A Journey Toward More Effective Training

In journey-based learning, the focus is on building habits over time by combining small milestones with brief peer-level educational opportunities.

The critical question in training today is, “What kind of learning leads to high performance?”

Evidence suggests that taking a journey-based learning approach to changing habits is linked to individual and team performance excellence, and research shows that organizations adopting this approach achieve outcomes that can be measured in both quantity and quality. Yet, too few companies are embracing journey-based learning, and consequently many training programs are epic failures despite large investments. For example, leadership training in the U.S. has seen an annual investment of nearly $160 billion that has had little impact on improving performance.

Corporate training programs fail, despite investments in state-of-the-art technologies, such as interactive virtual classrooms, mobile and video-based training, and Websites with responsive learning management systems (LMSs). These virtual or e-learning experiences are simply digital versions of the classroom approach to education that has been in place since the late 19th century.

Certainly, a classroom setting can be effective for learning skills, for example, speaking a language or operating a machine. However, it is less so for softer skills, such as collaboration, customer service, agility in thinking, and cultural intelligence. New advances in neuroscience combined with more than 20 years of “learning” research demonstrate that outcomes are best focused by changing people’s habits rather than providing a classical transfer of skills or knowledge. Two particularly valuable resources for understanding the role of habit building are the excellent book by Charles Duhigg, “The Power of Habit,” and the research of Dr. Soon Ang.

Changing Habits

For changing habits, a journey-based learning approach has proven to be a much more powerful modern learning experience than the classroom. In journey-based learning, the focus is on building habits over time by combining small milestones with brief peer-level educational opportunities. Consider, for example, a company that wishes to improve the capability for innovation within a technology group. Using the industrial-age classroom model, the team would be exposed to a series of e-learning lessons in the hope that the lessons would transfer actionable knowledge to the team. But this method rarely works. Instead, creating or improving innovation as a team requires changing the team’s collaboration habits—for example, even changes to the way we run meetings or solicit information from each other can have profound impacts on team performance.

There is still an important role for traditional training, but it should be seen as an event in the learning journey. The journey learning process is marked by three stages:

  • Awareness
  • Engagement
  • Impact

Traditional training often plays a role in the awareness stage—where knowledge transfer happens to make someone aware of a different way to accomplish something. The engagement stage requires a person to translate that awareness to actionable changes in their behavior—they begin to practice the change in some way in their life. In the final stage, impact is where we measure and/or debrief our attempts at this change and determine what is working and what we can do better. E-learning does little to help us practice “real-world” dynamics of collaboration, which is central to any practice that will make an impact worth measuring in performance.

Significantly, habits are built through regular practice, so engagement exercises should not be special events that take place once or twice a year. Rather, managers should consider how to build “micro-learning” or practice opportunities into regularly scheduled activities, whether it is the weekly team meeting or lunch get-together or a daily team handoff between shifts.

Case Study

The journey-based learning program at a major hotel chain serves as a strong real-world example. The firm wants to ensure that everyone at the front desk promotes guests’ use of its honors program. One action to support this objective is to have each person handling registration ask if the guest is already a member of the program. That may be a simple task, but people forget if they’re having a busy day. The task needs to be tied to the broader habits of greeting guests to make it impossible to forget. Therefore, the organization has established a training program to turn the asking of this question into a habit among its employees. As a first step, the hotel has identified champions who then are trained on how to develop their team members. A champion then uses part of the daily 15-minute pre-shift huddle to conduct a short learning session of just a few minutes where team members can discuss and practice strategies, such as how to work in the honors program question during busy periods.

The “bite-size” training sessions at the hotel chain are worth noting for a few reasons. First, people need to practice anything a lot before it feels natural—whether it’s running a marathon, getting to the highest level of a video game, or asking the right questions when engaging with hotel guests. At the same time, it is important to engage employees in their own learning and have them gain a sense that they are achieving success at each milestone along the way, encouraging them to further their development.

The third stage, measuring impact, might include customer satisfaction or loyalty scores for the hotel. For measurement to be effective, however, the learning initiative needs to begin by identifying clear outcomes. People think the outcomes are self-evident; for instance, “I want to train someone to be a better salesperson.” However, it is not enough for someone to understand what sales best practices are; the outcomes need to include what habits of a salesperson need to change over time in order to employ those best practices.

The operative phrase here is “over time.” In many cases, focused activities may seem to have a minimal impact if viewed on an individual basis. However, consider again the example of the hotel chain and the training done during those 15-minute pre-shift huddles. Even small improvements among just 10 percent of a 150,000-plus global workforce can lead to big results where tens of thousands of hotel guests check in each day.

As the saying goes, “one step at a time,” rings true in the learning-journey to promote positive and sustainable outcomes.

David Arnowitz, co-founder and chief technology & strategy officer at Arnowitz Culture Agency, brings more than three decades of experience in helping Fortune 500 companies to drive successful cultural change initiatives. In addition, Arnowitz has been a pioneer in using technology and interactive media to drive new learning initiatives and learning community platform in the areas of agile production methodologies, design thinking, collaboration skills, and cultural intelligence with more than 600,000 learners in 90-plus countries.

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