Below are are two recent articles that together tell an enlightening story. In a nutshell here’s the bottom line:

  • U.S. firms spent $156 billion on employee learning in 2011 – with little to show for it according to one article
  • By the time employees get back to the job they have lost 90% of what they learned in training

How to make this better?

  • Supervisor support: employees need the opportunity to practice and an environment that reinforces learning
  • Relationship with the boss: the primary determinant of learning is the degree to which an employee feels that the boss cares about them
  • Messaging: companies must send signals that learning is important and ensure nothing conflicts with it
  • Simple feedback: if you see an employee use the training, acknowledge it
  • Practice, practice, practice – and keep it simple

In the Applied Leadership Seminar we address these actions head on:

  • It’s the leader’s job to fill the “organization space” with consistent messages that create congruence and influence behavior, and the Message = Content + Context
  • By acknowledging a learning you give the person more access to it – they will be more resourceful because the leader recognized a truth in them
  • Believing in others is a powerful force in propelling success
  • To create support there must be a boss-employee relationship, and the conversation is the relationship
  • And remember, our brains learn through practice – Positive Change = (Expectation + Experience) x Attention x Veto Power

Al Bolea

…and for those who want more please read on below.

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So Much Training, So Little to Show for It

WSJ October 26, 2012

By Rachel Emma Silverman

Companies devote a lot of time, effort and money to corporate training—with little to show for it.

U.S. firms spent about $156 billion on employee learning in 2011, the most recent data available, according to the American Society for Training and Development. But with little practical follow-up or meaningful assessments, some 90% of new skills are lost within a year, some research suggests.

Eduardo Salas, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Central Florida and a program director at its Institute for Simulation and Training, has studied corporate training programs for more than two decades. What happens before and after a training session, he says, is just as important as the actual instruction itself.

The Wall Street Journal spoke with Dr. Salas to discuss his research. Here are edited excerpts of that conversation:

WSJ: What was the most surprising thing you have learned from years of studying corporate training.

DR. SALAS: How little organizations rely on the science of learning and training. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and many organizations are uninformed about what it is we know about learning and training and development.

There are a number of myths that organizations have about training. The first myth is if you send an unskilled employee to training, when they come back there is immediately a changed, improved, skilled worker. That is an erroneous assumption. It is much more complex than that. In this day and age, companies in general still have very simplistic views of training.

WSJ: What are the biggest mistakes that companies make in training?

DR. SALAS: First, organizations don’t take the time to analyze what their training needs are. This is simple. The first step in doing training is to do a training-needs analysis, figuring out who needs training and what kind.

The next problem is many organizations don’t evaluate how well employees have learned. Or if they do, they usually stop at the first level of evaluation—the reaction data. Companies think that if there is a positive reaction to the training, that people will learn. But what we know is that the correlation is very weak between reaction to training and actual learning.
Third, companies believe that technology will solve all training problems. They think that a mobile app or computer games are the solution to learning. A simulation by itself isn’t enough. You also need very clear and precise learning objectives, clear feedback, a form of measurement or assessment and regular opportunities to practice and get feedback.

Fourth, you can have the best training in the world. Top-notch. But the organization may not be ready to receive the training and doesn’t set the conditions so that when you go back to your job, you have the right supervisory support, the opportunity to practice and the conditions that allow you to apply the skills you just learned and to motivate you to sustain this.

It is paramount that organizations set the climate for learning. Employees are very good at reading what is critical. If the organization isn’t setting signals, people don’t use it.

WSJ: What is the single most important element of an effective training program?

DR. SALAS: Design. It’s the thing you do before, during and after. How are you going to allow employees to practice? How are you going to provide feedback? What sort of technology are you going to use? While this may seem obvious, very few organizations really pay attention to this.

[Many companies] just procure a vendor for a program—like four hours of a workshop to do interpersonal skills—and they assume that the design is incorporated into it. Many vendors make sure the training is flashy and engaging, with a lot of bells and whistles. While that may be a fun and interesting few hours, after you go back to your job, you ask, “What do I do now?”

WSJ: Is there something simple that most companies can do right away to improve their training?

DR. SALAS: One is to do your training-needs analysis. Make sure you have clearly defined outcomes for the learning—and identify who is supposed to be going through training and what kind of training.

Sometimes an organization sends people to training thinking that’s what they need, and they come back wondering, “So why did I go to that training? I won’t be able to use that for another three years when we get the new procedure.” A training-needs analysis is critical so you don’t waste time.

WSJ: How important is testing?

DR. SALAS: Testing is an integral part of training. It is paramount for recognizing skills decay. Assessment should be done on a continuous basis, both formally and informally. Your direct supervisor often has the most intimate knowledge of important skills and whether you need to go back to training.

WSJ: How big of a problem is skills decay?

DR. SALAS: The American Society for Training and Development says that by the time you go back to your job, you’ve lost 90% of what you’ve learned in training. You only retain 10%. If you don’t use the skills very quickly, you will have big decay very quickly. That’s why you need to reinforce, you need to assess. If you learn something and you don’t have the opportunity to practice, eventually you are going to lose it.

WSJ: Training sessions often seem like cram sessions, full of information and facts. Are there effective ways to help employees retain all this information?

DR. SALAS: Companies need to teach employees how and where to access facts. If you are inundated with facts and concepts, you will forget 90% of it. What training ought to do is help you get access to that information—databases, manuals, checklists—when you need it on the job. They cannot memorize everything.

WSJ: How can workers be more motivated to focus on training, rather than seeing it as a burden?

DR. SALAS: Organizations must set signals that learning is important in this organization. It’s about creating in employees the mental model that if I engage in this learning, if I know more, it is to my benefit. I will be more marketable.

