How to Motivate Employees to Complete Optional Training

When employees seek out development opportunities on their own, both they and their employers benefit.

Corporate trainers who leverage employee aspirations, contextualize learning in actual work, and hone in on intrinsic motivators can significantly increase online training completion rates.

When employees seek out development opportunities on their own, their employers benefit. In one survey by Harvard Business Review, 67 percent of participants in massive open online courses (MOOCs) said they planned to apply their new knowledge and skills to their current jobs.

Businesses should encourage this kind of educational endeavor, especially at a time when workers literally are quitting their jobs because they’re not getting enough training.

If companies do offer access to online courses where employees can learn important skills on their own, they often simply dump them in an employee portal or a learning management system (LMS) and hope the thirst for knowledge takes over. In the survey noted above, for example, just 5 percent of employed learners said they received any type of support from their companies for participating in MOOCs.

Requiring workers to do this type of training on top of their normal workload isn’t a viable option, but neither is doing nothing.

Here are some ways companies can motivate employees to complete optional online training:

1. Create individual development plans (IDPs)

Our research at Capterra found that bad managers are one of the top reasons employees quit their jobs at small businesses. Managers need to take more of an interest in their workers’ career aspirations, which includes pointing them in the direction of worthwhile training resources.

That’s where individual development plans (IDPs) come in.

IDPs are roadmaps employees create with their managers to determine: 

  • The skills they want to improve
  • The steps they need to take to improve them

IDPs are employee-driven—managers shouldn’t be pushing any agenda here—but working together, they should identify developmental areas the worker is passionate about, but that also fill an organizational need.

Once those areas have been identified, managers can encourage workers to seek out relevant online courses offered by the company, which should spur participation. If the company doesn’t offer that type of content, corporate trainers can use IDPs to determine which areas to prioritize with more courses, either created in-house or purchased from a third party.

2. Leverage contextualized learning capabilities in your LMS

One of the most significant hurdles to increasing training participation is the fact that training often is heavily siloed away from the actual work it’s meant to improve. It happens in a separate software system, a separate classroom, or even a separate state if it involves traveling for a workshop or conference.

Contextualized learning capabilities in LMSs eliminate the distance between training and work by delivering relevant courses to employees when and where they need them most.

When integrated with a performance management system, for example, contextualized learning can see that an employee left negative feedback on a new manager and automatically show that new manager online courses to develop important managerial skills. When integrated with Salesforce, courses on sales tactics can appear right next to individual call metrics.

LMS vendors know that shortening the distance between learning and work is critical to participation: Gartner predicts nearly 50 percent of all providers will offer contextualized learning capabilities by the end of this year (full research is available to Gartner clients).

If you haven’t already taken advantage of this LMS feature, do so now.

3. Supplement extrinsic motivators with intrinsic ones

Gamification has become a popular mechanism to engage workers in online training. The prevailing thought is that if you offer rewards such as points, badges, or top spots on a leader board for completing courses, it will motivate employees to do more training to earn more rewards.

But research has shown again and again that extrinsic motivators such as these are only good for one thing: short-term compliance.

You can only dole out so much virtual currency before workers lose interest, which is why corporate trainers should focus on tapping into intrinsic motivators to achieve sustainable results.

Boosting a worker’s enthusiasm, ambition, and interest in online training may sound impossible, but Gartner’s “Motivating the Unmotivated” offers tips for how businesses can make it happen (full research is available to Gartner clients):

  • Develop a mentorship program. Some 86 percent of executives agree that having a mentor is important for career development. Using IDPs, identify workers who want more business acumen and pair them with a business unit leader to fuel their desire to learn.
  • Get social with your recognition. Nearly half of all U.S. workers say they haven’t been recognized for their efforts at work in the last six months. Timely and sincere recognition from leadership for completing optional training courses can make all the difference, especially when shared with the rest of the company. Leverage social learning features in your LMS or adopt an employee recognition tool to facilitate this.
  • Encourage workers to pass on what they’ve learned. Giving workers opportunities to help others in your organization is a great way to add meaningful purpose to training. Whether it’s through a presentation to the team or a whole new training course workers creates themselves, letting employees share their newfound knowledge can boost the intrinsic motivation to learn and develop.
  • Consider blocking off time for learning. Google famously allows workers to spend 20 percent of their time on whatever they want, as long as it benefits the company. You may not be ready to make that much of a commitment, but if workers can’t find time to learn outside of their normal workload, it’s not going to happen. Allotting just four hours a week for workers to learn about new technologies or topics can do wonders.

Brian Westfall is a senior content analyst with Capterra. He covers the HR market, focusing primarily on recruiting, performance management, and payroll. He holds a B.S. in Marketing and Economics from Trinity University. His research has been cited in various publications such as TIME, AdWeek,and Entrepreneur.Westfall worked in journalism and online marketing before joining Software Advice in August 2014. When he’s not researching the latest in human resources technology, he most likely can be found playing with his dog or traveling the world.

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