Training your staff: What science says about how to do it properly

The success of training depends on more than what happens in the training room.

The success of training depends on more than what happens in the training room.

Annie Murphy Paul has done an excellent job of summing up (The surprising science of workplace training) a report from 2012 in the Association for Psychological Science that was itself an amalgamation of decades of research (The science of training and development in organizations). The original report’s authors — Eduardo Salas, Scott I. Tannenbaum, Kurt Kraiger, and Kimberly Smith-Jentsch — noted that 30 years ago, training was a seat-of-the-pants project, based on gut feelings and guesses. Research in the intervening decades, they said, has provided a more scientific basis for deciding what works and what doesn’t. Paul focused on the elements of their report that challenge what she believes are some common beliefs about workplace training. I, in turn, want to look at just a few key points that Paul makes.

Training should be focused on getting workers to remember everything they need to know to do their jobs. There’s so much information available today that trainers need to distinguish between content that is “need-to-know,” and that is “need-to-access.” For the latter category, Salas writes, “training should teach people where and how to find that information rather than seeking to have them retain that information in memory.”

In an earlier post (Don’t teach the tool; teach the task), I talking about a related principle: Don’t lead people through every piece and part of a new tool; show them the ones they need to know most and spend your extra time explaining how and why to use the tool. But if you’re training a group on new technology, you may find that sticking to that resolve isn’t easy. Your students themselves may insist on getting an explanation of every button. It may be that they suffer from the same misconceptions about what training should be. Or it could be that they’re so nervous about learning something new that unexplained parts of the interface scare them. One approach that has seemed to work for me is to be explicit about what I’m leaving out. At the start of a class, I’ll say that I’m only going to show them the things that are most useful. As I go through a process or display an interface, from time to time I’ll mention the things I’m skipping (“These buttons create formatting that we won’t be using,” for example.)

Once employees have been trained, those skills are in place and subsequent training can move on to teaching new skills. In fact, “skill decay is a major problem in training,” writes Salas. He cites a meta-analysis finding that a year after training, trainees have lost over 90 percent of what they learned. Skill decay can be prevented by giving workers frequent opportunities to practice their new skills, and by scheduling “refresher” training.

This can’t be emphasized enough. I wrote a whole post about why training never solves a problem in one go (If at first they do not learn, train, train again). “Impatience” was the top of my list of 9 things managers do that sabotage training. This is even more true in today’s newsrooms, where training is most often focused on introducing new technologies and previously unneeded skills. Editors tend to forget that their people have years, even decades, of learning behind them in the traditional newsroom tasks. Asking a reporter to start posting on the web, embedding photos, writing headlines, addings tags and all the rest — that’s substantially different from shifting from one front-end writing interface to another. (And heaven knows switching systems in a newsroom takes plenty of time to settle in, anyway.) One recommendation: Only train people who will actually use the training. I’ve run into occasions when managers wanted to train the entire newsroom, but never intended to require everyone to use the new tools afterward. Even making enrollment in training voluntary can lead to this problem: People who take training and then don’t use it will quickly forget what they learned. That makes the students cynical and unenthusiastic about more training, and leads managers to believe that training just doesn’t work.

The best way to arrange training is to show workers what to do, then let them jump in and try it for themselves. “Not all practice is created equal,” Salas notes. “Unstructured practice without objectives, appropriate stimulation, and useful feedback can teach wrong lessons.” Workers will get the most out of practice when they are provided with constructive and timely feedback that identifies what they may be doing wrong and how to fix it.

In a way, this circles back to the previous point about impatience. Time needed for training expands quickly if it includes hands-on experience. But the research shows that guided practice is necessary. That’s a lesson I learned (slowly) from seeing people on my staff who had misunderstood some part of a training class and cheerfully kept repeating their error for months before I found out. Not only would I be more insistent on providing hands-on practice today, I would also divide that practice into at least two stages. In the first, students would get a prepackaged task; only when that was successfully completed would they move on to one that was more open-ended. For example: If I were training students to use an audio recorder and edit an interview, I would first set up a kind of mini news conference — one speaker, a table where the students could set up their recorders equidistant from the speaker, a list of the segments they needed to select, etc. All the decisions about content would be taken away from them; they would focus only on the technical. Once they demonstrated competence, we’d move on: They’d still be given a set of task types — pick a good location, set up the mike properly, select three to five clips, etc. — but each student would have to track down a subject and make choices about what clips to use.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *