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Why Training Programs Fall Short and How We Can Fix Them

It's the question all Learning & Development professionals wrestle with - does the training we use actually result in tangible change? When it comes to changing culture or behaviours, how can we measure that anyway? I've spent the last few days trying to get to grips with the what the research tells us, so you don't have to. And I've found that actually, despite the pitfalls being numerous and widespread currently, the solutions actually help simplify the process - they're easier to rollout than the existing strategies.

So, to the current situation.

The stats are quite stark - most training doesn't work. A few starters:

- Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs 

- Only 25% of respondents believed their training measurably improved performance

- We forget 75% of what we've learned in 6 days unless we apply it

(Harvard Business Review, 2019)

That last one is so important, I think it needs a visual, see below. It's derived from Hermann Ebbinghaus's work way back when, but the key takeaway is that we very quickly forget almost everything we're told, unless, and it's a big unless, we apply it regularly.

Learning and development knowledge loss
How quickly we forget information

Harvard also looked at current leadership training practices in 2016 and in one example, they found that despite the participants of a program feeling inspired immediately afterwards, a year or two later it had all gone back to how it was. Indeed that phenomenon of regressing to previous attitudes and behaviours has been noted since the 1950s without much changing. (Read more about this in HBR's article "Why Leadership Training Fails - and What To Do About It")

But why is this the case? There's plentiful research out there (and indeed my own experience) to suggest that two of the main reasons are:

1. Too often, training programs are just too complicated. McKinsey found in their 2014 study that "what managers and employees often see is an “alphabet soup” of recommendations". As a result, they just don't get applied even if it feels inspiring at the time.

2. They aren't experiential. In 2015, McKinsey found that experiential learning is the most effective form of adult learning. It's the bridge between the theory and the daily practise that embeds the knowledge. Without it, as we know from Ebbinghaus above, the knowledge is lost quickly but also, participants don't reflect and get feedback on what they're doing before they are let loose back in their role.

So, with employee engagement at a low in 2024, we need to find ways to get training working. So how? The two key components seem to me to be:

  1. Simplify the theory. It's not about how many frameworks and models you can introduce or how many management values you can outline. Training becomes much more effective when it concentrates on 2 or 3 key behaviours that make the difference. This is so-called "Lean Learning" (HBR, "Where Companies Go Wrong With Learning & Development"). And that's something I've noticed a great deal too - the eyes glazing over on the third day of a program as yet another acronym enters the fray. So choose the ones that will really matter and just focus on those.

  2. Make the training experiential. Look for opportunities for participants to practise doing the things you want them to do. And make it part of the training, don't rely on them doing it back in their role and learning on the job alone. Search for those "Aha" moments by using simulation and roleplay so that participants can feel what it's like to try out the new skills and get feedback to adjust it before they leave the room. They also gain the confidence to know it works and will be more likely to apply it in their role, thereby embedding it further.

Both these fundamental points mean that employees are more likely to actually repeat the skills they learn in their role. And it's that repetition that embeds the knowledge for the long-term. In fact, this "Spaced Repetition" improves knowledge retention to 80% after 60 days, a huge improvement given the speed of knowledge loss outlined above (HBR - "Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development", 2019).

With budgets tight, it's imperative that companies can maximise the effect of their training programs in these ways. Can you really afford not to?

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So true, yet surprisingly not many people are listening to the facts!

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