Attendance isn't the objective: designing training to change behavior

Photo of Karen Boehling
Photo of JP Patiño

whiteboardWhen organizations decide to do training it's often as a reactive response to a behavior or performance need (“we need a 2-hour training on X!”), or one of the last things considered as part of a larger initiative such as a major system implementation. Whether training is being considered upfront, or later in the game, it’s always a good idea to approach it strategically to ensure that real results are achieved.

“If you build it, they will come.” You are probably familiar with this famous line from the movie Field of Dreams. For many in the learning and development profession, this quote perfectly reflects a common perception, or misconception, about training – that the goal is to get people to attend and complete training. Is this goal really the right driver behind any learning initiative?

Case in point :#metoo

The recent #metoo movement has driven national and global conversations about sexual harassment and assault and how we’re addressing this pervasive issue both in and outside of the workplace. In many cases, we’ve seen a knee-jerk reaction to the issue – companies redesigning and reissuing mandatory prevention or awareness training, reviewing, and re-tooling of policies, etc. The United States Congress itself now mandates training to prevent sexual assault, harassment, and discrimination.

Organizations have been requiring employees to complete anti-sexual harassment training for decades, yet here we are today. Training is not always the magic fix, but a band-aid to get compliance or acceptance. We subscribe to the idea that, if everyone goes through the training, we’ll automatically get better results and everybody will adjust to the “new way”. It doesn’t take much to understand how that’s not the case.

The "right" metrics

If you ask any learning professional about what their key metrics are, you’ll often hear things like 100% participation or 100% completion of their course, their test, their learning lab, etc. Is the real challenge getting every employee to complete the training, or is it achieving actual behavior change? As a result of the #metoo movement, we know that many companies will require more training on sexual harassment policies – but what is the intended outcome of "more training"?  

Organizations put huge amounts of time, money, and energy into creating and delivering training content, yet continue to struggle to determine if meaningful learning has occurred. Traditionally, the training function has relied heavily on basic metrics, like completion rates or learner satisfaction scores. Continuing to rely on this approach limits the ability of the learning and development function to position itself as a strategic influencer on the business. Meaningful learning, and behavior change, can’t happen without a strong alignment to the rest of the business, and a clear connection between learning goals and business goals. 

What if your organization mandated sexual harassment awareness training, and the measure of success is “completion rate”? How confident would you feel that harassment incidents in the workplace would be reduced, or that behavior or attitudes would change? You’d probably feel more confident if the program had specific learning outcomes linked to clearly defined metrics, such as “x% increase in incident reporting”. This scenario illustrates that an essential part of your learning strategy, for any given course, program or initiative, should be defining what would change as a result of the learning.

In addition, consider the idea that training isn’t just about “the training”. Who is impacted by the training, what are their attitudes about the training, and what is expected of them as a result of the training? What mix of communication strategies is needed to reach stakeholders, people managers and learners? What policies and procedures are in place to reinforce behaviors and processes? What incentives and/or consequences are in place to drive adoption of learning, and accomplishment of defined learning outcomes?  Asking these questions allows us to take a solution beyond offering training and pursue a broader “change management” perspective.

Designing training

Change management takes into consideration not only the “what,” but the “who” – who is impacted? Who are the people that you hope to influence? What do they do? What do they care about? It’s important to understand the various audiences, their perspectives and their needs - are they busy, stressed and overwhelmed? Are they introspective, process-driven, eager to learn, or resistant to change? Are they cynical about change, or do they see change as opportunity? In any case, your audience should guide how you plan your learning strategies and change management approaches.

In addition to having a solid training strategy and a clear change management approach, good design is essential to achieving learning outcomes. We’re talking about the “how” of training – how is the program or learning experience designed to maximize learner engagement and drive the desired behavior change? In general, a blended learning strategy, incorporating multiple modes and styles of training and communication, will help you to reach multiple audiences in a variety of ways. Below are a few best practices for engagement we’d like to highlight.

A recent experience in the field

At a recent client in the public sector, Caiman Consulting engaged with a team to help them learn new software, and multiple devices, that employees would be using in both the office and in the field as they conduct inspections. We had to be creative with our overall design and strategy, as development of training began late in the project. Additionally, getting the team engaged in the learning was going to be tough as they were busy from early in the morning to late afternoon.

We partnered with managers and other change experts within the organization and developed a plan for how to keep things fun, interesting, and engaging, as well as ensuring they had enough time to practice with the tool to make the learning stick. We applied a combination of formal and informal training approaches and performance support to get people engaged and reinforce what they were learning. In this particular case, we deployed an e-learning challenge that kicked off the training and followed through with a series of peer-delivered training. Additionally, we created a peer group that was able to support learning out in the field, build confidence with the new tool and ensure learning was taking place. Additional teams were implemented to follow up with those needing extra guidance or attention as the training took place. Finally, we dedicated blocks of time for people to continue practicing, and to voice their questions and concerns about the changes in the system and resulting impacts to the business. All these layers were necessary as the training needed to incorporate more than just the tool, it had to consider the bigger, long-term picture of the business and its people.With any training project or initiative, it is critical to ensure you are measuring your training based on effectiveness and not just completion. Effective training design, and related change management, starts and ends with content that is highly relevant to real job activities, is clearly aligned with specific business results, is motivational, and has the ability to provide skills and critical thinking.

Without clear project and learning goals tied to business results, any training program could be generic, or off target – a waste of time, money and resources. Well-defined, measurable learning outcomes make it easy to assess whether individuals have been adequately trained and the desired outcomes achieved. Keep in mind that your audiences and user stories are critical inputs to your training and change management strategies. As a result, we’ll see the kinds of cultural changes and meaningful engagement in our organizations that bring about the changes we want.

Want to share a comment, or ask us a question? Hit us up on LinkedIn or Twitter, or contact us directly - we're happy to talk more!