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Learning at work is broken. Across the U.S., hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each year on employee training — and most of it is a waste.
A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review reported that 70% of employees claim they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs; only 25% believe training measurably improves performance; and only 12% apply new skills learned in learning and development programs to their jobs.
But the fact remains: Employees need on-job learning to be successful at work. So what is the best way to improve the situation? The first step to fixing the problem is to understand why it exists in the first place.
Related: 4 Reasons for Low Training Participation (and How to Change it)
How we learn at work today
Today, when employees go through training, this often looks like long, exhaustive seminars, multiple videos or required readings. Many times, this content becomes outdated quickly and is not frequently updated.
But how we actually learn is closer to the concept of information foraging. According to this model, people will calculate the likelihood that a source will give them the answer they are looking for against the time cost it will take them to get the answer from that source.
So when your employees need to recall something that was presented to them in training, is it more likely that they will seek out the recording of that training session or video? Or is it more likely that they’ll go directly to someone who can answer their question quickly?
Employees quickly forget what they learn
One of the primary reasons that traditional training isn’t working is called “the Forgetting Curve.” In the late 19th century, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted experiments on memory. His findings illuminated how quickly the brain loses new information along with a visual representation of the way learning fades over time — the Forgetting Curve.
Essentially, once we learn something, there is a steep dropoff in retention if we don’t reinforce what we have learned. Most of us can relate if we’ve ever sat through a long presentation or LMS course only to find that we remember little of it later that day.
We know from research that we need to reinforce learning regularly to keep from losing knowledge. But what does this reinforcement look like for an organization that is trying to arm its employees with knowledge that will help them to be successful in their jobs?
It’s different in every situation, but there are steps we can universally take to improve the learning experience at work. Most people prefer to learn by doing, and the best time to learn this information is when it is actually relevant and needed. Once we can connect learning with a real-world situation, it becomes easier to absorb.
Related: 3 Ways to Make Corporate Training Fun
5 steps to improve learning at work
The biggest takeaway from research on how we learn as adults is that information needs to be presented that is relevant when it is needed, and in digestible or “snackable” pieces. This is where “just-in-time learning” comes into play.
Just-in-time learning aims to deliver consumable pieces of information at the time your employee needs to use it — remember, adults prefer to learn by doing. And because we are all struggling with selective attention, we need to deliver that information in a way that is not overwhelming.
Let’s review five steps that can help make learning at work successful.
- Make training relevant and timely. Your employees want to learn information that will actually help them. Focus on how the information will benefit them and be more successful in their jobs. Why is this worth their precious time? Rather than bombarding your new hires with hours of information that they are unlikely to remember, seek to deliver information when they will actually need it in small doses of microcontent. We have limited attention spans — the more digestible the information, the better.
- Consider the value of your employees’ time. Take into account the hourly salary of your employees and the time they are in training today. If you calculate their hourly rate against the hours of training, how expensive are your classes if the employee is not getting value and retaining knowledge? And if your employees feel that the training is a waste of their time, that’s even worse. They are likely to be multitasking their way through the course. When you consider your training program, make sure the benefit is clear to your employees and that you are developing your training with specific and measurable goals in mind.
- Involve your employees in the learning process. Are your employees actively involved in training, or are they passive attendees? Involving your employees in the training process is more effective for many reasons. For one, peers respect peers. Second, coworkers naturally communicate with one another more fluidly than with upper management or an instructor. And last and maybe most importantly, when your employees are involved in the process, they take ownership of the outcome.
- Balance learning with physical needs. For your training to be successful, your employees need to be in a good place both mentally and physically. If you are hosting intensive in-person training, be sure you are providing plenty of brain breaks, time for walking or stretching, healthy snacks, and encourage everyone to stay hydrated.
- Structure your learning program with a multifaceted approach. The need for your employees to reskill and upskill will continue to be important for the success of your team — especially as your organization strives to thrive through unpredictable tides of change. But when it comes to learning, there is not a silver bullet approach. The best method is to build a learning strategy that is versatile and broad to benefit the majority of your employees.
Learning at work today is broken, but it doesn’t have to be. With these five steps, your employees can be more engaged, prepared and set up for success.
Related: 3 Corporate Training Resolutions for 2022
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