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An evidence-based guide to design amazing training programmes
TLDR: Lots of corporate learning is crap. Designing better training involves context-relevant, multi-format, engaging modes of learning. And people have to frequently apply the learning to reinforce any behaviour change. However, even the best designed learning programmes can’t solve all organisational problems.
Designing a great learning programme in a company is hard. Pulling people out of their day jobs can be disruptive, companies often don’t prioritize resources to design great training, the format is normally limited to “classroom” style learning, and it can be difficult to design a single training to meet the needs of people with different roles and seniority.
As a result, in most companies, training sucks.
I really don’t like to say that. Mastery of skills is crucial to fufilment at work (and more generally in life), and inadequate learning is common reason for changing jobs. Moreover, there are lots of people working really hard to design and run great training programmes. In fact I was one of those people - I spent about a year designing and launching training programmes as part of a secondment. I’ve also run over 100 hours of different training sessions and I can tell you first hand that making sure an audience is engaged can be exhausting. Thankfully when I was working in this area, people were really interested in the content we were trying to teach.
But that’s often not the case. We’ve all been there: the first training I ever received after entering the workforce involved a presentation about how our company presentation format was changing. It had all the hallmarks of bad training. It didn't need to be a classroom session (JUST SEND AN EMAIL), we didn’t care about the content and there were no real consequences of not paying attention.
It doesn’t need to be this way. We actually know a lot about how people learn. From the way we perceive different formats of stimuli, to the importance of applying the knowledge, or even the neuroscience of how our brain changes as we learn - right now, we are better equipped to give effective learning than we have ever been in the past. This post has been inspired by 3 main sources and if you have the time, I really recommend you look at all of them:
How people learn - a book by Nick Shackleton-Jones
A series of amazing academic reviews into “the science of learning” including:
So this is a little different to the other posts I’ve made so far. It’s a 5-step practitioner’s guide to designing a great learning programme based on the latest evidence from the psychology and instructional design literature. But before we get onto what great training looks like, you need to ask yourself a big question…
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Step 0: Is training even the right answer?
This is probably the most important question that we don’t ask ourselves when designing a training programme. If you are a senior leader and you identify a challenge or opportunity, you may feel like a learning offer is a “no brainer” - a clear tangible action that can help solve the problem you just found out about. Similarly, if you work in a learning team you might be told to solve this problem by designing the content of a training course. Rushing to “learning as a solution” tends to result in poorly thought through training which is doomed to fail before it’s even launched. I used to work with a learning experience designer who was very good at pushing back on these kinds of requests. She’d normally ask two very simple questions:
What do you want them to do differently?
Why aren’t they doing that today?
Often these two simple questions reveal a host of issues. Either people don’t know exactly the behaviour change they want or the barriers to this target behaviour aren’t fixable through classroom learning. The right solution often involves something that companies cannot implement through a new training programme - for example, investment in new tech, changes in day-to-day processes, new job-aides for workers, or deeper culture change. Let’s take two examples to highlight this a bit more clearly.
Let’s say you are the CEO of a large oil and gas company and you see one of your competitors has just had a large oil spill. Public scrutiny on safety in oil and gas operations rises and you feel the moral and business imperative to act. So you tell your Head of People to “launch a large upskilling initiative to focus on how to act more safely”. It feels good. You’ve started an action that you think will help.
And maybe it works in the very short term, while everyone feels the pressure of being watched. But the impact of a one-off classroom training is not going to make a real difference in the long term. What you really need is a much deeper solution. After going through several large scale disasters (Exxon Valdez, BP’s Deepwater Horizon and Taylor Energy among them), energy companies had to take this challenge more and more seriously. They tried the training approach, and (at least in isolation) it didnt work. After many years of trial and (disastrous) error, they finally landed on the right solution. A combination of increased investment in monitoring and risk management, job aides to support workers, and huge programmes to drive culture change and put “safety” at the core of their day-to-day business. Many companies have done this through behaviour based interventions to build safety into everyday decision making. If you know anyone who works in an upstream energy company ask them about holding the handrail when they walk up stairs or whether they start a meeting with a safety moment. This hasn’t removed the risk of incidents but it has made a measurable change to culture. This is a perfect example where training could not solve the problem that it was being asked to fix. Going on a safety course doesn't change the incentives or team environment which leads to accidents. That required deeper (and likely much more expensive) intervention.
