Ah, the trusty one-day training course. A chance to upgrade your skillset, master a new subject area, kickstart your creativity and get your brain firing in different, exciting new directions.
Or is it? In fact, for many, the most they’ll get out of taking part in training that mimics the working day is a chance to get out of the office and eat a few more biscuits than usual.
The phrase that quickly crops up in such discussions is ‘the forgetting curve’. “It’s the dirty secret of training,” says professor Art Kohn, a specialist in the effectiveness of corporate training. “We all know that it’s true; we know that people forget the vast majority of what they learn. Yet training organisations continue to spend billions of dollars knowing full well most of that knowledge will be forgotten. It is like pumping gas into a tank that has a hole in it. It’s madness.”
Just how many billions of dollars we pump into training is quite staggering. We pay £4 billion a year in the UK on external training, much of it on one-day courses, which paints a sobering picture of just how much money is potentially being wasted by companies.
“Whole-day training can be a catastrophe. Our cognitive load is exceeded,” says Itiel Dror, a neuroscientist specialising in learning. His message to L&D practitioners is unequivocal: “Don’t do whole-day learning.”
Dror’s view is supported by research by Paul King of the Christian University of Texas, which suggests that not only is traditional whole-day learning ineffective, but it can even be counter-productive. Once the brain’s capacity has been exceeded, learners can’t absorb any more information and they then begin to dump the most recent things that they have learned.
Clearly, the academics doubt the effectiveness of whole-day training. And the practitioners are, in some circles at least, starting to agree.
“A few years ago about 70% of our offering for store colleagues was one- or two-day workshops,” says Brid Nunn, L&D manager at Marks & Spencer. “But that’s overload and it’s not what our people want, or need. Now less than 10% of the training we offer is one-day workshops. We have to be more cost-effective and support learning in the way that learners want.”
“It’s not just that traditional learning can be ineffective,” adds Ian Turner, head of learning shared services for TalkTalk. “In a lean organisation like ours, taking 10 people out for a whole day degrades performance and damages productivity. It’s not commercially viable.”
Tim Hallatt, learning and development business partner of ATS Euromaster agrees. “In the past at least 90% of the formal learning we offered was whole day, sometimes two days back to back. But we’ve moved away from that model. Whole day training is just not effective.”
So why does anyone still do whole-day training?
Hemsley Fraser, one of the largest suppliers of training in the UK, still offers 45% of its standard open courses as one-day workshops. “We offer what our clients want,” says Daniel Morgan, head of marketing for Hemsley Fraser. “And what we find is that there are benefits to one-day training courses.” Specifically, Morgan singles out networking, peer-to-peer discussion and rapport with the trainer.
Sarah Gregory-Anderson, learning and development consultant at Marks & Spencer, agrees that one-day courses are invaluable for networking, knowledge-sharing and disseminating a strong sense of company culture – and for boosting morale: “For some people, unless they go to a one-day workshop, they don’t feel they’ve had a learning experience,” she says, adding: “A one-day workshop allows people to share best practice and network.” She caveats though that the course will require pre-work and follow-ups to ensure that the learning is embedded.
It’s not just about the biscuits, there are geographical reasons for whole-day training as well. ATS Euromaster has to train staff from all over the country. “So if someone has driven for hours, we have to fill the day to make their journey worthwhile,” points out Hallatt.
And some subject matter is just better suited to whole-day learning, such as induction courses, compliance, technical areas or traditional subject matter such as Prince2 and Six Sigma. “For those kind of things, it’s more effective to hear from the expert and have the opportunity to ask questions”, says Gregory-Anderson.
But still the overwhelming view of the learning and development profession seems to be that whole-day training doesn’t suit today’s learners. So if traditional training courses are rapidly disappearing, what’s taking their place?
“As part of our Learning Landscapes Audit, we asked our people ‘how do you prefer to learn?’, and they said they wanted content at the point of need,” says TalkTalk’s Turner. “A lot of our staff are millennials and they’ve grown up with social media and YouTube so they want the answer in front of them, when they need it.”
It’s a similar view from Marks & Spencer. “People are used to getting information instantly and our learning offer has to reflect this,” says Nunn. “Our people need to be able to access learning when they want it and we are in the middle of a cultural change to blended learning, which is also more cost-effective.”
TalkTalk is in the process of “turning L&D inside out”, according to Turner, who is helping to accelerate the shift away from whole-day learning as part of TalkTalk becoming a learning-for-performance organisation. “We are developing a learning platform for user-generated content. We’ve got thousands of subject matter experts – our own staff – so we are enabling them to record, upload and tag material onto the platform,” says Turner. “Our challenge is to get material and make it available for people to access 24/7. L&D are going to become curators, rather than telling people we know what’s best for them.”
“We have moved on a lot from whole-day training,” agrees Nunn. “A lot of our learning is in bite-sized pieces – lots of video, discussions and follow-up.”
Hemsley Fraser’s Morgan points out that the training his company offers is also changing rapidly: “Things have accelerated in the past 18 months towards blended courses with shorter, punchier programmes. More than half of our courses now contain some blended, digital learning.”
That doesn’t mean that whole-day training is finished though. Dror says it is in fact possible to run successful one-day courses, with the right approach. “The problem is not the length of time,” he says. “If learning is not guided by the way the brain works, it will be a catastrophe if the course is long or short.”
As Gregory-Anderson points out, whole-day learning can be effective, but “only if it is linked into other ongoing learning”.
But overall, one-day, one-size-fits-all training courses are in decline because they no longer suit how people want to learn. The trend is for learning – like much else in our lives – to be instantly accessible 24/7.