The key to work-learning balance isn’t calculating the right ratio of hours spent in training to hours spent on the job. It’s figuring out how to balance formal learning experiences with actual application of new skills and knowledge.
Every learning professional has heard employee and manager resistance to taking time from work for training.
“I don’t want to attend because I’m swamped with work and I’ll be further behind when I get back from training,” employees say. “How much time are we going to take away from actually getting work done for training?” managers lament.
There is an important and easy solution that overcomes this resistance and multiplies the effectiveness of any training program: Make sure everyone gets work done while in the training!
Learning programs should not just talk about concepts. They should apply the concepts being discussed as part of the training. This way, learning and working are blended. Participants are able to accomplish specific job activities. At the same time, they are learning more effective ways to manage and accomplish similar objectives on an ongoing basis.
This approach has been recognized in on-the-job training, in which some variation of Tell-Show-Check-Correct is consistently applied. As an expert, you tell people what needs to be done. You then show them how the job is done by doing it yourself. Checking is done by having them do the assigned task while you observe their execution. If they need improvement, you correct them by starting the cycle over and repeating the “tell” and “show” parts of the process before they do the task again.
Unfortunately, when we move into classroom or online learning, the performance of real work is too often left out. It gets replaced by role-play, lecture or theoretical discussion — not that these techniques can’t be a helpful part of learning. But standing alone, the learning results they produce are weak. Discussion of concepts and ideas is a waste of time unless translated into practical work or life decisions made and actions taken.
Training is the time to make sure that translation happens. If it doesn’t happen during training, it is highly unlikely to happen afterward.
I learned the importance of this lesson in a fun personal area: teaching friends and business acquaintances to fish. I am an avid saltwater fisherman and enjoy sharing the pleasure of the sport with others. As a result, I have taught many people how to fish. They pick up the technique fairly quickly. They can cast the lure, let it sink, bounce it up and down as the tide sweeps it along the bottom and, when they get a bite, rapidly jerk the tip of the rod back to set the hook.
With a little practice, they can repeat the actions of the knowledge transferred. But if they don’t catch a fish while learning, they will never fish again. They have to experience immediate results for that knowledge transfer to stick. And if they catch more than one fish, the odds are multiplied that they will keep fishing and using the techniques they learned.
This is borne out by measured learning studies. Client training studies with more than 5,000 participants show that when the skills learned are applied to two or more real objectives during the training, learning retention and ongoing utilization skyrocket: 97 percent follow through on important objectives scheduled during training, 94 percent are still using the tools learned after two months and 91 percent continue to be more productive at work due to the new tools learned. These percentages fall by more than half when there is little or no practical, professional or personally relevant application completed during the learning session.
The time parameters of the learning session will limit the number of objectives you can reach — or, if you prefer, fish you can catch. But you should never conduct training without getting at least one and preferably two or more actual applications of the skills taught to produce immediate results for each participant.
To do this, you should reformat each existing training program that does not get work done during the training. You should similarly make sure all future programs implement practical application of the skills taught. This can be done with your internal team or by working with outside learning vendors.
As a general rule of thumb, the work-learning balance should be about 50-50 in a training session. First, the conceptual learning needs to occur, as a tool or skill needs to be explained conceptually before it can be correctly applied. To transition into the practical application, follow the conceptual explanation with an actual example, not a hypothetical one. It must be relevant to your organization and audience, and show real results for the skill being taught.
This example should mirror the type of work or individual outcome you expect each person to accomplish while participating in the training. After you explain the concept of the skill and show a real-world example, it is time for each participant to apply the skill or tool to catching a fish — getting real work done or producing personal results immediately.
Finding concrete examples that have been successfully executed is relatively easy when doing job-specific skills training. If a new software tool is being taught, for example, the course designer or instructor should find someone internally who has successfully applied the software. That person should be interviewed to find out how he or she used the tool to produce the positive results.
