How to extinguish a training investment

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You’ve decided to invest in training. How best to let that investment yield zero, or less, impact? There are obvious ways, and then two additional mechanisms that can add the substantial ability to undermine the effectiveness of anything that you do.

The obvious start is in the design of your objectives. Are they about performance, or knowledge? The latter is preferable since just giving people information isn’t likely to lead to behavior change. This is despite prevalent industry practices. You must identify specific performance outcomes if you want to achieve them, so it’s best to be vague to ensure the training investment is frittered away.

Another known way to interfere with learning is to overload memory with unnecessary details. We can overwhelm cognitive resources and successfully undermine our efforts this way. Lots of information is key. Also, assessing random and arbitrary bits of information, instead of meaningful ability, is another way to implement training to little effect. Fortunately, arbitrary knowledge isn’t likely to make a difference to organizational needs, unlike the ability to make better decisions. Thus, a focus on knowledge testing is a high-probability way to ensure a lack of impact. Similarly, practicing only until we get it right is better than sufficient practice to ensure that we can’t get it wrong.

These are the obvious ways, but we want to make sure we don’t neglect the less obvious ways. So we have to include what happens after the learning experience as well as what occurs during that time. Here’s where we get into important nuances.

First, we know that actual change takes time. The way our brains work requires not just practicing on one day, because the learning mechanism that strengthens learning actually fatigues. We literally need sleep. Moreover, the amount of strengthening in any one day also is small. It takes repeated practice for an extended period of days for any meaningful change. We need to reconceptualize, recontextualize, and most importantly, reapply knowledge, over time. Thus, a focus on ‘”even—based” learning – a single learning intervention – is a powerful way to mitigate any impact. If we wanted the investment to pay off, we would extend the learning afterward with ongoing retrieval practice.

Another important component is how well that learning is supported in the workplace subsequent to the intervention. To minimize impact, we want to ensure that supervisors and managers are not prepared to support learning. We can negatively impede our efforts if we can count on the “forget that stuff you learned in training” effect. If we wanted to extend the effectiveness of our efforts, we’d prepare the environment for ongoing coaching. Which we should avoid, obviously.

The above, clearly, is satire. We do want our investments in training to yield a sustained impact. To that end, we want to ensure we have identified real needs where learning can have an impact. We then want to align the learning design, minimal content, and meaningful practice, with performance objectives targeted to the need. This is deeper learning.

However, we also want to ensure that we are looking at the longer-term picture. We want to ensure that there’s sufficient reactivation of the learning to maintain the investment. Learning does fade, but persistent reactivation is the mechanism to prevent it. Learning can also be undermined if it’s not broadened, by not only chances to practice but feedback. Thus, we want to work to instill that in our solutions as well. Together, we have a chance to not extinguish our training investment, but to extend learning to achieve a meaningful and measurable return on our investment. That’s what’s required for deeper learning, and that’s what we encourage you to pursue.

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