthened, making the memory easier to recall next time. The more often a piece of information is recalled, the more the paths are strengthened and the more likely it is that the information can be recalled in the future.
This is not, of course, the only consideration in learning design but it should be at the core. If we are serious about helping people transfer learning to their workplace, we need to be taking the workings of long-term memory as our foundation.
During training, it’s the job of designers and facilitators to help learners get key information into long-term memory and to strengthen that memory so that it can be retrieved and recalled. There are many ways this can be done, including building the information in a ‘meaningful’ way, strengthening recall through repetition or the use of a story or humour to create strong memories.
I’m sure we’d all agree that training design is important, so I could ask why is learning design generally not better? However, I think I need to ask why do many of the people who develop training interventions not have a solid understanding of how information is stored in our brain, how the storing of new information can be facilitated and the conditions required to facilitate recall?
Perhaps the answer is that the skills and knowledge of instructional designers are underrated in the UK. There are a few courses for e-learning but, if someone wants a university qualification, they pretty much need to go through a university in the US, where instructional design skills are highly valued.
Issue #5: You know that condoning poor note-taking impairs learning – so why are you still doing it?
How often do learners take notes and, if they do, is it just the odd word here and there? Have you ever noted a word or short phrase yourself, come back to it later and had no idea what it was about?
Much like a computer hard drive, there is a tendency to assume that our memory will remain relatively stable over time. Of course, this is not correct – it’s called ‘stability bias’. Much of what we hear will be forgotten unless it’s successfully processed into long-term memory.
Studies show that note-taking improves the ability to recall information; we are paraphrasing in our own words, making it more meaningful. We are helping information be moved from short-term memory to successful storage in long-term memory. Other considerations are that the use of multiple senses strengthens the neural network and that continual writing assists with attention span.
Every time we see learners not taking notes and we don’t explain the benefits of note-taking, we are condoning their behaviour. Is this because we fall into the ‘stability bias’ trap and think that they really will remember? Or is it because people associate note-taking with being at school and think they are too ‘grown-up’ for that now?
As learning professionals, shouldn’t we be explaining to people why it’s important to take notes?
What we’ve discussed here shouldn’t surprise anyone. The surprise should be how few of us are trying to change the way we operate.
We need to look differently at how we view training – not as a single event but as a learning journey of which the event is just a part. We cannot expect learners to attend an event, receive a brain dump and then miraculously change their behaviour on the job. Much more is needed to ensure they are prepared for the learning, that their manager is prepared and that their whole work environment is ready to support them once the event is finished. This means a change in the way we think about L&D. It means challenging ourselves and working out better ways of helping learners to change.
Reality can, of course, be harsh in large organisations. Trying to get support from senior management can be extremely difficult but this should not make us give up or stop us from looking for a senior sponsor.
It’s time for us as L&D professionals to take a good, hard look at what we do and why. Why are L&D practices not being implemented in the way that most of us know – in our heart of hearts – they should be? That’s a question that needs to be answered – probably after a bit of soul searching – before a change for the better can be made.
A fully-referenced version of this article is available on request.
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