Three thousand business owners were surveyed about their training practices and asked to relate those practices to productivity. They found that education produces twice the gain in productivity and efficiency than money spent on tools and machinery. This explains why corporations shell out billions of dollars each year on education and training. However, the costs keep going up, particularly when the training involves removing the employee from the workplace for a day or more or if the training is to include the entire employee population. For many companies, continuing education and training has become overly expensive.
Many companies today are turning to a highly effective and incredibly inexpensive way to overcome this dilemma—virtual training. When it comes to employee training, you must concern yourself not only with what is taught, but also with how it will be learned by your employees. After all, the best training in the world will be wasted if your employees cannot retain and apply it.
HOW DO EMPLOYEES LEARN?
Psychologists have been studying learning theory for years, both in and out of the laboratory. Several principles borrowed from basic psychology can have a profound effect on the degree to which training is absorbed and effective.
Employees must first be brought to a state of awareness, or knowledge. This usually takes place when they are exposed to new or different ideas or ways of doing things during a training program. Next, they must move to the practice phase, which can be initially done during the training session (roll playing) but ultimately must be done in real life in the field. People need to feel the exhilaration of small successes interspersed with the inevitable mistakes they must make while acquiring new concepts and skills. This concept is analogous to sports.
Visualize someone who is trying to improve her game in golf (or any other sport). When a golf pro (coach) evaluates the performance of a student the pro will invariably make changes in the style of the student. Whether it is in how the student grips the club, or the swing, or the stance these changes when implemented will cause the student some difficulty. This is partially due to the awkwardness of the behavior that is being modified, as well as having to think about the steps to alter the behavior. Because of this, the student initially will find that she is retrogressing rather than improving. However, through practice the student will eventually realize a marked improvement in their game. The problem lies with the inherent behavior of students taking the path of least resistance.
That is, when a behavior that is being modified creates discomfort for the student, she tends to revert to her old way of doing things. The same is true in sales.
When employees are taught new techniques and skills, they, at first, will feel uncomfortable and initially production might drop. This is where the danger lies. Because like the golfer, the employee will revert back to his most comfortable behaviors. Here is where coaching plays a crucial role by helping the employee work through his discomfort zone, thereby achieving higher production. Finally, with enough exposure to the concepts (repetition) and practice backed by good coaching, it results in assimilation, or habit.
So, how do employees learn best? Take them from a state of ignorance to awareness through practice to new habit patterns. That is foolproof training.
“The longest journey on earth begins with a single step.” (Ben Sweetland)
Motivation is the fuel that fires every human endeavor, and learning is the perfect example. Image yourself in this situation: You are just starting a new job and you know very little about what is involved in doing that job successfully.
Nevertheless, you are excited about your new career. You are very motivated to learn as much as possible to overcome your feeling of ineptness and to make a good impression. Being that so much is at stake, you would absorb your lessons quickly and retain them until they were second nature, right? Wrong!
When people are given too much information in too short a time, panic sets in. Human beings experience stress when they implement new behaviors, especially when they perform them imperfectly. Just like the golf pro, you can play a crucial role by helping your employees over the rough spots. It is all right for them to make mistakes. In fact, it is necessary so they can improve their competence through practice, practice and more practice. Your job is to assist them by following up their new knowledge with concrete skill development. Encourage them over these hurdles and you and they will reap the harvest of perseverance. Competence breeds confidence that, in turn, leads to inner motivation.
BITE SIZE PIECES
Another factor that influences learning is the nature of the subject. It comes as no surprise that simple material is easier to master than complex material, which is why music students start with scales and work their way up to performance level pieces. At any level of proficiency, the key to making a subject easier to learn is to break it down into small, simple increments. The same can be said for training. Often, managers overwhelm their employees with massive amounts of information in a short period. The outcome is “information overload” and confusion. An analogy is the sponge. It will absorb only so much at which time it
reaches a saturation point where it will absorb no more. When this happens to employees, they learn only what is necessary to get by or just those subjects that come easily to them. The rest does not get soaked up and falls by the wayside.
The solution is to break down training into bite size pieces that can be readily digested, absorbed and put to work in the field.
Highly effective virtual training programs break down the training to only ten to twenty minute segments accompanied by participant handouts and worksheets. The nice thing about these virtual training programs is that they are a total learning environment and take sometimes mundane training and make it much more entertaining, professional and precise in its presentation. Each session consists of the employees going through a short lesson, accompanied by individual exercises, and possibly an action plan. This is repeated at the individual employee’s pace until all the lessons are covered. At the end of the entire virtual training program, which might consist of several of these short lessons, the employee must complete a final exam
This type of virtual training program is excellent because it affords the employee the opportunity to perfect one area and incorporate that information into his or her own work style before moving on to the next module. The beauty of this method is that it begins a “spiral of success”: employees learn something new, try it on the job, experience some success with it, and this in turn gets them charged up about learning more.
Another factor that affects learning is repetition. The more you are exposed to something, the faster you will learn it. As managers, it is imperative that you instill in your employees a desire to strive and progress to a level of “habitual performance.” This is the level where the employees can do something well and do not have to think about the steps. The new behaviors come “naturally” because they have been so well practiced and rehearsed that they have become natural. When you build involuntary reflexes through perfect practice, you have reached a point of unconscious competence. At this highest level of competence, you accomplish your goals confidently. You achieve things you never dreamed of and unleash and discover a “power” you never knew you had.
When you choose a virtual training program for your employees, make sure it has materials built in it for repetitive learning. The participant handouts, worksheets, exercises, action plans, and final exam that come with quality virtual training programs are an integral part of repetition.
FLEXIBILITY A VALUABLE TRAINING ASSET
Let’s change the focus for a moment from the dynamics of learning to the logistics of training. Flexibility is a major asset of virtual training that busy managers appreciate because it allows employees to learn in a selfpaced environment that’s ideal for new or experienced employees. Flexibility can also mean the virtual training sessions do not require constant, in-person supervision—employees can complete their lessons at work or at home 24/7. However, all effective virtual training programs have a learning management system built into it that provides management with real-time information on how employees are going through their personally-designed virtual training programs, at what pace, and how well they’re completing them.
EVOLUTIONARY, NOT REVOLUTIONARY
“Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” (Chinese Proverb)
The last consideration that should be given to how employees learn is the speed with which they apply new knowledge. No matter what kind of training you provide for your employees, it should change their ways gradually, not radically. Trying to adopt several new skills in one fell swoop creates more havoc than growth.
Let change evolve. Employees should be encouraged to see training as a continuous long term process that will affect their careers permanently not as quick fixes learned today, forgotten tomorrow. By experiencing success and encouragement, change can be exciting instead of intimidating. Remind them that they have to learn the scales before playing Mozart and by practicing, as all great musicians do, they come to a point of competence. However, even when they come to a point of great competence, they have to keep learning and practicing. True professionals are in a constant learning and practicing posture. Take Tony Gwynn, the now retired eight-time National League batting champion from the San Diego Padres, as an example. Although he had the highest lifetime batting average among baseball players over the past 50 years, he put in more time at the batting cages than all his teammates. He was constantly learning, practicing and improving. The same dedication is needed in learning any new skill. Once you’ve completed a training program, it doesn’t mean you’ve “arrived.” Training must become an all the time thing.
By paying close attention to how employees learn, managers and trainers will get the most mileage out of the virtual training programs they design or purchase.
Proper virtual training will also give you the greatest return from your employees in terms of productivity, morale, loyalty and profits.