Using that information, the trainer formats the example and outcome in advance to illustrate how the tool worked to produce the positive results. Another option is for the trainer to apply the tool himself to a work objective that will be a relevant or common use for the target audience.
Such examples suggest ways the new skill can be used, but it is up to participants to choose how they will apply the skill to their own jobs. After the examples, they make that choice and do their initial applications while in the training session.
Another valuable alternative is to eliminate the choice element and give all participants the same work objective to complete while in the class. The key here is after a relevant example is given, every participant immediately gets work done around one important common objective.
For example, in relationship-management training, participants regularly apply the skills learned to taking specific actions to improve their external or internal customer service. When teaching time management, many programs require all participants to apply a skill learned to an organizational objective such as decreasing processing time of customer orders, inquiries and client phone calls.
Here are two examples:
Organization/group: U.S. Intelligence Service Senior Operational Team.
Skill taught: Project management methodology.
Example and expected application: Shorter, more effective meetings.
Work done during training: Team members applied the newly learned project management skill to how they would personally contribute to having shorter, more effective meetings, as well as to how the organization could improve meetings.
Results produced: Average daily operations meeting time cut from 90 to 30 minutes, freeing up more than 300 senior executive hours per month.
Organization/group: Sales team at a major regional bank.
Skill taught: Relationship-building skills.
Example and expected application: Apply to create client plans to increase sales of specific high-margin financial product in the next quarter.
Work done during training: Sales team members applied the newly learned relationship skill to determine how they would personally increase their sales and their team’s sales of a specific, high-margin product line.
Results produced: Sales in the next quarter exceeded the 25 percent goal and continued above projected revenue for subsequent quarters.
These examples illustrate the point that well-planned and executed learning should result in valuable work being done during the program. Great training goes further, resulting in more important work being done than would have been done in the same time spent “just” working. In addition, the work applications embedded in the training multiply the retention and ongoing application of the skills taught for years to come.
But there is an interesting application twist that also increases on-the-job retention and use: applying the skill learned to producing personal results for each participant. Continental Airlines found that when it incorporated personal home safety planning and actions into on-the-job safety training programs, retention and use of the skills taught increased. Similar evaluations with hundreds of other clients show that including personal exercises in the training significantly increases the ongoing use of the learned skills on the job.
For training to be most effective, real professional or personal work, decision making and scheduling must be done during every learning session. That often means a reduction in the number of concepts, skills and methods covered in any given training program. It is much better to teach fewer skills that are retained and applied on an ongoing basis than talk about more skills that people understand at the time but never use. Whether you have an hour or a week for training, the time should be divided between learning the concepts and working — applying the learned concepts to produce immediate results.
When this format is emphasized at the beginning of a training session, you will see the audience sit up and take notice. The instructor sets the tone: “Now during the first half of the session this morning, we will focus on the concepts and examples that underlie the skills we are going to learn. Before you can apply a skill, you need to understand conceptually how it works. But then the second half of the session will be devoted to applying the tools to your job and your life, to get immediate results for you.”
As with live learning, the effectiveness of online training and computer-based training (CBT) also is directly related to whether work is done and practical results are produced as part of the program. Although they may not be as customizable as a live program, successful examples of the method being taught should be included to suggest ways the new skill can be used. Exercises should be built into the online training that require the participants to apply the skill to their job or life to produce practical results.
If your existing online/CBT programs lack work applications, you can supplement them with a short, live follow-on program. Since the online courses already have taught the skills, almost all of the live session can focus on work applications. As a result, even a session of one hour or less can accomplish valuable work goals.
When work gets done during training, your organization takes notice of the real-world effectiveness of your learning programs. If you have 20 people in training, at the end of the session, you have 20 individuals leaving the learning with actions performed and commitments to improvement. Those 20 go out and immediately impact the critical work objectives of your organization. The same is true if you have 20,000 participate.
Getting work done — producing professional and personal results for every participant — is how learning produces the big impact that proves its worth. It also eliminates the perceived tradeoff between time in training and time at work.
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