The way you train your employees is probably wrong

by Jeff Haden: Bestselling non-fiction ghostwriter, speaker and columnist for Inc.com.
Information is important, but how you provide it makes all the difference.

Very seldom does an employee arrive fully-formed, ready to hit the ground running with all the skill, expertise, and knowledge you require. For almost every business, some amount of employee training is a given.

And that means some amount of expense is a given. But are you making the most of your employee training and development spending?

Probably not - and that's a problem Cerego is working to solve. Cerego is a technology platform for personalised learning, using research science to help employees (and students of any kind) learn better and remember more.

I talked with Andrew Smith Lewis, Cerego's cofounder and CEO, and Paul Mumma, its COO, about the science of learning... and more importantly, how to apply that science to your employees - and to yourself.

Tons of organisations focus on learning. What makes you different?

We're focused on improving learning outcomes, and we can accomplish that because we're at the intersection of big data, predictive analytics, and cognitive science. We're focused on the application of real learning science to improve outcome, as opposed to being teachers.

If you think about education, there are a variety of layers: K-12 institutions, higher education, publishers, corporate training, the military... no matter who it is, everyone has the "what" of learning. "What" is content. What we do is provide a distinct layer that speaks to the "how" of learning: how you learn and remember and transfer information and knowledge.

Herman Ebbinghaus popularised the concept of the forgetting curve or learning curve. What you learn doesn't just disappear, it does so in a predictable way. So obviously boosting memory is the key.

The bottom line is there has been a tremendous amount of research and significant contributions to the science of learning and memory, but from a business perspective we don't see applications of that know-how. What we set out to do is work with scientists to create a platform that will empower people to learn faster and longer.

Which sounds incredibly complicated.

It is and it isn't. We cherry picked 20% of the science to get 80% of the outcome.

Distributed learning says that if lifelong term learning is your goal, you need to spread the information out over time. That's a simple concept, but the devil is in the details.

Then, retrieval practice says when you engage with information, and how you do it, truly matters. Say you're reading new information; as you do it, are you performing test and retrieval practice? The way to build lasting memory is to probe, to test, to engage in some sort of interaction that forces you to exert effort. That effort you make to recall is a real key.

It's like the principle of focused practice for developing and mastering a skill.

Exactly. And oddly enough those two things - distributed learning and retrieval practice - are the opposite of what students like to do. Students like to cram, which is great for the short term... but we all know we forget more than half of what we learn when we cram. If long-term learning is the goal, cramming is a terrible strategy.

The science seems counterintuitive but it's hugely impactful. So we created an algorithm that helps us measure how well you're learning... which that lets us figure out how to show you information, and how to spread that information out.

I've seen research that shows that testing yourself often is a better way to learn, even if you make a lot of mistakes. It's like you learn more from making a mistake than getting it right.

You're exactly right. Our own data shows that students who make mistakes early on, end up with deeper memory over the long term.

The key, of course, is making all this work. A lot goes into managing the process. Our algorithm breaks things up for you in bite-size pieces, and it knows when to present information to you based on the optimal way you learn. We take the student or learner's inclination out of the equation; we notify you when it's the perfect time for you to learn more things. That eliminates the "housekeeping" of studying. We relieve the burden of self-paced instruction by using a micro-process to help you through.

And we deal with "where" as well. For example, we have students in aviation who are learning extremely complex information that have a well-defined study experience on a mobile device.

I've worked for people who would hate the idea of spreading learning out. They would want an employee to "learn" something as quickly as possible so they can start being productive.

Testing is seen as the gold standard because it does provide a result... but taking a test is a moment-in-time snapshot. Say you give three new employees a test: Joan gets a 100, Andrew gets a 60, Paul gets a 50... but those numbers don't tell you anything about the underlying health of the learning. We don't know if Joan crammed, or if Andrew is diligent and while it might take him longer to learn, he'll retain much more of what he's learned...

With Cerego, it's a data driven model. We capture so much information about the learning that we can tell you whether Paul is a good candidate for a new task or job two weeks from now, or two months from now... because we can predict the future based on the data.

And we can do that on a broader level. We can identify the learning rock stars who would be great at training other people. We can identify people who need a little learning intervention.

Here's what you need to remember: Gone are the days of spending hours learning. The better way is to spend ten to fifteen minutes in frequent intervals, and set those intervals based on results and data.

That is the magic recipe.

I get that, but still: a cost-conscious manager doesn't want to think that some portion of my time will still be spent on training when I've been on the job for six months.

There is a natural urge to assume the biggest ROI on training is to get an employee trained up very quickly.

But the long view is more important: Don't you want the employee to retain all that knowledge... and be able to apply it?

One of our clients is a financial service firm. When they considered using Cerego, they were at first concerned with getting employees up to speed faster so they could reduce their training costs.

Then they realised that what mattered more was selling the right mix of financial products to their customers. Customer success mattered the most. So if their representatives truly knew all the products, could represent them accurately to customers, could use what they knew and apply it to each customer's needs... that was a much more important ROI to focus on. The ROI on reducing training costs is nothing compared to the ROI on creating long-term customer relationships.

But you can save money if you think about the "where" of training. Many corporate training programs involve flying people in, taking them away on their jobs... in that case it is cheaper to spread out the time of training, to spread out the time involved in learning the material, and let employees do it in their own place.

Again, there's a natural tendency to think about speed, but speed is less effective and sometimes more expensive, too.

I've also worked for people who would say that the way they learned was good enough for them... so it should be good enough for everyone else.

A big hurdle is that this method of learning is a new idea, so it's obviously met with some degree of hesitation. It's a different way of thinking about learning.

What we find is that there is some initial hesitation, but once people play with it two or three times and get the "aha!" moment when the system knows them... it's super exciting.

It's also exciting because learning isn't something we should do sporadically. Learning should be part of our lifestyle if we want to grow. Learning isn't school or education; learning really is a lifestyle, and if you make it work for people by providing the information the way they learn best... then it can easily become a lifestyle.

If I'm a small business, getting a platform is great... but I still need the content.

If you're a small company and you want to create great learning and development materials, it's a burden to create your own custom learning material. That's hard.

We recognise that, so we made an easy to use authoring environment that lets you pull your existing information into our system. Then our system does the work of turning your information into a learning experience.

Having an authoring environment that is intelligent, and helps people quickly create valuable learning success, makes a huge difference.

Useful resources:
BlackBird Media
Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry from forklift driver to manager of a 250-employee book plant. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list.
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook
Share via Email
©2024 SURREAL. All rights reserved.
Follow us on Twitter Follow us on LinkedIn Join us on Facebook