Why is corporate training often so bad? … And how it could be improved.
You wouldn’t wake up on Wednesday and decide to start training 3 days in a row to run a 42km marathon on Saturday. Why do we treat our brains that way when learning new skills? Costly corporate training is invariably given minimal attention, leading to huge waste.
To eliminate this waste, consider 2 points.
Trust educational science, which has shown spread-out learning to be more effective than cramming in new concepts.
Secondly, business decisions are often based on return on investment (ROI). Training choices based on ROI will make you more accountable and force you to consider more effective approaches.
The usual state of affairs
Training your colleagues, or employees seems to be a checkbox item — something part of their development plan or performance review.
What is the manager to do when faced with a group of staff that need skills developed in a rapidly changing and digitizing corporate world? Bring in the consultant or training bureau, of course!
Training staff is not the company’s core purpose, and seldom is there someone internal that understands educational practices. It’s logical to hire in an outside team who does that professionally, pay them, check off the employee’s performance review box, and move on with core business. All while hoping that the training benefits are used in the future.
But answer these questions about your most recent corporate training:
- What goals were set before the training? Be specific: what measurable goals were actually set?
- Were the goals yours, or did someone else push them onto you? In other words, how intrinsically motivated were you?
- What happened next? Did someone check if those goals were met? How seriously was that evaluation done?
- When was the evaluation done? A few days later when everything was fairly fresh? Or several months later, when a more accurate evaluation of achievement/improvement can be made?
The view from an outside trainer
Full disclosure: in a former job I did this type of training, and in other jobs I was the recipient of what almost every outside trainer offers: the dreaded “3 day (intensive) course on …”
Having seen it from both sides, let’s look at some back-of-the-envelope calculations with broad-brush stroke assumptions:
- The training company is usually paid per participant. Most of these courses cost around U$2,000 to $3,000 per person (similar figures in €).
- Say 12 people attend, then at the mid price that is $30,000 income for the outside consultancy.
- At 3 days, with 7 hours teaching per day, and add a couple of hours on either side for setup and teardown, and 10% buffer, that equates to about 30 hours of work, so about $1,000 earned per hour of training.
- There are development costs and overheads to amortize, but conservatively, even at one fifth of that figure, it’s a good income per trainer. Most trainers have a recurring schedule, so they have a steady income stream for their investment in course development.
- That training income is what keeps many of these providers afloat, subsidizing their consultancy, or other services.
- A further advantage is that after the 3 days, and a bit of aftercare if you’re lucky, there are no liabilities remaining towards the person paying for the training.
An insidious aspect of this structure is that most reviews after such a course are very positive. So only a review as evaluation paints an overly-optimistic picture. Your staff left fresh with new knowledge, feeling empowered. Excited even.
But the next day, back in the office, there is a barrage of email and meetings to catch up on. Fires to be fought… if they weren’t doing that already during the training, watering down their intensive training experience. A week later they are very close back to square one. A month later, if they have not applied their new knowledge … well it was at least 3 days of something different for them.
What a waste of money: calculate the hourly rate per employee and add it to the training fee. From experience, continuing the example above, this training also “costs" the company around $50,000 in employee time. This is then a total expenditure of $80,000 and often little to show for it.
Why do we allow this investment to happen with a near zero rate of return?
The Harvard Business Review reports that a staggering $359 billion was spent globally on corporate training in 2016. To confirm this hunch of a near zero rate of return, they go on to report a miniscule 12% of employees go on to use those skills learned in their jobs.
What could change?
We know for decades now that massed learning (e.g. 1, 2, 3,.. even 5! days in a row) of training is not effective. Spaced learning, the opposite of massed learning, is far more effective in almost every situation. You don’t come back from your vacation to Italy speaking fluent Italian, no matter how much you have immersed yourself.
- Ask your training/consultancy to space it out. Convert the, as an example, 21 hours of class time into 15 hours instead, so 3 hours of contact, once per week, spread over 5 weeks. Consider meeting every other week, so a total of 10 weeks with a 2-week gap. The other “lost” 6 hours go towards self-study and homework: the employee is after all motivated to learn and needs that challenge too.
2. Set tasks in the 1 or 2 week gaps. These emphasize what was learned and prepare for the next session. Learning by doing.
3. Make the training evaluation to be the completion of an actual deliverable. The testing effect is real and it works. So the employee is assessed with a deliverable, and not by checking a box on a questionnaire. Something like completing a project, or successfully fulfilling a new role. The assessment should not be immediate — several weeks or months afterwards are often required for mastering complex new concepts.
What does this all cost, and what benefits does it have?
- Someone has to coordinate the logistics over a spread out period of time. It is not over and done within 3 days.
- Tasks for in the gap weeks have to be planned by someone, and made to align with the content coming before and after.
- You have to convince the trainer (force them even — you are a big enough spender after all — they want your $30,000, they should work for it!) to do this in a spread out manner. I can guarantee they won’t like it, but they will know how to make it happen.
The benefits are immense:
- You get to apply and actually use the knowledge learned right away, in bite sizes, during the gap weeks.
- Someone is sick, urgently required to solve a problem only they know how, or have a vacation planned? No problem, they can catch up on a small chunk, especially now that nearly everything is video recorded. In the old situation they might have to wait a full year before the next training cycle
- Colleagues can interact with each other in between. Learning is a social activity, as the Covid pandemic has so vividly shown from university and school situations. So encourage pair learning. That adds to the motivation and co-accountability.
- This gapped structure also leads to being able to discuss confidential cases and applications. Employees can internally question and discuss with each other how the material applies to confidential scenarios in the gap weeks. In the old version there might be reluctance to do so if the trainer is present in the room, or online. And simply no time to do so either.
- Learning can be partly online and partly face to face, and that mix is essential when spaced out. The trainer might not be able to come to your location every few weeks for only a few hours.
- Focusing a few hours on training, knowing you can still do other work before or after the contact moments leads to less stress from participants, and more focus during training.
- If an employee realizes that this isn’t for them, there is time to allow their spot to be used by someone else in the company.
- The evidence is clear that spaced learning just works better than massed learning.
Return on Investment (ROI)
It may sound inappropriate, but thinking in terms of ROI will lead to more effective spending of training budgets.
Decision making based on ROI requires allocation of a finite resource (the training budget) to maximize that return. If as a manager you were truly held accountable for the spend, there is no reason why, based on the evidence of educational learning (pedagogy), you would choose an intensive, crammed training. As an alternative, the spaced learning is what I would pick every time, especially if it were my money to choose to invest.
The corporate environment also has a role to play here. If the evaluation of the ROI is not taken seriously, we’ll keep squandering money on worthless training sessions.
See the opening of this article. Lastly, this article is copyright free — please reshare and repurpose it as you wish, especially within your company.