Workplace learning - are we doing it right?

After a 16-year career in FMCG, I worked for 13 years as a freelance brand-building consultant. I spent about half that time serving within this domain as an expert trainer/coach. Here I discovered the “trainer’s burden”…

Just how big a difference was I making as a trainer? Course evaluations are generally positive when your content/delivery is slick. But how much content (or “know-what”) was turning into “know-how”? In other words, was my work leading to better workplace performance?

In 2017, I began exploring new ways to deliver learning. I partnered with David Phipson a former teacher and online learning expert. We experimented with different learning management systems and developed online courses that served a variety of audiences including project leaders, data scientists and salespeople

I was excited when the May 2020 edition of Forbes Magazine wrote that “Corporate Education Will Never Return To The Classroom”. Any education and training that can be done online would be done online…“always, from this point forward”. The argument was that companies knew they could train people faster, more effectively and less expensively online; that employees preferred online training to traditional methods. If Forbes was to be believed, my mate and I were ahead of the curve. But were the assumptions true?

Since many learners like to pace themselves it made sense that few would miss the bricks and mortar experience. But would the flashier online counterpart be better? Most importantly, would it improve performance?

Regardless of the setting, much training continues to fail at activating knowledge in the workflow. There are 2 big barriers…

  1. Traditional training approaches (online and offline) often underestimate how much content is forgotten within a week of the course (as much as 80% according to Ebbinghaus). Since the brain makes decisions based on what it remembers and not on what it forgets, this is bad news for clients demanding measurable performance improvements…which is (or at least should be) most of them

  2. Training content is not always packaged for practical and tactical application in the workflow. It’s left to the learners to tackle the (often ambiguous) challenge of reassembling knowledge into a form that is “bioavailable” to the changing demands of their work. One learning expert referred to this as the “Humpty Dumpty” Syndrome.

It seems there are two competing approaches to L+D:

  1. The training approach: it interrupts the workflow with the promise of new or more knowledge. While not wrong, it is no guarantee of better performance much less mastery. (And, as Forbes pointed out, it costs a lot too)

  2. The performance or “workflow” approach: it embeds learning at the moment of application to enable better performance and, eventually, mastery. It does this by embedding assets like digital coaches that help can be accessed in “2 clicks and 10 seconds”. (remember “Clippy”, the now-defunct MS Office Assistant?)

I am reminded of FMCG giant Proctor and Gamble who, in 2010, introduced “Store Back”; an approach to campaign development that focused on the final moment of truth (FMOT) namely, whether the shopper chooses your product or someone else’s. “You can have a TV ad worthy of a Cannes Lion but if the big idea doesn’t translate in-store, it doesn’t work,” said a senior P&G marketing officer. All campaign development began with the FMOT and worked backwards to the mass media assets.

We could do the same for L+D. If the learning asset doesn’t address the FMOT (i.e. measurable improvements in performance, increased probability of mastery) then it doesn’t work at all.

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