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The first two principles of learning reinforcement in the workplace

When talking about training, most people refer solely to the actual learning intervention, whether it happens in a classroom or online. The biggest challenge of training is to prove effective even after that singular occurrence - learning should stick and new knowledge ought to be applied in the workplace leading to groundbreaking innovation and better results.

It sounds like a bumper sticker when taking into consideration that at the end of a session people normally remember somewhere around 30% of the presented information. It’s clear that a lot more effort needs to be put not only into the design and delivery of a learning unit but also into follow-up activities and interventions.

A former Judo Olympic competitor, Anthonie Wurth, noticed while he was working with a large multinational company that lack of reinforcement lead training participants to have unsatisfactory results. With this in mind, he drew on his sporting experience and found that there are seven principles of learning reinforcement.

Starting with the first two

In this post we’ll focus on the first two principles of learning reinforcement in training programs, and we’ll dive into the other five in a future one.

1. Closing gaps

I remember the feed-back I got from the trainer who facilitated a rather long and not too exciting session about the products of services of the telecommunications company I was working for at the time. She said „you are very skilled in talking to people and you are very convincing, but as far as information goes you have managed to acquire some gaps. Like Swiss cheese.”

I happen to like the dairy product yet I got that her comparison din not make the situation positive. Generally, gaps need to be filled and that’s what the first principle of reinforcement postulates. In order for learning to stick and make an impact, L&D professionals must find ways to close five important gaps:

  1. The knowledge gap. This refers to the amount of information provided. With mircolearning now becoming the norm it’s very easy to focus on form and not pay sufficient attention to the content. Without seeking to be exhaustive, there should be enough material to cover all the learner lapses.
  2. The skills gap. Employees may have the right amount of information but still prove unable to apply it in their everyday jobs. They know what they should be doing but are not sure about how to do it. It’s the job of the learning specialists and team-leaders to help them make the transition from theory to practice.
  3. The motivation gap. This particular one is a bit trickier to tackle because motivations are very diverse and personal. For a long time companies believed that a reward and punishment system works best. Reality has shown that it only functions on short term and it’s rather detrimental to a healthy work ethics. People require autonomy and a certain level of empowerment in order to give their very best.

    Read more: Implications of the Self Determination Theory in the workplace

  4. The environment gap. Closely connected to motivation, this is mainly about how the individual fits in and how connected they feel to the organization and their peers. Engagement is one of the most ardent issues in the modern workplace and the fuel behind it is a sense of being valued and supported.
  5. The communication gap. Training is usually required when employees don’t seem to be functioning to full potential. However, before throwing lectures, seminars and e-learning modules their way, a good hard look needs to be taken at the way things are communicated to them. Processes and procedures have to be chrystal clear and cover all possible aspects. It often happens that a simple clarification given by a team leader in a short coaching session leads to unprecedented efficiency and results.

2. Understanding behavioral change

Learning is mainly about a desirable change in behavior. The second principle that Anthonie Wurth identified has to do with masterfully dealing with the three phases that behavioral change happens in:

  • Awareness – Change can only happen when a person understands why it is needed. Enrolling in a course because a manager asked for it will only result in the employee going through the motions, clicking through the screens and possibly getting a rather big score on the final test without really committing to any part of the process. In my experience as a corporate trainer I was often faced with reluctant participants who were convinced that the session would be nothing but a waste of time for them. Most facilitators can catch this quickly and they can easily squeeze in a „what’s in it for me” chapter and help the learners see the benefits of a particular training session. Since most learning is done online these days and the systems are not yet intuitive enough to read engagement by means of how eyes move on the screen or the speed with which screens get changed, raising awareness about the advantages of learning has to be done in advance.
  • Knowledge and skills – This phase happens during the actual learning episodes. It requires a lot of attention to what information is presented as well to the form of its presentation. Instructional designers need to keep in mind that learning is a very personal process and each individual has a unique style. It’s true that the skills one ought to have at the end of a learning path should be similar to their peers who have been enrolled in the same sessions but the way they were acquired may be very different. Some may find inspiration in a video of a subject matter expert while others will get most of the knowledge from case studies or working on projects. That’s why the materials have to be varied and skillfully balanced between theoretical and practical.

    Read more: Why each employee needs a learning path

  • Behavioral change – For anyone who has had prolonged contact with the corporate world it’s obvious that this particular step is the most difficult to manage. First of all, people are usually resistant to change – routines are comforting and any disruption leads to a bit of a headache. Even when they are aware that (in theory) applying the new information and thus transforming the way some things are done will have positive results, reluctance still hovers over them. Making sure that they have the right motivation is important but the key to achieving a lasting positive change is consistency.

Keep an eye on the Business Blog

These first two principles alone sound like a lot of work. For a quick assessment on how well your organization is doing, find here and here two short quizzes, one for each principle.

Keep an eye on the Business Blog, as next time we’ll talk about the other five principles of learning reinforcement and how these should be applied in a training program.