For the past 10 years I have been on the hunt for a satisfactory answer to the age-old training question: “How can we sustain or apply learning after the event?” Considering how training is typically conducted, it’s a valid question, and one that’s been troubling training professionals for decades.

If you are honest with yourself, you too have been concerned with the traditional fire-hose approach to training, which typically consists of an in-person instructional event and not much else. Something very important has always seemed to be missing. How could anyone seriously retain all they learned after one or two days and then be expected to apply that newly learned skillset on the job? Even those robust paper action plans and accountability partners would fail as workbooks would make their way on to bookshelves and accountability partners would fade away into the world of “nice-to-haves.” Our feeble attempts at application weren’t working and there wasn’t a lot we could do about it.

But then technology, and mobile apps in particular, came storming into the picture with the promises of solving the problem. We all felt the buzz and heard the right catch phrases with words like, “content reinforcement,” “skills application,” “adaptive Learning” and “behavior change.”

Here is where we must be careful. Just because a salesperson uses all the right jargon and can quote Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve does not mean their solution will actually help your learners sustain and apply what they have learned. As I have discovered, there is both a science and an art to doing reinforcement well, and most of the solutions out there don’t do either very well.

To see through the smoke and mirrors, and settle on an effective reinforcement solution, I recommend you become familiar with Seven Paradoxes of Reinforcement:

  1. Right-size vs. bite-size – There is a lot of buzz around micro- or bite-size learning. While I am a huge fan of the movement to go micro with our learning, we have to be careful we don’t oversimplify what it takes to create great change. Understanding what we want our learners to do differently and what are the right pieces of content to meet those behavioral outcomes will determine what we create. Content dumping, even in small bite-sizes, is not an effective reinforcement strategy. For more insights on this topic see 10-Step Guide to Determine Your Reinforcement objectives.
  2. Additive vs. Regurgitation – It’s fairly easy to create an app that takes the content from your two-day training and breaks it up into small pieces, and then delivers it to learners on a regular basis. This requires no thought, no science or art, and will not help learners apply the principles they learned. If anything it will be an annoyance they avoid. For reinforcement to work it must add value to the learner and not just regurgitate what they already learned. When building a reinforcement program we should ask, “What additional insights, examples, and/or background can I provide to strengthen the learners’ knowledge on the topic and help them apply it in their lives?” Build this added value into your program and your learners will love to receive your reinforcement messages.
  3. Application vs. Reminders – There are many apps good at reminding people of what they should do, which in many cases does indeed help them get it done. However, this is not reinforcement, and doesn’t require a special app. In fact there are dozens of free apps that will help remind you of what you should do, and when you should do it. Reminders are a one-size fits all solution, again without any science or art behind the approach. Reinforcement is more about helping someone with the right prompts, instructions, assessments and information to help them apply those principles.
  4. Pushing vs. Pulling – Content sitting on an app or platform waiting to be accessed is passive. While it can be pulled down by a learner, it requires learners to do the work. Good reinforcement apps allow for messages to be programmed and then pushed to learners at the most optimal time. In the future, adaptive technology that pushes messages based on past responses and activity will be the norm.
  5. User Experience (UX) vs. Flash – I’m sure you’ve heard of the adage, “Beware of shiny objects.” This has never been truer counsel than when it comes to digital learning apps in general. If we are not cautious we will be distracted by shiny objects and lose sight of what really matters – the end user experience. I don’t care how many bells and whistles the app has; if learners will not use it, it’s useless. Some features set on paper look fabulous but will not help learners, and can actually detract from their application of the learning.
  6. Narrative vs. Telling – Since the beginning of time we have all loved a good story, and in L&D we recognize the value of storytelling in our instructional design. But for some reason, when distracted by digital, we forget the value that context and narrative can play, and instead default to informative copy that tells rather than shows. Good reinforcement provides a connective tissue and narrative from one reinforcement message to another, with intuitive navigation and flow. If learners can’t easily see where they are and where they’re going, regardless of how much instructional text you drop in, you have failed. Return to your roots on this one and find ways of creating a reinforcement story that leads learners to action.
  7. Measurement vs. Completions – Big data and analytics have helped us see the value of relevant metrics. If we can measure usage, we can learn what to improve and change. If a reinforcement app only provides limited data, like completions, or makes it hard for us to access data, then find something else.

Miller Heiman Group is partnering with Mindmarker to develop comprehensive reinforcement programs for its most popular core offerings. Delivered through the Miller Heiman Group App™, these programs combine Mindmarker’s proven methodologies for increasing knowledge retention, skill development, and behavior change long after the learning event with Miller Heiman Group’s deep research and expertise in helping organizations sell more and service better.

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