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Four Takeaways from HBR’s Tips on Becoming a More Productive Learner

by Kirsten Liston

Want to build a better compliance training program? Consider some insights from an article in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review:

  • We consume 5 times more information each day than we did in 1986—an amount equivalent to 174 newspapers….per day!
  • Nearly 80% of U.S. companies now offer online learning—in fact, the corporate elearning space has grown by 9 times over the past 16 years (and not just in compliance).
  • Working professionals only apply about 15% of what they learn in many corporate training and development programs.

As the HBR puts it:

We’re consuming more information but not learning more. In short, we have become less productive learners.

(I would add one key point here: Presumably people WANT to know more about some topics, whether it’s becoming better managers or mastering Excel. But, in my experience, most people don’t actually want to learn more about compliance, which is an added obstacle.)

Our first takeaway? In a world of limitless information, you can’t assume you have your audience’s attention. You have to earn it.

The article shares some strategies to improve learning. And while these are meant for individuals looking to improve their own retention and understanding, there are lessons for those of us who design compliance training, too.

1. To make sure the critical information gets through, filter!

For individuals, the authors recommend going deep rather than wide—perhaps studying a single topic for several months.

But compliance programs don’t have the luxury of filtering out competing messages (“Let’s hold all other company emails for October so we can focus on anti-bribery, please.”)

So we have to do our own filtering. We need to make sure that any messages we send out are tightly focused and tightly crafted so that people get the key points—quickly.

(And then we need to recognize that adding 750 words of nuance plus a long bulleted list won’t amplify those key points, it will drown them.)

Takeaway: Do you have a key message with 1-3 main points? Are these points clear to the average uninterested learner?

2. Don’t just push information at people–create frameworks for understanding.

The HBR article suggests creating your own framework based on the material you’re trying to learn—which works for motivated individuals.

For those of us trying to get people to understand and pay attention, we have to create the frameworks for them.

To this end: In recent Code of Conduct rewrites, we’re encouraging clients to let us create supplementary learning aids to illustrate key points.

For instance, we’ve created:

  • Gift-giving decision tree
  • One-page Code summary
  • Safety behaviors checklist
  • Do’s and don’ts or a Yes/No column of behaviors

These learning aids can be embedded in electronic versions of the Code or turned into posters or handouts. The goal is to present information so people can scan and sort it at a glance.

(If you’d like to see an example, contact us and we’ll share some with you.)

Takeaway: Is there anything you are trying to teach that would lend itself to a framework? Instead of writing a paragraph, can you put the information in visual form instead?

3. Get people to synthesize what they’ve learned.

In a training context, an obvious way to do this is to ask learners to apply what they’ve just learned—whether in a follow-on exercise within the course, a final course test, or a follow-up test a few weeks later to test retention.

Don’t just ask learners to regurgitate information (“Which of these are foreign public officials?” “What is inside information?”)

Instead, place learners in a new scenario and ask them to interpret and make decisions about what’s going on. Give them an opportunity to apply what they’ve just learned under new circumstances.

To return to the point we made at the start: If only 15% of the information we’re sharing in any given course is getting through, we had better make sure it’s the right 15%.

The more we can optimize the training we’re putting out, the more employees can actually learn and retain.

Our four takeaways:

  1. Don’t assume you have your audience’s attention—earn it!
  2. Filter! Make sure you have a clear message with 1-3 main points.
  3. Support understanding and retention by putting information in frameworks.
  4. Ask learners to apply what they’ve learned in new circumstances.
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