You Learn Best When You Learn Less
Last year, U.S. companies spent roughly $90 billion on learning and development efforts, a sum higher than the gross domestic product of 130 countries. In 2018, the average American employee received training at a cost close to $1,000 per person. On its own that might not sound like much, but to put those numbers into perspective: for companies with headcounts of over 50,000 that’s around $50 million a year.
This is a staggering sum, especially when you consider that most of that money and time is wasted.
Training and development programs are not necessarily the problem. The problem is that there is often no measure of what’s learned or what behaviors change as a result of such massive investments. A survey of roughly 1,500 executives across industries, regions, and companies of various sizes, shows that one in five organizations do nothing to measure the impact of employee trainings. Of those that do, only 13% calculate quantifiable returns. It’s no wonder that two-thirds of employees think their training programs fail to improve business performance.
What most companies miss is that learning at work isn’t about how many hours you put in, it’s about getting the right information to the right people at the right time.
Simply put: you learn best when you learn less.
When I co-founded Humu, after spending over a decade as SVP of People Operations at Google, my goal was to make work better by making learning and development easier. At Humu, we help people by automating learning and behavioral change on a large scale using a machine learning technology we call the Nudge Engine. Our “nudges” empower employees to experiment, practice, and master the skills needed to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving world in a way that old-guard trainings simply can’t.
Humu’s nudges are small, un-intrusive, research-backed suggestions and reminders delivered to employees through email or other messaging platforms. Our algorithms diagnose high-impact behaviors for each individual based on their role and experience, then nudge them with custom content that encourages these behaviors. Most managers, for example, would benefit from a regular reminder to thank team members who ask important questions, or to facilitate equitable discussions. This is what our nudges do — for every person we work with.
But the science of nudges isn’t new. In their 2009 book Nudge, Professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler provide a revelatory look at the powerful effect positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can have on behavior and decision-making.
Put into the context of the workplace, nudge theory can be employed to help people take positive action to master new skills — without interrupting the normal flow of their work. Rather than spending a large sum of money on expensive learning modules, by applying the foundations of nudges — and Humu’s learning philosophy — organizations can use gentle, timely, and relatively simple means to turn intention into action. And, in doing so, they can boost the effectiveness of development programs and unlock the full potential of teams, without spending millions (or billions) on trainings.
Here are some tips to get started.
Keep it small. Breaking bigger goals into mini-milestones makes it easier to build the skills you need to reach those goals. K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist who has studied the acquisition of expert-level skill for decades, finds that experts not only segment their activities into tiny actions, but repeat them relentlessly and watch what happens each time. Based on their observations, they make minor, almost imperceptible, adjustments to get better.
In trainings, break lessons down into small, digestible pieces, and encourage employees to practice them over and again back in the real world.
For example, if a leader wants to communicate better with their team, start by giving them three simple questions to ask in every one-on-one meeting:
- What’s going well?
- What are some challenges you’re facing?
- How can I help?
The quality of their conversations will undoubtedly improve, and this positive reinforcement will motivate them to check in with team members more often — a small step towards a much larger change.
Make feedback a habit. Most people want to get better. At Google, we provided our managers with a semiannual report that highlighted their strengths and their areas of improvement. Even if they didn’t attend a single training, we consistently found that by the next assessment period, many managers had improved in areas they previously struggled with.
You can apply this practice in your own organization by creating an environment in which both employees and managers feel safe giving one another regular feedback — both positive and constructive. Invite questions during all-hands, foster open discussion in team meetings, and ask your team intentional questions (“What’s one thing we could do better? How do you think this project is going?”). Let people know that it’s okay to suggest solutions when they recognize a problem.
Provide regular reminders. We only have so much cognitive capacity at a given time, and in a fast-paced work environment, where employees have so many daily tasks, keeping sight of long-term development goals can be a huge challenge. Something as simple as an email reminder or in-person check in can keep people on track. At Google, we designed a nudge to help new hires succeed in their roles by reminding them of the behaviors our top performers practice regularly. For example, we listed “Ask questions, lots of questions!” and “Actively solicit feedback — don’t wait for it.” Doing so helped new hires find more opportunities to practice and develop those skills, boosting their productivity by 2%, or about $400 million per year.
Managers can make reminders a regular practice by first setting learning goals with their direct reports, and then meeting with them regularly to check in on progress. This will also allow them to give feedback, and help team members through any challenges they may be facing.
Only invest in what works. Organizations that regularly measure the effectiveness of their training programs tend to have more effective training programs. If you continue to invest in learning and development, make sure you define measures of success beforehand. Regularly check whether these programs have a measurable impact on metrics like productivity, retention, and job satisfaction. If they don’t, scrap them.
Instead, shift your focus to investing in new technologies or strategies that have a track record of success. But don’t be afraid to dump those too if they don’t deliver. Keep going until you find tools and processes that you can prove work best for your people.
Any workplace can benefit from adopting the mindset that you learn best when you learn less. These recommendations might seem small, or even simple, but they can unlock your teams’ full potential — and just might save you millions of dollars along the way.