Don’t Load Them Up with Information

Thank you to the following site for the photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mon_oeil/

Have you ever been to a meeting, workshop, or seminar where you felt overwhelmed with the amount of information that was coming at you? Who hasn’t, right? After all, the standard operating procedure of our educational system in the U.S. (and many other countries) is to inundate students with as much information as possible, and hope that some of it sticks.

Neither inundation nor hope, however, are effective strategies for high-impact learning.

In the mid 1990s when I became an Operations Manager at a bank, I attended my first regional meeting for all Operations Managers. I can still sense that unnerving feeling of being overwhelmed as our Regional Manager rattled on for half the day about new procedures, new requirements, new regulations, and so on. I was definitely experiencing information overload, along with some unpleasant feelings of incompetence.

In contrast, the more experienced Operations Managers were were taking it all in. They were comprehending the information. They didn’t struggle with overload like I did. Why is that? It’s because they had prior experience and knowledge for leveraging their comprehension of the new information. I had limited prior knowledge; my “operational” muscles were still forming and they couldn’t carry the load of information that was coming at me.

Fortunately, as the months and years went on, I became more experienced and capable, and the regional meetings got easier and easier.

The tipping point for the amount of information a person can reasonably comprehend and retain is much lower than most of us expect. Think of it this way – would you want to take a sip of water from a fire hose? Sure – you might quench your thirst, but you may also drown. What good is that?

The amount of new information a person is able to process is called “cognitive load.” In simple terms, cognitive load is like a person’s ability to carry a heavy object. The person who has built up the right muscles or knows how to use leverage effectively or knows how to arrange the items to maximize balance, is naturally able to handle a larger load than others. The same is true for learning and processing new information. The audience’s prior experience with the information, ability to leverage their existing knowledge, and their ability to organize new information plays a huge role in their ability to comprehend and retain new information.

The next time you put together a presentation, training program, workshop, or any type of learning event, think about the following:

  • How much information is REALLY necessary? What content does your audience NEED to know? What content is NICE for them to know?
  • What can you cut out without losing the integrity of your message?
  • What can you do to simplify complex information – to make it more digestible or less likely they will drown in it?
  • How can you organize the information so that it flows logically and helps your audience move through it without being inundated by it?
  • How can you help your audience leverage their prior knowledge and experience so that they can relate to the new information more easily?
  • How can you include activities and exercises to help them comprehend, practice using, and retain new information?

As trainers and instructional designers, we have an obligation to help our audience have the best learning experience possible. Giving consideration to the amount and complexity of information we provide, how we organize it, how we simplify it, and how we help our audience leverage their existing knowledge all contribute to a positive learning experience.

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Posted in Corporate Training, Design Tips, Sustainability | 1 Comment

What Does YOUR CEO Think about Training?

I came across a blog post summarizing a research study that addresses what CEOs think about training. I know from personal experience that WHAT a CEO thinks about training has a huge impact on HOW training is delivered inside an organization.

If you work inside an organization, you consult with organizations, or you just want to know what’s going on in organizations, it’s an insightful view. Read it at:

Your Training Department – What Your CEO Really Thinks.

Posted in Corporate Training, Sustainability, Training Strategy | Leave a comment

Sustaining Training

Most organizations view training as a singular event: people attend…people learn…people go back to their regular activities and, hopefully, use what they’ve learned. Rarely is there follow-up training, support, accountability, coaching, mentoring, or other activities that  sustain the training beyond the classroom. Most organizations seem to rely on hope.

This may not be a big problem when the purpose of the training is to teach core technical skills that are crucial to the trainee’s day-to-day work. In this case, the employee’s job success is directly tied to learning AND using the necessary skills, which implicitly motivates the trainee and the trainee’s manager to sustain the training.

But, it can be an enormous money- and time-wasting problem when the training is not connected to core job skills or if the training is focused on “soft” skills. (soft skills = non-technical skills that generally relate to personal attributes, attitude, communication, and emotional intelligence. For example, a technical skill is how to use computer software efficiently; a “soft skill” is how to give an employee constructive feedback.)

Sustaining training can be challenging and complicated. It requires a proactive strategy, commitment, time, and ongoing effort on the parts of the trainee and the trainee’s manager. If the manager is not invested in sustaining the training, then it probably won’t happen. But if the manager is given the proper resources and support, and is held accountable for sustaining the training by his or her supervisor, then the likelihood of sustainability increases dramatically.

The payoff for all of this effort is huge! Imagine an organization in which the employees are similarly trained and in alignment about how to interact with each other, and everything is humming along like a well-oiled machine. Employees feel satisfied, retention rates go up, turnover rates go down, and productivity goes up. That’s what will happen when effective training is properly sustained.

What does sustainability look like? Of course, it depends on a lot of factors, but here are some ways to make training sustainable:

  • Create an organizational culture that values and reinforces sustainability. This starts at the top of the organizational ladder and cascades down to all levels.
  • Provide sustainability tools that managers and employees can access and use. For example, give trainees a reference card that outlines the key parts of what they learned AND teach them how to use it while in training. Or, offer employees a self-coaching guide that they can use to do self-assessments and skill-checks while on the job. Additionally, give managers a coaching guide so that they can check-in with their employees and coach them on the skills they learned while in training.
  • Provide follow-up training opportunities. Offer mini-training sessions that focus on micro skills that will deepen the learning and create opportunities to refine the skill set that was taught during the original training.
  • Post updates on the company’s intranet, newsletter, or email distribution lists. These updates could be best practices, success tips, or additional information that reinforce the original training.

In the absence of sustainability practices and tools (and an organizational culture that values sustainability), sustaining training can be so challenging and complex that it’s usually avoided. Unfortunately, training without sustainability is a waste of time, money, and resources.

What is one thing you do in your organization to sustain training?

Posted in Sustainability | Leave a comment

How to Avoid the Information Trap: Focus on Doing before Knowing

From D Sharon PruittMost people who deliver workshops and seminars get caught up in the information trap. It’s like quicksand – once you step in it, you sink deeper and deeper, finding it harder and harder to get out. When this happens, the workshop becomes information-heavy with little opportunity for the audience to put the information to good use.

As the workshop presenter, you may feel fully engaged in delivering the information. After all, you are the one doing all of the work. But how does your audience feel? Unless you have the rare ability to create a compelling presentation that your audience finds deeply relevant, they are probably going to feel one of two ways: overwhelmed or bored. The audience will likely walk away from the workshop no better off than before.

Information is  passive. To make it active, you must have your audience DO something with the information – discuss it, practice using it, and have them figure out how they will use it outside of the workshop. By including these types of activities, your audience is more engaged and actually gets to practice using the information.

So how do you avoid the information trap when you’re designing a workshop? Start training yourself to think about what you want people to DO rather than what you want them to KNOW.  Then, once you figure out what you want them to DO, ask yourself what do they need to KNOW in order to DO those things?

Your mind will try to sabotage you by pulling you into the information trap over and over. When that happens, notice it, and remind yourself that it’s like quicksand – it’s hard to get out once you step in. Then, re-focus your attention on what you want your learners to DO.

You’ll be amazed at the difference that focusing on DOING before KNOWING makes!

Posted in Design Tips | 2 Comments