The value of training and learning interventions at the workplace is undeniable. Training is the first line of defense in many organizations to prepare their employees. Most training designs are geared towards traditional goals like improving employee performance, developing new skills, and providing initial operating readiness to the people, thereby preparing them for the job to some reasonable extent.
However, the business world has changed drastically during the pandemic. It demands innovative ways to speed up the skill acquisition of employees. Training organizations now require a training design that enables much faster development of employees’ skills and performance to specified proficiency. Not all training designs are equipped well enough to achieve or support that speed.
I conducted a research study with 85 project leaders from 70 global organizations while authoring the book ‘Designing Training to Shorten time to Proficiency.’ I explored the role and contribution of training strategies towards shortening time to proficiency. Even at the best-in-class training organizations, I noticed that some training design approaches slowed down the skill acquisition contrary to the usual expectations of accelerating it.
In this article, you will learn nine training design practices, categorized as content-heavy and context-light, which could prove highly detrimental to the speed with which employee performance is developed. As a designer, avoid them while designing employee training programs if your primary goal is speeding up skill development or shortening time to proficiency.
CONTENT-HEAVY DESIGN PRACTICES
Content-heavy design practices refer to those models which tend to insert excessive content in a training program, and training delivery is primarily focused on meeting content-driven objectives.
1. Academic-style training design
For several decades, training specialists struggled to find a best-fit design for workplace training programs. Most of them resorted to copying academic ways of teaching to corporate settings. Unfortunately, those principles were based on theories supporting content-heavy academic teaching well but failed in workplace training. Such design typically starts with a massive task analysis that defines objectives in terms of activities and tasks instead of expressing in terms of business outcomes desired from the job role. It leads to a lengthy list of skills, sub-skills, knowledge, behaviors, etc. Not all of those are required to attain desired outcomes at the job. Thus, it exposes learners to a longer cycle of learning and mastering a wide canvas of skills, most of which are unnecessary for the particular cause they are training for. Instead of speeding up, such a design slows down the time to proficiency.
2. Overly focused on the topics and tasks
One drawback of academic style is that the content-heavy curriculum is not structured the way the job is done. Rather, it is organized in a topic-wise sequence to ease the instructor’s job of delivering it linearly. The result is that a big ring binder manual is given to the learners, mostly comprising of printed training material organized as linear chapters or modules. It is ill-equipped to work as a performance support reference in the field. Real-life jobs do not occur linearly as some sequence of topics. Rather, there are workflows, dependencies, and randomness of events.
3. Just-in-case material
An enormous amount of content included in training programs is just-in-case, which leads to over-stuffed and irrelevant training programs. However, learners may not even need all of it right away on the job. Largely, the curriculums are loaded with slides and non-contextual information, leading to content-heavy programs. Learners are required to master all of it regardless of how soon they may need it. The situations learned in training may not even happen for a long while, and when it happens, learners may have forgotten how to deal with them. On one side, this approach leads to a lengthy training program. On the other side, learners take much longer to master the skills they are taught. Both sides produce only negative results.
4. Instructor-centered delivery
Most of the traditional training programs are heavily instructor-centered, in which the instructor downloads the content to learners through one-way lectures. The program delivery happens entirely in classroom settings without the application of skills to real-life situations. Training is deemed to be finished when the instructor has covered all the slides or the course objectives. Skills learned in such training programs do not give the learners enough time or exposure to internalizing the skills well enough, and getting it transferred to the workplace takes much longer.
5. One-size-fit-all philosophy
Normally, the training programs are designed with some specific structure each learner needs to follow. When the organization needs to scale it up to accommodate large traffic of learners, all of them are exposed to the same structure, standards, and assessment criteria. Regardless of the skill gaps at the individual level, all learners in a cohort are made to go through a specific set of courses or requirements similarly. Such an approach doesn’t serve its purpose efficiently. The rigid, one-size-fits-all philosophy causes a much longer time to proficiency, even for the star performers.
CONTEXT-LIGHT DESIGN PRACTICES
Context-light design practices refer to those practices or models that take the learners away from the context of the job, have a minimal connection with the actual job expectations, and the lack of opportunity for learners to apply their skills to the actual job challenges.
1. Lack of integration skills
The workplace faces increasingly complex, unpredictable, and dynamic problems. This requires employees to use a combination of several multidisciplinary skills as problem-solving, thinking, and business skills. But most programs still tend to emphasize distinct or unconnected skills and fail to teach them how to use these skills together as a combination to obtain the best results. People achieve target proficiency when they can integrate a variety of skills effortlessly to produce an outcome. When you leave people to figure out that integration in the field, you make them inherently slow.
2. Practicing routine tasks
Several organizations use innovative case-based and simulation-based approaches to teach more realistic skills. However, it is not a sure-shot recipe to speed up skill acquisition. The problem is that all simulated practices focus on the repetition of routine everyday tasks. Over-reliance on simulation-based training and practicing routine tasks does not prepare the learners for low-frequency, unpredictable, dynamic situations, which may become catastrophic in the future. Also, these approaches offer practice on a very limited number of preset sessions, which at best can only meet the learning objectives of the course. Time to mastery could be really long in this situation.
3. Out-of-context training delivery
In a typical work environment, to accomplish something, some parts of the responsibilities are performed individually, some within the same team, and some are performed with the help of other groups. However, such kind of context is not embedded in the training programs. When a poorly designed training program tends to take people away from the job and put them in a classroom or non-contextual environment, it is sure that the skills learned that way would not transfer back to the context soon. The end result is a much longer time to proficiency.
4. Pen-and-Paper assessment
The performance in any job is measured with specific metrics and indicators. However, in the training programs, assessments are driven mainly by course objectives, and success is measured through paper and pen type assessments. Such assessment is far from the realities of the actual job performance metrics. Learners are not asked to produce near on-the-job deliverables. Completing training programs in flying colors does not show their ability to produce practical outcomes proficiently. The learners take a much longer time to master those abilities in the field, which adds to the overall time to proficiency.
Despite some inefficient design practices, the value of training as a critical part of most performance improvement interventions cannot be undermined. In fact, in several settings, training is the only viable option to attain the desired proficiency level. For example, job roles in which life and safety matter (military, pilots, surgeons, firefighters, etc.) or job roles in which it is difficult to measure on-the-job outcomes immediately (e.g., roles related to business strategy), or job roles which are governed by some licensing or other regulatory norms (e.g., oil and gas-related jobs). Such situations may necessitate training as a fail-safe mechanism or even a mandatory requirement.
Nevertheless, training and learning processes are the core mechanisms of professional development in organizations. The prime concern of business leaders now is on leveraging these mechanisms strategically to shorten the time to proficiency of employees.
When you design a training program, keep in mind that a badly designed training intervention has the contrary possibility of becoming the biggest speed blocker. So, be aware of the nine design inefficiencies that can pull down the speed. You need to make sure your design is content-light but context-heavy when your goal is to accelerate employee development or shorten the time to proficiency. The focus of training interventions should be on making performers proficient enough to produce the desired business outcomes that matter most in that role, rather than just improving their task performance.
Designing Training to Shorten Time to Proficiency: Online, Classroom and On-the-job Learning Strategies from Research, Dr Raman K Attri https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/9811406456/
Speeding Up Workforce Time to Proficiency: Looking Beyond Training and Learning: Presentation session at TICE Conference and Expo on 28th September 2021. Register here: https://tice.trainingindustry.com/event/2955a481-4d0c-4713-a4e7-0e245a18b754/summary
This article first appeared in Training Industry web articles available here.