But you may argue that’s not a fair example, the problem training was being asked to solve was too big! Well the same two questions can still apply at a much smaller scale. In a recent class, we discussed the case study of a large company who wanted to improve their customer service by training call centre workers. After a large number of expert interviews and KSA analysis (knowledge, skills and attitude analysis) to identify what made some call centre works great, they identified 8 key competencies which drove high performance. Some of these were learn-able skills (e.g. communication skills), but many were much deeper characteristics (e.g. commitment to the job and conscientiousness of the worker). Pushing ahead with training might make a small difference on the margin, but real change requires much deeper change - financial incentives, change in recruitment criteria and more on-the-job tools and support. But the company in this case had already landed on the solution of training before even knowing what the problem was that they were solving for! It’s yet to be seen how they approach this, but if they are set on training as the only solution, it’s not looking very promising for them.
In both of these two scenarios, the person requesting training would struggle to articulate clear learning objectives. Sending a team off to design a training programme to fix the problems wouldn’t work and would leave both the learning team and the learners dissatisfied. If you can’t define target behaviours, then the training will feel fluffy. If the target behaviours aren’t possible or optimal for staff, they are going to ignore the training. Training is a narrow answer to a very specific set of requirements, it’s not a catch-all intervention to solve deep organizational challenges.
But okay, so let’s assume you have read the rant in step 0 of this post, you can concretely answer those two key questions and you still think training is the answer. How do you actually design a great learning programme?
Step 1: Ensure the learning is context-relevant
There are two main reasons to situate learning in a relevant context: motivation and ease of application.
First, learning is cognitively effortful. It takes focus to think through and understand new concepts. The more you actively apply those concepts the more effortful the learning is. So to get someone to be willing to put in this effort, you need the learner to be motivated. This requires them to understand the importance and relevance of the thing they are learning about. Moreover, adults learners tend to be autonomous and self-directed. You can give them a little push, but if they don’t want to engage they won’t. Even in a classroom setting, a learner who’s not engaged (e.g., mentally planning their next meal or checking their emails on their phone) is going to get a lot less than a learner who cares about what’s being discussed.
Second, contextualizing learning reduces the need for learners to extrapolate specific use cases from a general principle they are learning. The context acts as “scaffolding” and forces them to think through the hypothetical use of a skill more concretely than they can in abstract (and as we shall see later, application is important for consolidation of learning). These two effects collectively have a huge impact. We know for example, in a work context such as Nursing, use of simulated situations and scenario exercises had a significant impact on performance relative to traditional training formats. This isn’t easy, because framing content in a relevant context is often not time efficient. To give more context in the same amount of time, you tend to have to cover less content. But… that’s part the point. Choosing the most relevant information for their context adds value to the way it’s digested. Good learning programmes are never “big information dumps”, they tend to be tangible, context-relevant and memorable morsels which stay with people for their whole lives.
Context relevance can be achieved by both framing the relevance of a skill or knowledge set to a person’s day-to-day role and by integrating case studies, simulations and scenario exercises which help learners directly apply that learning to familiar contexts.
Step 2: Make sure people are in the right state to learn
We just mentioned how cognitively effortful the learning process is. Well, one implication of that is that distractions can be really damaging to learning. We have limitations on our working memory and excess extraneous processing that isn’t relevant to the learning is a waste of our limited bandwidth. Moreover, distractions lead to people multitasking (or more accurately task switching) which lowers engagement and knowledge retention.
This has two implications:
The best learning happens in a no-distraction environment. That means you have to make sure learners don’t have urgent deadlines that will distract them and if people need to take call or check emails they can’t do so in the same room. It’s also why “off-sites” and away days tend to feel like more effective opportunities to learn: calendars are clear and the change in location make distractions feel more distant.
The best learning programmes don’t involve “irrelevant faff”. This is particularly relevant to the use of technology in learning environments. The more the learning is trying to work out how to use the technology, the more cognitive load they are taking on. i.e. if you want to use a VR device to simulate a relevant context, that VR device had better be super easy and intuitive to use. An easy way to make sure the learning is relevant is provide “just in time” learning in the form of short-format self servce content or learning within a person’s existing workflow (which acts more like a behavioural nudge than learning content).
Step 3: Multi-format content is more engaging
One of the problems we mentioned earlier was the assumption that classroom-format learning is the only option. As you can see from this enormous list of learning formats from Nick Shackleton-Jones, that’s clearly not true.
We know that changing the format of learning content really matters in how the content is absorbed by the learner. Even simple changes such as having visual and written content at the same time can improve recall. This is related to the way we absorb different kinds of content (separate auditory and visual paths) and because changing format retains higher engagement.
Sometimes the right format for learning is obvious - for example, if you want people to pick up a new habit a “90-day plan” is going to be much more effective than an email. When designing training for senior leaders, typically “peer learning” or “one-to-one coaching” tends to get the best results. In these formats, they get to use their own examples to provide context (see Step 1) and can work out tailored solutions to their challenges.
