How many speeding tickets have you gotten? I’ve been slapped with four, but it has been 10 years since my last ticket. I guess you could chalk it up to those crazy days of youth-filled exuberance. Or maybe I was just being stupid and irresponsible, when you consider that speeding was a contributing factor in 30 percent of all fatal traffic accidents in 2012. For whatever reason, I behaved inappropriately and deserved discipline, even if it was frustrating at the time. This included a fine as well as driver education to keep points from being added to my license. I have now passed the course in every available format—in-person, VHS, DVD, and eLearning. Gold star for me!
Figure 1: Speeding along with eLearning content (Source: https://www.pexels.com/photo/road-car-blurred-morning-sun-46277/; used under CC0 license)
If you’ve ever completed driver education, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree that it’s insufferably boring and almost completely irrelevant. I was pulled over for a very specific reason: driving just a few miles per hour faster than I should have without regard for the possible consequence. But, rather than address my specific behavioral failure, the government put me through the same generic traffic course that everyone gets. After all, they need this option to support the estimated 25 to 50 million traffic citations issued every year. My training included topics like safe following distance, road signs, and driving under the influence, none of which related to my problem. Not only was the content irrelevant, it also came with a required seat time, meaning I could not progress until the timer on each section elapsed regardless of my knowledge or effort. So what did I do? I moved through the content as quickly as possible and then multitasked until the timer expired. I passed the test. I checked the box. So that’s all the effort I should have to put in, right?
Does this strategy sound familiar? It should, because we do the same thing to our employees all the time under the guise of “required training.” Every organization has some version of training that L&D knows is downright horrific, but we just can’t escape it for whatever reason. By “horrific,” I mean the understanding that the content is not only unappealing but also unlikely to improve performance. Sometimes it’s associated with onboarding topics that have legal requirements, like workplace harassment and conflicts of interest. There are also external compliance considerations when regulatory agencies provide generic content that your employees must complete. And then there are always the subject matter experts who provide 300-slide PowerPoint presentations that they want turned into verbatim eLearning modules because employees absolutely must read every single word—and in one sitting, of course. In each case, learning is reduced to a content dump followed by a ridiculously easy, but sometimes also confusing, knowledge assessment the employee must pass—or else.
Meanwhile, outspoken L&D pros (like Clark Quinn, Jane Hart, and myself) are calling for change in the way we support our people. The prevailing mantra suggests that L&D provide only the right content to the right people at the right time in engaging ways to drive real business results. I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve seen just how powerful concepts like microlearning and adaptive learning can be. After all, leaning isn’t the goal. Performance is what really matters! This all sounds awesome, and I have yet to run into an L&D pro who doesn’t agree. However, in real life, L&D teams also have to meet requirements set by their organization as well as regulating bodies. Sometimes they just have to get it done, even if they know the content is junk and will likely disengage their employees. If they don’t, they aren’t doing their jobs and could face potential consequences, including receiving their walking papers.
So what should L&D do when we are absolutely required to deliver “bad training”? How do we ensure it won’t cast L&D in a negative light with the people we support, or damage engagement during future initiatives? And, since there is probably a reason employees are being required to complete training on these topics, how do we find ways to drive true behavior change despite the known limitations of the content? I’ve been asked these questions over and over as I share my thoughts on modern workplace learning. Here are my suggested tactics, based on similar conflicts I’ve experienced while supporting highly regulated organizations. Remember that I’m referring to those times when L&D absolutely must execute using less-than-quality, predetermined content and cannot influence learning strategy decisions. Hopefully these experiences are few and far between.
1. Be honest with yourself
This whole problem gets a lot simpler once you admit to yourself that you have to check a box. For example, if a regulator requires legal defensibility by getting employees to complete a generic quiz and refuses to collaborate on a more meaningful solution, give them what they need in the most expeditious and frictionless way possible. Regardless of your best intentions, there is no rule that says every training experience has to be amazing. The basic requirement is simply that it has to accomplish the desired objective. Sometimes—and I mean sometimes—it’s perfectly acceptable for that objective to be timely completion simply because you have no other choice. Of course, this shouldn’t be the norm.
2. Be honest with your audience
If you know it’s bad, then your employees definitely know it’s bad. But if you aren’t clear with your intentions, employees may assume that you delivered a bad experience on purpose and, therefore, dread the next time training is forced upon them. Provide honest, transparent messaging to set expectations. Clearly state the value in completing this training for the employee and the organization. If the only reason you are doing this is because a regulator requires it, say that. If there is valuable information included within the training, point it out. Follow up this honesty with sincere gratitude for your employees’ time and compliance. Your employees will appreciate it. Otherwise, they’ll doubt your ability to support them when a real need arises. Of course, you have to align your communication with the opinions of your stakeholders so as to avoid irking or downright insulting anyone.
3. Find the key learning points
Like I said, there’s probably a decent reason for why employees are being required to complete this bad training. That means there’s some relevant, useful knowledge hiding within the otherwise generic, bloated training content. Identify those key learning points for use in your audience messaging and other potential support strategies. Just telling employees what to look for within the content based on their unique needs can make an otherwise tedious experience just a bit more worthwhile.
4. Introduce reinforcement
Once you’ve identified the valuable knowledge within the bad training content, determine how you may be able to make use of it to drive real behavior change. This could include a variety of strategies, from simple job aids and reference information to more dynamic reinforcement and observation strategies. For example, once I was required to administer an annual certification test for employees who sold a particular product that faced considerable government regulation. Rather than only push the test once per year, I used the assessment to build a supporting wiki page and reinforcement-program questions. Employees received content during daily microlearning sessions that continuously adapted to their specific needs. Rather than just tell stakeholders who had passed the test once, I could also report on and address individual knowledge gaps for every employee at any time. I checked the box, but then surrounded the box with an approach that aligned to our greater learning and performance strategy.
5. Share impact
You may not be able to influence a “bad training” strategy the first time, but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying. If you introduce support elements to improve the employee learning experience, share the impact to help justify suggested enhancements for the future. In other words, when you send out the spreadsheet with the pie charts and list of completions, include an extra page with more meaningful data and insights. If the stakeholder who requires this training is within your sphere of influence (e.g., internal legal team), they are more likely to respond to measurable results as opposed to just L&D know-how.It’s been 10 years since my last experience with driver education. Given that passage of time and radical technology evolution, you’d think the learning experience would have become more engaging and relevant. Given the circumstances, I’m not that hopeful, and I’d prefer not to find out. If you’ve been slapped with a ticket more recently and opted to complete the training, please let me know what you thought. And, if you find yourself gaming the system because the experience is so inferior, use it as motivation the next time you are faced with the need to deliver bad training in your workplace.