Why Does Training Fail to Transfer?
It’s accepted wisdom that very little of what is learned during conventional training ever gets applied back on the job. There are many reasons for this: inappropriate training strategies, cognitive overload (too much content), the separation in time between the learning and its application, inaccurate or outdated content, impediments on the job (e.g., lack of buy-in from managers or supervisors, or lack of time to implement new procedures) and sheer lack of motivation.
Even if these factors are addressed through appropriate strategies and at the right level, there remains another crucial problem: In most organizations, training does not address actual performance gaps with consequences for business objectives. No matter how high the perceived “quality” of training, there is no real value to the organization if performance is not improved in ways that contribute to profitability and competitiveness. A recent large-sale study by Cognisco, an independent employee assessment company, reported that 37 percent of those surveyed misunderstood at least one crucial aspect of their job, while the average level of employees’ confidence in their performance was only 63 percent on a scale of zero (no confidence) to 100 (total confidence). Clearly, despite the dollars spent on training, the competence gaps throughout organizations remain wide.
A Real-Time Learning Model
In an ideal world, people would have access to the information and lessons they require, close to the point in time when they must apply them, and in the appropriate context. The content would be tailored to their needs—just the right amount and tailored in relation to their specific roles and tasks. The contents would always be current, accurate and retrievable. Finally, in this ideal world, the training for these required lessons would be tied to real performance gaps, and the impact on those gaps would be measurable.
Only since the turn of the century has technology matured sufficiently enough to realize this ideal. And even given the availability of the required technology, organizations still must undergo a paradigm shift in thinking before it can be adopted and implemented successfully. Here’s a look at the technology issues and the paradigm shift.
Technology in Support of Real-Time Learning
The learning content management system (LCMS) represents a mature technology that responds to the challenges of a highly fluid business environment. Describing some of the features an LCMS offers and how they fit with the needs of real-time, real-world business operations helps illustrate:
- Universal access: To begin with, it would be nice to have content available anytime, anywhere within the organization. A browser-based LCMS can serve up content wherever there is a network connection, on desktops, laptops or even PDAs. A 100 percent browser-based system can also facilitate team-based development of content, especially if it includes workflow tools, annotation capability (for review) and version-control capabilities. When a suitable, intuitive authoring side is incorporated, it is also reasonable to expect subject-matter experts within business units to publish new content directly, without any of the usual delays associated with implicating training departments and more complex, traditional publishing processes.
- Content management and re-use: Training is not often customized to the needs of different roles. Given the cost of development, a one-size-fits-all approach is typical—even though it fails to serve any single audience especially well. An LCMS stores content in small units or chunks called “learning objects,” which typically correspond to single learning objectives or a small number of related ones. This facilitates re-use of content and the cost-effective development of different variants of a course. For example, two versions of a course may be required, one for management and one for non-management. If the courses share 80 percent of the content in common, the shared contents can be leveraged to produce the two versions very efficiently. A repository stores the contents in an object format, and maintenance of the courses is thereby facilitated: A shared object can be changed in the repository, and the result is reflected in both courses that share the object.
With the proper use of metadata to describe learning objects and with the creation of a taxonomy under which objects can be categorized and stored, an LCMS can really leverage the re-use of content across an entire curriculum. Using the taxonomy and search utilities, developers can identify anything from a graphic image to a lesson that might be re-used or adapted for a new course.
- Dynamic content: An object-based and dynamic content model facilitates and encourages reuse of content, eliminating duplication of effort and simplifying content maintenance. Easy-to-use, browser-based authoring and content management tools also ensure information about products, services and customers can be kept current and accurate. Automated notifications inform authors when content needs to be reviewed, as well as alerting targeted groups when new content or revisions are published. Product marketing groups, for example, can ensure sales representatives have the most current information at their disposal. Production engineers can similarly push new processes, procedures and best practices to the shop floor.
- Performance improvement: A crucial benefit of the LCMS is its capability to move just the right content to employees to close performance gaps. Key to this is the granular nature of learning objects. Equally important are the strategies that allow the required content to be selected and presented to the user. There are several ways to accomplish this, some involving integration with other software, and some that use “push,” while others rely on “pull” approaches.
- Just-in-time learning and performance support: A knowledge portal provides rapid access via powerful search tools to a knowledge base of learning objects, FAQs, documents, best practices and other assets. Using this “pull” mechanism, a banking representative discussing retirement savings plans with a customer, for example, can draw on learning objects or documents related to this task, just prior to or during a scheduled meeting.
