During a job search last year, I had the opportunity to talk with a number of different training teams, in a variety of organizations. Many of those teams were working on compliance training. In team after team, as we talked, a pattern emerged – whether they delivered it online, virtually, or in the classroom, compliance training typically wasn’t where training teams spent their creative energy.

Team members often described their compliance training as boilerplate. Learners were required to take it, and as a result, the training team spent focused time and effort working on things other than creative treatments to make the content engaging. No one actually used the words “captive audience,” but they might as well have.

On one level, taking a utilitarian approach to compliance training makes sense. As the teams noted, employees enrolled in compliance training won’t quit without completing the training because it’s a requirement of their employment. The ultimate goal of the offering is to make sure that the organization can demonstrate that all of the employees who are required to meet a particular standard know about their requirements. A boilerplate approach can easily meet that goal.

On the other hand, compliance training is some of the most important work that training professionals do. Generally, when an organization requires compliance training, it’s because it’s important for employees to remember why they’re held to a particular standard, or how to perform a critical function. It’s likely that the training is mandatory because there are serious consequences, for the employees and their organizations, if they fail to meet the standards the training is meant to explain. When you think about it from that perspective, compliance training might be some of the most important training to develop with an eye towards inventive treatments.

Creative approaches make good business sense

A more creative approach can pay off by making it easier for the learners to maintain focus, helping them get through the content more quickly, and improving their retention of the material when the course is over. As a side benefit for the training department, interesting and engaging training makes a great portfolio piece. Stakeholders who are surprised by a little unexpected inventiveness in their compliance training tend to remember the approach long after the content itself has gone stale. As a result, they’re more likely to see the department as a value-added one, and want to get the training department involved in their next initiative.

Those are some pretty compelling reasons for deviating from the boilerplate. Even so, proposing more creative treatments can raise red flags for customers, management, and stakeholders. The potentially higher costs and additional time required for development are, not surprisingly, frequently cited as reasons to stick with the tried and true. The other, not always voiced, concern is that creative content can feel like a risky move for both the training department and the customer.

The risks of creative course content

When considering creative approaches, customers’ concerns often fall along two lines. They worry that their message could be lost or overshadowed by the treatment as the training department gets caught up in the creative side of delivering the content. Considering the legal, monetary, and reputational consequences that could result if the content misses the mark, fidelity to the message makes a lot of sense.

Even more frequently, customers hear the word “creative” and translate it as “silly.” They worry that a creative treatment could send the inadvertent message to learners (or even their own management) that the content is not important, or that they do not need to take it seriously. A training department tuned into the customers’ concerns may avoid suggesting inventive treatments for fear of losing credibility or appearing not to have understood the business need.

Striking a balance

Good compliance training starts with the same principles as other good training, and keeping sight of the customer, the audience, and the business need goes a long way to creating the right balance for any training program. A compliance-training program may be not the right project to try out your most experimental techniques, but there’s a middle ground. Concentrate on using the best techniques to deliver the message, and address your customers’ concerns by explaining the learning principles behind your decisions. In the end, you’ll be able to deliver content can that can meet the customer’s goals without leaving the audience painfully bored.