The supervisor is very influential. If the supervisor cares about your future, you are going to be motivated.

Ms. Silverman is a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Austin, Texas. She can be reached at rachel.silverman@wsj.com.
Practice Makes Perfect

And Not Just for Jocks and Musicians Rehearsing tasks, from teaching to medicine to consumer service, frees the brain for complex work.

WSJ October 26, 2012

By DOUG LEMOV
What drives mastery is encoding success—performing an action the right way over and over.

No one disputes that practice is the way to prepare for a cello concerto or a tennis match—complex, physically challenging activities that have to be executed without a coach’s immediate direction or the chance for a do-over. But these activities are not unique. Thousands of other tasks that are done “live”—from delivering employee performance reviews to examining a patient, from hearing a customer complaint to reacting to a student’s question—would benefit from practice beforehand. The problem is that we seldom think of these other kinds of work as the sort of things that can be improved by routine and repetition.

Why is practice so helpful for complex, nonrote tasks? One reason is that the capacity of our brains is finite. You might be able to chew gum and cross the street at the same time, but you probably can’t cross the street, solve a math puzzle and answer your child’s question about why the sky is blue.

Practice lets us execute a task while using less and less active brain processing. It makes things automatic. When performers master one aspect of their work, they free their minds to think about another aspect. This may be why many of us have our most creative thoughts while driving or brushing our teeth. Rote learning and conceptual thinking often feed synergistically on each other, freeing our brain capacity for those tasks that require the maximum amount of attention and creativity.

Consider, for example, how this might be applied to developing customer-service skills. When faced with a customer furious at the quality of service and wanting someone to feel his pain, it is important to remain calm and express understanding—and not to argue the disgruntled customer into a deeper frenzy. So managers often, understandably, instruct representatives to concentrate with laser focus on managing their own demeanor. But it’s also critical to listen, analyze problems and identify solutions. And this is the dilemma: The more that service representatives concentrate on maintaining the right tone, the more they risk doing so at the expense of actually resolving the situation at hand.

A better approach might be regular “irate customer” practice. Once a week, employees would practice maintaining the right demeanor as colleagues played angry customers. The result: Employees not only would be more unflappable but also could reserve more of their brain-processing capacity for troubleshooting. They would succeed not by thinking about having the right tone but by not thinking about it.
In fact, practice can teach skills that even coaches do not fully understand. During World War II, as neuroscientist David Eagleman has recounted, certain “spotters” among the British defense forces could distinguish the sound of German planes from British ones long before they were in sight, but they couldn’t explain the sonic difference. So a reliable spotter would stand next to a trainee while he guessed the nationality of an incoming plane. The spotter simply answered “right” or “wrong,” and soon enough the trainees had learned to “spot”—even if no one could describe what it was they had learned.

The anecdote suggests the many ways that instructors, in talking about practice, are just as likely to get things wrong as to get them right. Here, social science can help. Research has established that fast, simple feedback is almost always more effective at shaping behavior than is a more comprehensive response well after the fact. Better to whisper “Please use a more formal tone with clients, Steven” right away than to lecture Steven at length on the wherefores and whys the next morning.

Similarly, we often like people who take feedback well. But is the employee who graciously admits flaws and perpetually promises improvement really better than the one who bristles but comes back the next day with new skills and a focused mind-set? Trainers and managers give feedback all the time, but they rarely ask individuals to use it. An explicit request can normalize the idea of “using” rather than passively “taking” feedback.

When giving advice during practice, it is easy to mistake critique for correction, a subtle distinction. What drives mastery is encoding success—performing an action the right way over and over. A long analysis of why a soccer player’s ankle should have been locked when receiving the ball (critique) may be less effective than asking him to stand to the side and strike five balls in a row with his ankle correctly locked (correction).

Technology is a crucial new tool for getting practice right. In contrast to past decades, video is now easy to produce: For a careful assessment of whether someone is encoding successful behaviors, just record a few minutes of action on your cellphone. It also helps to recognize that recording a practice may be more valuable than taping a game.

For professionals, the tasks that can be practiced to the greatest benefit are sometimes surprising. Data show that one of the primary determinants of whether patients consistently take their medications is their relationship with their doctor: Does he care about me? Listen to me? Notice if I don’t take care of myself?

It’s hard to rearrange doctors’ schedules (and, sometimes, to modify their financial incentives) to let them spend more time with each patient. But a bit of training in the basics of patient interaction—establishing eye contact, smiling occasionally, nodding in response to comments and repeating key points—could improve medical outcomes dramatically. Practicing with actors playing patients, and with doctor’s facial expressions recorded on video, could mean a big shift at a surprisingly low cost.
Whatever profession or skill is involved, when it comes to practice, simpler is often better. The brain likes to learn—but it prefers to do so, as cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes, in manageable leaps. Then it releases the chemicals that reward success and deeply encode behavior. Making practice too difficult can sometimes result in random adaptations to effective technique. Imagine a 9-year-old in a batting cage swinging at big-league pitches. The young hitter is as likely to try ineffective adaptations as effective ones.

Some of these strategies about practice are making their way into higher education. My colleague Norman Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, likes to invoke the example of Michael Jordan, whose demanding methods of practice “reset” the habits of the Chicago Bulls and improved the team. Mr. Atkins adds, “Once you have good teachers who as a matter of course like to practice and rehearse and think, it’s the most professional thing you can do. It will raise the expectations of teams in their field as well.”

So his graduate school, in contrast to more theory-heavy programs, preps teachers for what they will do all day on the job. And he finds that they love it. “What they appreciate about practice is that they get immediate feedback focused on small bite-sized moves in a way they can’t when they are teaching for real. And everybody gets a turn. If you swing and miss, you swing again.”

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