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September 10, 2009

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Don’t stop til they get enough

Too often, safety training is seen as a singular activity but if practitioners want to create a safety culture, says Michael Millward, they need to repeat the messages again and again, making slight changes every time, to ensure the recipients really take what they’ve learnt on board.

Delivering a training session, even to people you know, is stressful. While the session may only last an hour, it can take days to create something that covers all the issues that need to be addressed. But there are sound commercial reasons for investing time and energy in training.

If a one-hour training session delivered to just 10 people results in a 1 per-cent improvement in safety you could be saving your company close to 200 hours of production time a year. That is the same as having an extra employee for five weeks.

In reality, a single training session is unlikely to achieve these commercial advantages because people only remember 10 per cent of what they read, 20 per cent of what they hear, 30 per cent of what they see, 50 per cent of what they hear and see, 70 per cent of what they say and write, and 90 per cent of what they do and talk about. And even if you included all these activities in your training session, six months after the event they would remember less than 20 per cent of what they left the course knowing!1

Some trainers compensate for this by providing more information in a training session than is really necessary. As a result, they run the risk of the trainees remembering information that is irrelevant to the real issue.

The training session is not, in itself, a result. It is a tool in a change process that aims to achieve employee behaviours that deliver a commercial advantage, so achieving a commercial advantage means thinking differently about training. No matter how senior you are, or how powerful you may believe yourself to be, change is not something that you can force an employee to do. If employees decide that they do not want to change their behaviour you could end up in a process that goes a little bit like:

You’ll find it easier to do if you do it this way.
How many times do I have to tell you?
I am getting tired of telling you.
This is the last time I will tell you.

Change happens because people perceive that changing their behaviour will deliver a benefit for them. In the context of safety training this has to be more than simply the avoidance of injury or death. After all, accidents always happen to other people, and the peer-group approval of involvement in an unsafe practice may, as numerous YouTube postings have proved, be more attractive than any reward or deterrent an employer could offer.

The trick is to present the result of the change process rather than the change itself in a way that the employee will find attractive. To do this you have to stop thinking about one-off, big-bang training sessions that treat everyone the same. Instead, focus on a continuous learning process that treats everyone as an individual, and helps them identify how they will benefit from the change.

Horses for courses

Learning tends to be a continuous process of small gains rather than the big wins that training courses are often expected to deliver. To increase your chances of success you need to provide learning opportunities that appeal to different learning styles. There are, generally speaking, four ways in which people learn. These were identified by Honey and Mumford (1986)2 as:

  • Activists: people who learn by doing, and have to do it now. They are relatively bored with the detail and what happens next. They do not like activities that require a lot of thinking.
  • Reflectors: people who examine a problem from many different perspectives before deciding to move forward. They do not like activities that require them to be the focus of attention.
  • Theorists: people who like logic and theoretical models. They have to have everything very ordered and know that A has to come before B. They dislike activities that do not follow a logical process, or which they cannot rationalise.
  • Pragmatists: people who like a challenge, and investigating new ideas that will allow them to address the problem successfully. They do not enjoy focusing on theory, or made-up situations.

We are capable of using all of these learning styles depending on the situation, but we all have one that we prefer more than the others. Likewise, when we train we also have a preferred training style. Therefore, as long as our training style matches the learning style of the trainee, the training will be successful. Otherwise, we potentially appeal to only 25 per cent of the trainees, and lose 75 per cent of the potential commercial benefits the training could have delivered.

There is a traditional view that to make learning stick you have to repeat the learning activities again and again, and there is some evidence that this works. People of my generation will remember learning their times tables by rote, for example. The military uses drill in the same way, and actors rehearse a play repeatedly to ensure that they learn their lines. It is an approach that has been proven to increase understanding and improve recall,3 but in terms of creating behaviour change there is evidence that this sort of uniform repetition of a learning activity has little impact. Research conducted as far back as 1949 showed that while repeating learning activities twice delivered additional learning, there were rapid decreases in the marginal returns after the third repetition.4

Little and often

A better strategy is one that looks like a healthy diet — a variety of small meals taken regularly and frequently. Drip-feed learning has to be a mixture of activities — some formalised but others that are more casual, or even unexpected. You could start with a short classroom session. On another day, you could show a video and encourage people to discuss it. You might even show the video again in a non-training location, like the canteen. Then hold a structured discussion as part of a team meeting, which could be followed by a practical exercise in a subsequent meeting. The key is to make the learning activities short and sweet.

