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Sustaining Behavioral Change at Work: Technology Meets On-the-Job Leading and Teaching

July 23, 2012
Related Topics: Basic Skills Training, E-Learning, Training & Development, Talent Management
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How do we sustain what we teach? That’s the most frequent question I hear when it comes to workplace learning on civility, inclusion and compliance.

Cost and productivity are constantly being balanced against the urgent need to deliver key messages that result in lasting behavioral change. There are three main issues.

First, it’s clear that many organizations just don’t have time for traditional classroom training. For some audiences and topics, live deliveries are useful and necessary. For many others, it isn’t practical.

The good news is that online learning—delivered via either prepackaged programs or webinar lectures by talented instructors—can reach huge numbers of people quickly without pulling them from their jobs.

But delivering great content, while vital, is not enough. Mark Edmundson, a distinguished professor at the University of Virginia, points to a problem with online lecture learning when it’s viewed as the only means of instruction: usually, there is no meaningful interaction between the teacher and students. Instead, the teacher lectures and it’s assumed that invisible students will magically absorb information.

Edmundson’s point is that the teacher can’t respond to the needs of the students, and the students can’t ask questions and discuss what they’ve learned with one another. In many ways, the experience is not much different than reading. While new technologies allow some interaction via white-boarding, polls, chats and live questions, Edmundson is still largely right.

Second, for content to start the process of changing behavior, it must be remembered and applied. It’s not enough for students to get information, pass a test and then forget it. They need to take in key points, remember them and apply them routinely.

One problem is concept overload: The more we’re expected to learn and apply, the less we’ll actually remember and use. Great lectures laden with facts, anecdotes and information or numbing exercises punctuated with simple multiple-choice quizzes are not what’s needed. Instead, we have to reduce complex ideas to a few simple principles that are tied to specific business applications. That way, learners will see why the ideas are important and be more motivated to apply them regularly and routinely. 

Third, knowledge that’s important enough to teach is important enough to reinforce. Otherwise it will be quickly forgotten. But how do we do that without incurring massive expense and time away from the job? Periodic refreshers and ongoing organizational messages are useful. The most important answer, though, is that we have to give leaders, from senior executives to front-line supervisors, the information and tools they need to talk to their teams in everyday language reinforcing the key points from the training.

Reinforcement like this has an extra hurdle when it comes to legal, regulatory and behavioral initiatives. Traditionally, that has been the domain of lawyers or of compliance, training or human resources professionals. Though unstated, the policy has been, “We don’t want anyone except a few experts discussing these topics. We can’t chance our people messing up and saying or doing something that creates liability.”

That’s an outmoded and nonproductive way of looking at risk. I’ve been reading cases for nearly 40 years and have yet to find one where an organization lost a claim because a leader tried too hard to communicate the organization’s commitment to lawful, ethical or inclusive conduct.

Yet I can remember scores of examples where policies died because, after the class, front-line leaders failed to apply or talk about them, or demonstrate their importance. The true risk is that key principles won’t be broadly applied, not that some manager will innocently misstate an obscure legal requirement. Further, in terms of how we work and act, we listen to our leaders more than credentialed experts.

We’re facing great challenges that require improved compliance, inclusivity and civility. But the need has outpaced the older modes of education. Today we have the opportunity to use new technologies to drive behavioral change.

We can meld those technologies with the realities of the work environment and come closer to realizing the potential of our learning initiatives. Let’s use technology as part of a learning solution and let leaders lead and teach as part of their daily jobs.

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