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30-09-2020

Applying Behavioral Science to Improve Training: What We’ve Learned About Learning

Over the past several years, my colleagues and I at BVA Nudge Unit have introduced many organizations to the power and core principles of Behavioral Science. In doing so, we’ve often encountered a familiar dynamic:

People leave the room (or the Zoom call) energized and eager to apply new thinking to their business challenges. And then, nothing happens. They return to their offices, meetings and colleagues – and fall right back into familiar patterns. 

In fact, this Intent to Action gap (and its sidekick, the Forgetting Curve) applies to training of all kinds. Over $87.6 Billion is spent annually on corporate training and development (in the United States alone!) and it is often claimed that 80% of all training dollars are wasted.  While this figure is debatable, we all know – often from personal experience – that most training sessions don’t lead to consistent behavior change. 

 The primary reason is quite clear: Most training simply doesn’t take into account all we’ve learned about how people actually learn, nor how to actually change their behavior. For example, traditional training is typically:

  • Conducted among large groups, within specific extended blocks of time (driven primarily by the convenience of the trainer or organizer). 

  • Dominated by a teacher, introducing new material (at the same pace for all participants)

  • Evaluated via immediate feedback from participants, based on how much they “liked” or “valued” the session (before they’ve even had a chance to apply the learning). 
 

Yet this ignores several core realities about learning:

  • We all learn best in small doses (as our Cognitive Load is limited).

  • We all learn at our own pace (as our speed, strengths and interests vary) 

  • Most importantly, we all “learn by doing” (rather than by listening).   

In short, there appears to be a significant gap or tension between training (as commonly practiced) and learning and application (the end-goal of most efforts). By focusing on Training, organizations are not optimizing their efforts to help people actually learn and change. 

So when my colleagues and I set out to develop a new solution for helping organizations apply Behavioral Science, we had to turn the traditional “training model” on its head. We needed to apply the latest in Behavioral Science learning to the challenge of teaching, infusing and applying Behavioral Science. But what exactly did this mean? 

  Re-thinking the format

We replaced group classroom sessions with short, pre-produced videos introducing key concepts (such heuristics and System 1/ System 2 Thinking), which people could watch individually at their own pace.  These Distributed Learning sessions are linked to brief quizzes which were intended to reinforce knowledge (rather than evaluate), because we know that Test-Enhanced Learning promotes better retention than simply listening or reading.

 

  Customizing each experience

These quizzes provide the feedback needed to personalize each person’s learning experience, by revisiting specific topics and concepts. This Adaptive Learning approach is enabled by new technology – and enhanced by peer-to-peer project assignments, as we know that teaching others is a great way to learn.

 

  Focusing on coaching and application

Most importantly, the individual learning and peer sessions are complemented by interactive group sessions, focused squarely on applying Behavioral Science thinking to specific business challenges.  These Applied Sessions are moderated by our coaches, because we know that the primary value of instructors comes not from lecturing, but rather from answering questions – and helping people apply new concepts to their own initiatives.

 

Yet these fundamental changes were only a first step. That’s because our end goal is not simply to educate, but rather to create lasting changes in employee behavior.  For this to happen, we needed to view training/learning as the start of an ongoing process (of behavior change and habit formation), rather than as an isolated event.

 

And in fact, it is here that most companies fall short. A recent study revealed that, on average, companies spend 85% of their training budgets on specific learning activities – and a mere 5% on “post-event training.”  Thus, we aimed to correct this imbalance, by devoting comparable energy to behavioral strategies and tactics designed to instill new habits, including: 

  • Changes in the physical environment and “choice architecture” (to facilitate new behaviors)
  • Small timely interventions (“nudges”) to prompt/remind people to act differently
  • Process to reward and reinforce new processes, behaviors and ways of thinking/working

 

For example, we’ve found that simply making desired behaviors more visible (via public calendars, e-mail signatures, shared surveys/tracking, etc.) can significantly improve compliance.  

 

In a rapidly changing world, organizations need to continue investing in their people. But for their training investments to provide desired returns (and instill new behaviors), they will need to apply Behavioral Science insights about how people learn – and what helps them to change their habits.  Specifically, organizations will be well-served to:

 Re-think how efforts are evaluated – and more consistently emphasize, measure and reward the application of learning 

 

Re-visit traditional teaching models – and transition from Training towards Coaching

 

Re-allocate resources – from one-time training sessions toward ongoing “Nudges” to reinforce behavior change

 

In our particular case at BVA Nudge Unit, we’ve been applying this mindset – with its emphasis on behavior change – to help us instill and apply a new discipline across organizations. In other words, we’ve been applying Behavioral Science to teach Behavioral Science. Yet clearly, this approach can significantly improve training of all kinds, by increasing learning , retention and application. In our experience, we’ve found that applying Behavioral Science (to learning) is the key to helping organizations improve training, instill a new way of thinking – and overcome the Intent to Action gap.

Scott Young (scott.young@bva-group.com) is a Senior Vice President of the BVA Group and the BVA Nudge Unit.  He assumed these roles after 20 years leading Perception Research Services and later PRS IN VIVO, a Top-25 global shopper insights agency.  Scott is passionate about finding “win-win-win” opportunities (that benefit companies, consumers and society) – and in applying Behavioral Science to help individuals and organizations make better decisions and adopt healthier, more sustainable habits.   

Scott Young

BVA Nudge Unit

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