- Profile-driven content: Stand-alone systems drive content to a “knowledge portal” based on the user’s profile, allowing employees to access learning related to skills needed for their current role. It’s best if the system can also be integrated with HR systems or competency databases, enabling employees to access learning via both push and pull approaches. For example, managers can mandate training related to competencies for individuals who report to them—a “push” approach. Or, employees can select training tied to objectives for other roles to which they may aspire, as identified in an HR system—a “pull” approach.
- Analytics and performance-driven strategies: An LCMS can communicate with other systems and push content to employees based on “analytics” that measure performance in the workplace. These analytics can be compared to desired levels or benchmarks that are used to generate “gaps” to be addressed by the LCMS. Examples include data and reports from CRM, information management and call center management systems. For example, the LCMS can be integrated with a call center application that monitors specific aspects of each representative’s performance. When a representative fails to resolve calls within a prescribed time or is transferring calls too frequently, this information can trigger the system to push appropriate content to the individual to improve performance.
Implementing an Architecture for Real-Time Learning
Once the decision is made to move to a real-time learning approach, it’s important to begin with clearly defined business objectives. They help develop the right strategies for integrating knowledge into business processes. They are also needed to drive development of knowledge systems and learning programs, the effectiveness of which will be measured against these clearly defined objectives.
For most companies this represents major shifts in thinking:
- Shift in training administration (management, organization, funding): It’s easier to implement technology and strategies for real-time learning if training is seen as an investment. Yet in most cases, training departments are still seen as cost centers. Budgets are allocated annually and fixed, so there is no flexibility to meet new or rapidly evolving needs.
Traditionally, training departments have been allocated budgets from without. They own and manage the training programs and assets created with those budgets. For the agile organization or the real-time enterprise, it may make more sense if operational units own and maintain training. (In small and mid-size firms, at any rate, the capacity of a training service to create programs is typically weak or even nonexistent.) This arrangement facilitates investment and keeps training content closely aligned with operational performance needs and objectives. Of course, excellent technology is required to make this possible, e.g., good content management features, including effective search capabilities and version control, and intuitive authoring environments and tools. This technology has only existed for approximately the past five years.
- Shift in mentality/culture regarding training: For successful implementation of a real-time learning system, a holistic view of knowledge and a focus on knowledge as a tool (to solve problems, implement business strategies and achieve business goals) is required from both management and the workforce. Management must believe that training, delivered through the real-time model, can improve performance (including their own). The workers’ role in this is to be more proactive in seeking and applying relevant knowledge and information. This includes being open to accepting and applying the knowledge brought to them through push technologies.
If the enterprise is constantly evolving to meet new conditions and exploit new opportunities, then employees must constantly be developing and renewing their skills and knowledge to keep up. Good technology can deliver a lesson, an example, a job aid, a reference document, FAQs or whatever is required to improve performance. Good technology can also be used to harvest knowledge from the field, allowing the organization to capture and share best practices and lessons learned. A holistic approach to knowledge thus also implies that traditional separations among training, organizational development, communications, knowledge management and performance support are increasingly blurred and largely irrelevant. Obviously, this is threatening to many who are invested in these specialties.
Choosing the Real-Time Alternative
Today, businesses can choose a real-time learning model. Corporations like Dell Inc., a recognized innovator and global leader in computer hardware design, manufacturing and distribution, has demonstrated the ability of LCMS technology to encourage re-use, simplify management of development, assert control over content provided by multiple suppliers, reduce development costs, keep content current and improve quality. Internal studies at Dell show that an industry-leading LCMS yielded a 55 percent reduction in costs when compared to conventional methods and authoring tools. Meanwhile, training is of higher quality and is delivered faster, resulting in a 20 percent increase in sales.
Bottom line: Knowledge is finally being recognized as the valuable and dynamic commodity that it is. In this age of the real-time enterprise, there are very few crucial differentiators among competitors. One of these may be training and knowledge transfer, as argued throughout the knowledge management field. In most domains, there is an even playing field in terms of access to markets, technology and cost structures among competing, successful businesses. In hyper-competitive environments, the ability to identify, close and eliminate employee performance gaps through a real-time approach should provide a significant edge, since few organizations have yet to adopt the required paradigm. And for businesses that operate within very unstable, highly changeable environments, the real-time learning model may be more than an element in creating significant competitive advantage. It is likely to prove an absolute requirement for viability.
John Hudson is president and CEO for Eedo Knowledgeware Corp., a company that specializes in creating innovative e-knowledge software products for extended enterprises and commercial applications. John has been a leader in technology-based learning and has held leadership roles within organizations providing large-scale learning solutions to Global 2000 corporations.
Steven Shaw is Chief Learning Officer for Eedo Knowledgeware Corp. For more information, visit www.eedo.com.