However, in some cases choosing the right format can be tricky. Normally this difficulty is a result of inter-related target learning outcomes which are a mix of knowledge recall, understanding and application at different levels of granularity. In these more challenging cases, the best approach is normally a discovery-driven “test and learn” process. By applying the same human-centred design principles and A/B testing approaches to learning that most companies apply to product development, you can avoid guesswork and let your users tell you which formats make sense. Measuring engagement during training and retention after a prolonged period of time, you can let the data guide decisions about format.
Step 4: Force people to apply the learning ASAP and repeatedly over time
Our brains are plastic and as a result memory and skills are “use it or lose it”. There is a mountain of evidence that retaining the content of a training session requires immediate consolidation followed by repeated retrieval of that information.
This can be very counterintuitive for learners. We know, for example, that doing a test on content you’ve only read once leads to better long term recall than multiple study sessions without a test. This isn’t too surprising for anyone who used flashcards to study at school. What’s more surprising is that being tested on content helps your recall of related content that wasn’t included in the test and helps you more easily apply the content to real life settings. This happens because memory isn’t a one-way feedback system - when you recall or use knowledge you can change and strengthen its associations. But immediate testing isn’t the only way of consolidated learning. Spaced learning (shorter more frequent learning sessions rather than large infrequent blocks of training) and deliberate practice are key to developing and retaining skills. Deliberate practice here means a learner repeatedly puts effort to work at the edge of their competency level and gets direct feedback about how to improve.
These results have major implications about how we design successful learning programmes. Each learning session should involve active work from the learner to test their recall and understanding. Learning should be spaced out where possible. Learners should be given opportunities for supervised learning and deliberate practice to improve. All these practices require resources and the right organisational approach to learning, but without them new skills don’t develop, and existing skills atrophy and wither away.
Step 5: Integrate a social component to reinforce ongoing behaviours
So we’ve highlighted the importance of context-relevance, engagement, and repetition and deliberate practice - one thread running through all of those is the behaviour of other people and how that impacts our learner. Behaviour is always situated in a social context and this context can either reinforce learning or it can hinder learning consolidation. This is a much wider topic than what we can cover in this post, but let’s think of three specific examples of how social context can impact learning.
There is a substantial body of research which shows that peer learning leads to better outcomes. Working with a peer forces learners to verbalize what they are thinking, and this forced recall leads to a quasi-testing effect. Moreover, participants who are more confident on a particular concept help the less confident participant to “catch up” through peer-to-peer interaction. This co-operation can be extended outside a classroom setting by encouraging people to make commitments to their peers. Finally, given the importance of situating learning in a relevant context, hearing peers talk about applications to their work offers learners more examples of contextual application.
Second, we know that senior people role modeling behaviour has an outsized impact on the behaviour of others in an organisation. A coach I used to work with described this phenomenon as “leaders casting long shadows”. Having senior leaders participate in or even lead training sessions can increase the motivation of other learners and emphasizes the importance of the training session. In practice, when designing a wide scale training programme this could involve training senior people first, having them lead sessions, or integrating training between leaders and other participants (although this last one should be considered in the context of the content of the training). Reinforcing learning after training by having leaders regularly role model behaviours in a public way is also key to embedding behaviours in the long term.
Third, visible training programmes can be used to create an ingroup of “trained” people. This can reinforce behaviours by tying identity to that behaviour and it can build participation (as a way of accessing the ingroup). This social nudging of behaviour is similar to the recommendations from the behavioural insights team in their EAST framework. Success in socially-leveraged behaviour change involves three socially-mediated nudges:
Most people do the desired behaviour - e.g., “the majority of people have taken part in this training”
Build a network and create reciprocity - e.g., “how would you feel if you were working with someone who wasn’t training in this skillset?”
Commit to another person or yourself - e.g., “write down how you will apply this learning in the next 2 weeks and share it with the person next to you”
However, one thing to be careful about is considering the power balance of the social elements of this training. Being “shamed” to do an action from senior people can lead to resentment and you may embed resentment or the opposite mindset of your target behaviour. As with many people issues, this often comes down to psychological safety. Having leaders will to role model behaviours, or be accountable when they don’t follow through, can even the power dynamics and ensure these social elements aren’t evaluative or shame-oriented.
Following these 5 steps can help to vastly improve the impact of training in your company. But much like how learning is effortful, designing great learning requires time and practice. Companies often use classroom learning as a quick fix, but in many cases this can lead to worse outcomes than to begin with. A poor learning environment can accelerate the trend of low engagement and can increase employee churn (for younger workers, better learning elsewhere is the number 1 reason they change jobs).
Designing learning programmes more deliberately is an investment that pays offs in the long run and companies should be more transparent about assessing the value of good training. Whether that involves metrics to assess the impact, or even introduce training in waves that offer a quasi-randomisation experiment to truly see if it works. Companies are investing time and resources into designing training, and learners are investing time and energy in participating - let’s try to make sure that’s worthwhile for everyone involved.
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