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Learning Decay: Preventing Wasted Training Efforts & Maximizing ROI

Learning decay is a reality experienced by anyone in training, often leaving trainers to defend the quality of their content and delivery. The principles are sound and the delivery is engaging and seamless, so why aren’t participants remembering what they were taught? Gallup’s State of the American Workplace 2017 report reveals that only one-third of employees are engaged in their jobs. When you consider that two-thirds of the people in the classroom are not engaged in the training, combined with the natural effects of learning decay, training ROI is put in jeopardy.

The reality is that an unsupported training initiative, no matter how relevant and memorable, will naturally suffer from learning decay as time passes, even with employees who are actively engaged. In the few days following training, retention is high, and participants are keen to apply the learning. As early as seven days later, this retention drops off considerably and the impact of the training fades before the learning can become truly ingrained in the organization. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. By taking a three-pronged approach that includes reinforcement, organizational commitment, and individual leadership, you can proactively address learning decay and ensure the greatest return on your training investment.  

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Learning Reinforcement

Experiential learning helps participants retain more information for longer after the in-class training concludes, because they get to see how their behavior and actions affect their results. Though experiential learning engages them better in-class, the threat of learning decay is still very real. When employees return to their jobs, they are faced with typical challenges and pressures, many of which are compounded after being away for a training event. It’s easy to slip back into old behaviors, even while the training content is fresh in their minds.
Reinforcement is the practice of putting the learning elements in front of participants on a regular basis. The goal is not to deepen the learning or make it more complex, but simply to trigger memories of the lessons learned. For example, employees who have participated in Gold of the Desert Kings only need to see or hear the question, “Did you talk to the old man?” to be reminded to gather and consider all information from experienced sources before executing a plan.
It’s not uncommon for organizations to make reinforcement too complex or try to teach new concepts after a training event, which will only accelerate learning decay. Instead, use bursts of micro-learning to keep the training content top-of-mind without overwhelming employees. Reinforcement could include these methods:

  • Digital reminders
  • Note cards in mailboxes
  • Mentions at weekly meetings

The most appropriate reinforcement methods will depend on the context and should be tailored to the workplace environment and its people.

Organizational Commitment

If an employee goes through training but doesn’t see the training in action back on the job, they may interpret or conclude that what was learned in training does not actually apply to their everyday reality. Below are some of the signals that employees will discover:

  • A lack of measurement and reporting (which allows them to see progress);
  • Managers not using the shared language that was taught in training; and
  • Organizational decisions that run counter to the training principles.

Even with a reinforcement strategy in place, if the organization does not model and promote the training concepts, learning decay will set in much quicker. When you undertake any initiative, whether it’s an off-site training or a culture transformation, you need to make sure that organizational communication is informative and kept top-of-mind for everyone.

Individual Leadership

Employees watch their leaders for guidance on goals, performance expectations, and behavior, which makes it so important for individual leaders to model, coach, and require the concepts learned during training. If a leader isn’t demonstrating the desired behaviors, their employees won’t do it either. Creating consistency, between your training initiatives and everyday reality, depends on how effectively individual leaders can model the desired behavior and coach others to do the same.

Organizational training should be approached with the same rigor as any other business area. Training goals should be as specific as possible, expectations should be clear, and leaders should work with employees to create a plan to meet those expectations. Additionally, the behaviors you’re training must be clear and consistent across the board. If leaders aren’t clear on expectations, then the implementation back on the job may lead to confusion, and accelerate the learning decay experienced by participants.

Maximizing Training ROI

Learning decay is a natural occurrence. However, you can still get the most from your training investment if you start with a memorable learning experience, and follow up with a practical reinforcement strategy to help improve retention. Consistently demonstrating an organizational commitment to the training concepts while encouraging individual leaders to model, coach, and require the desired behaviors will ensure that they are top-of-mind and clearly understood within the context of the business.

Don’t be discouraged that only one-third of the workforce is actively engaged. When those engaged workers get the benefits of quality training, reinforcement, and commitment from leadership, it creates momentum in the organization, which will ultimately be translated into better training ROI for you.  

This blog was originally published March 24th, 2011. It was updated on March 6th, 2018. 

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Michael’s singular focus is rooted in staying connected to learners the moment they step out of the classroom and back into their busy jobs. As SVP of Learning Performance, Michael brings business savvy depth to ensuring learning is reinforced, applied and is optimally aligned to delivering on strategic objectives. His proven track record in creating measurement frameworks and reinforcement solutions that add value to the learner, leaders and executive sponsors is highly valued across the spectrum of our client engagements.

About Eagle's Flight

Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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