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Learning programs are often costly and may not always bring about the change in behavior that organizational leaders hope to see. And every so often, learning programs actually take employees away from the very work they were hired to do, which can be costly for the company and stressful for the employee.

What if a simple process could help dramatically improve employee learning retention? Just two key steps—one before the learning event, and one after—can open learners' minds to new concepts and enable them to reflect on how fresh knowledge or insight might help them in their job.

To improve learning retention, it's key to zero in on the knowledge that needs to be acquired, ensure that the learner understands why it needs to be acquired and set one or two simple goals for learners to work towards immediately after the learning experience. 

Set Up Learning Moments

Understanding the "why" is a critical step to create interest, communicate relevance, and make learning stick. Otherwise, the content may not be meaningful, causing boredom and a wandering mind. Plus, if you don't frame learning experiences in the right way, employees might not even know they're happening.

Consider this example from one of my clients. The CEO of a manufacturing company was puzzled when his employees asked for training. After reviewing the results of a learning needs assessment, he was even more confused because he felt that the company was already doing much of the training that his employees requested. Still, his employees clearly didn't realize when learning took place. As a small organization, he didn't have the budget or the time for external training that didn't contribute to “real" work, so we helped them create an informal learning program.

With specific learning needs identified, managers put on their teaching hats and created templates that broke concepts up into small chunks. They then identified a subject matter expert within the organization that would lead the learning experiences, which we called "learning moments."

To get started, the subject matter expert prefaced the first learning moment by explaining the "what and why" of the content, and setting the stage for what was about to take place. The subject matter expert then led learners through the content in a structured way over a span of about 15 minutes. It didn't take long for employees to realize that learning was happening—by talking about learning before it took place, the expert prepared the employees to better absorb material.

Nail Down Takeaways

When employees return from learning sessions, it's vital for employees to bring new knowledge back to their managers and their teams. It's then up to managers to coach them on how to practice what they have just learned. This process reinforces what employees have absorbed, and helps open their eyes to how new concepts can be put to action.

In the case of my manufacturing company client, for example, the subject matter expert met with a manager to debrief after the learning moment. Not only did the subject matter expert feel that employees learned a lot during the session, but she also found that she improved her own personal expertise as well.

The manager then followed up with the employees that participated in the learning experience and suggested that they find one or two ways to incorporate new concepts into practice quickly. Closing the loop on learning and discussing takeaways helped seal the deal with regard to retention.

I have always followed the advice I got early in my career: “If you are going to present something, always tell the audience what you are going to present, present it, and then recap what you just presented." Sometimes, understanding is just a matter of connecting the dots between learning and doing. Being very intentional and clear about your organization's approach to learning will put you on the journey towards becoming a learning organization.

Photo: Creative Commons