Learning does not always have to be collective. You can use Web technology to deliver e-learning and podcasts to individual employees at any location with an Internet connection. You can reinforce your learning messages with posters displayed on the noticeboards where people expect to see them, or in unusual places, like the back of toilet doors, behind coat racks, etc. You could even turn poster images into screensavers, or backgrounds.

But remember: every time someone sees a poster or electronic image it is a repetition of a learning message, so ensure that you change them frequently. (But don’t radically change the content of the message — subtlety is the key to ensuring consistency.)

The Stanford Five-City Project in 1978 showed the potential that this approach has to achieve results.5 It compared the different effects of a ‘healthy heart’ education campaign in two North American towns. In one town, a big-bang approach was adopted; in the other, a drip-feed approach. Over time, changes in the levels of heart disease in the two towns were measured. The largest drop in heart disease was in the town that had used the drip-feed approach.

Drip-feed learning programmes could learn a lot from the advertising industry. Faced with only a few moments to communicate their message about a product or service the advertiser relies on key words, phrases, and images to grab our attention and build a positive impression that will lead to a change in behaviour, i.e. we buy the product they are promoting.

Research conducted in 2003 showed that adopting this same approach in a learning programme increased the amount of knowledge trainees retained, and resulted in more behaviour change.6 This is because using key words and phrases helps the trainee create a positive picture in their imagination, which reinforces the change in behaviour the employer wants to achieve. I am sure, for example, that you can name the subjects that these slogans promoted:

  • The supermarket that does little things because every little helps;
  • The car that is safer by design;
  • The soft drink that enables you to teach the world to sing.

Bring in the reinforcements

Many of the world’s most successful commercial training programmes centre on large-scale courses. But one other feature they share are the additional takeaways that reinforce the learning messages and key behaviours that help ensure that what has been taught in the training programme is not forgotten. To many people, things like mouse-mats, pens, bags, mugs, caps, etc. are simply trinkets and trash, but every time someone uses them they are reminded of the behaviour the employer wants to promote.

Like all other forms of training, drip-feed learning does not take place in isolation from the rest of the business. The success of the approach is dependent on constant reinforcement of the messages from all areas of the business. All the gains your drip-feed strategy has delivered can be destroyed in the time it takes a manager to make a decision, or take an action — which might only be an off-the-cuff comment that is contrary to the messages about behaviour that you have been trying to promote. Managers not only need to buy in to and publicly support your learning strategy, they also need to ensure that they consciously practise what you teach. (This may require a drip-feed programme specifically for your management team.)

Policies, procedures, audit processes, and performance management systems can, if not reviewed and amended, reinforce old, undesirable working practices. You must work with other departments to ensure that they are changed to support the behaviours your learning strategy is aiming to create.

Most importantly, when an employee buys into and adopts the behaviour promoted by the learning strategy you must ensure that you celebrate their actions, and the results it has delivered. This serves as positive reinforcement of the learning and will encourage other employees to follow suit.     

1    Mevsim V, Guldal D, Ozcakar N and Saygin O (2008): ‘What was retained? The assessment of the training for the peer trainers’ course on short and long-term basis’, Dokuz Eylul University Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences, Izmir, Turkey BMC Public Health 2008, 8:24doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-24
2    Honey P, and Mumford A (1986): Using your Learning Style, Peter Honey
3    Annis L and Annis D (1987): ‘Does Practice Make Perfect? The Effects of Repetition on Student Learning’ — paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (Washington, DC, April 20-24, 1987)
4    McTavish CL and others (1949): Effects of Repetitive Film Showings on Learning, Pennsylvania State University
5    Fortmann S P et al (1978): ‘Effect of Long-term Community Health Education on Blood Pressure and Hypertension Control: The Stanford Five City Project’, Am Journal Epid Vol 132 No4
6    Ofen-Noy N1, Dudai Y, Karni A (2003): ‘Skill Learning in Mirror Reading: How Repetition Determines Acquisition’, Department of Neurobiology, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot 76100, Israel

Michael Millward is managing director of Abeceder.

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