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The Biggest Trends in Employee Training

Ulrich Boser
Ulrich Boser

As a leader, you never want your team to stop learning. Through both high-tech and practical methods, you can engage your employees in memorable, effective learning experiences.

Among employees, corporate training is not exactly known for being fun or terribly effective. But the past several years have seen an explosion of new approaches – some low-tech ones, some high-tech ones.

Which of these approaches are supported by the science of learning? We round up the latest approaches, along with thoughts about when and why each approach might or might not promote effective learning.

1. Micro-learning

Micro-learning is about delivering learning experiences in short bursts, distributed across extended periods of time and potentially across several different platforms. An employee might begin a lesson on the subway during their commute, continue it during the workday and finish it a week later.

A large body of research literature suggests that micro-learning approaches are effective at imparting information and teaching skills. This approach distributes learning across many sessions, leading to better memory of the material. Retrieval practice (giving employees short, frequent tests on the material they're learning) is a particularly effective and underused teaching technique.

There are also some advantages from the development side: Bite-size learning modules can make it easier to alter and extend the existing training program.

The main disadvantage of this approach is that it might not be the right fit for certain kinds of skills. Imagine wanting to train employees on how to use a new machine – at some point, they need to practice actually using the machine.

This kind of training can also be a bit solitary. There are ways of incorporating social interaction, but the typical use case is an individual learner moving through the training material on their own. [Read related article: How to Encourage Employees to Pursue Professional Development]

Axonify is one example of a platform that takes this approach. 

2. Virtual reality

There are several advantages of using VR. It's cutting-edge. People find it compelling. And it's getting cheaper. 

The main use case of the VR learning approach is teaching people a complex physical skill that would otherwise be expensive or dangerous to practice. It's especially appropriate in environments with complex visuals and physical interaction – think flight simulations and surgery.

VR works best when you can incorporate rich feedback for the learner, through either the VR program itself or a debrief with an expert. Then the learner can practice using the VR program again. You can also use VR to create an exciting initial experience, which future non-VR training can build upon.

VR is probably not appropriate for learning concepts and basic information. VR tends to lead to longer, less frequent training sessions (the opposite of micro-learning). Your employees can't strap on a VR headset on the subway during their commute, but they could spend 5-10 minutes on their phones. There's also some research that suggests low-tech approaches can be equally or more effective at teaching concepts and imparting basic information.

It's not always cost-effective, either. Flying planes is expensive; performing surgery is rare. So in these cases, VR is really helpful. But in many cases, it might be cheaper and more effective to have employees perform the actual skill in real life. Although there are likely off-the-shelf VR solutions for certain kinds of training, creating a custom VR program can be expensive.

3. Simulations

Simulations present problem situations for employees to work through – usually in a team. For example, a team of employees tries to manage a growing food truck business, with the goal of learning how to make dynamic business decisions. After the simulation, there are debriefing sessions with experts who talk to employees about what went right, what went wrong, how to improve and what the main takeaways should be.

There are two main ways to use simulations for teaching:

  1. You might create a simulation that directly mimics a situation your employees will face at work. This gives them practice doing the exact thing they will be doing in the future.

  2. You can create a simulation that simply incorporates many of the skills your employees need to do their work. Most companies don't work in the food truck business, but the food truck simulation involves making business decisions in a changing competitive environment, which is something all companies face.

There are several advantages to the simulation approach. Many companies are concerned with developing soft skills, like critical thinking and cooperation. Simulations are ideal for teaching these skills. 

Most experiences with simulations also form narratives that can be particularly memorable. Simulations can incorporate various technologies, such as interactive visualizations and augmented reality. But they can be low-tech too – think board games.

It's vital for employees to have the debrief with an expert, which should elicit employee observations before making general points about the exercise. Several research studies point to the effectiveness of "telling" (or direct instruction) after meaningful experiences. The experience of the simulation alone, without the debrief, may create misconceptions.

Simulations are probably not the best way of imparting detailed information to employees. Most employees will walk away from the experience with an intuitive understanding of some of the main concepts involved – in other words, they'll get the gist – but if it's fine knowledge of details you want them to learn, it might be more effective to combine micro-learning with simulations.

A couple examples of companies that develop simulation-based training are Forio and Simulation Studios.

Most companies have diverse training needs, so blended training approaches are becoming more common. You might imagine integrating all three of the approaches above to create a comprehensive training regime. For instance, you could use specialized VR experiences for a handful of complex physical skills, simulations to develop decision-making and social skills, and micro-learning to refresh important information. As another example, the micro-learning modules themselves might contain short simulations for employees to practice their skills.

In addition to the three approaches above, there are several trends that you can incorporate into almost any training approach.

Social interaction

This dovetails with the current corporate interest in developing soft skills. It could be small doses of interaction through a social media platform over long time periods (as with some forms of micro-learning). It could be in real time with peers and experts through a virtual classroom that mimics a more traditional classroom setting. It could be with a small team through a simulation (as in a problem-based learning approach). 

Real-time social interaction in VR has been developed for games, but we suspect it's not yet ready for the corporate training environment. You can also use social media platforms to prepare employees before training, interact with them during training, and provide continued support after training. Yammer, for example, is an internal social media platform that could support this approach.

Gamification

Gamification has been around for a while now, but it continues to be popular among corporate training and employee compliance programs. Gamification is about incorporating basic reward systems throughout the training, typically points, badges and leaderboards. The goal is to make training sessions more fun and to motivate people to complete training tasks. Gamification can be incorporated with almost any training approach – even grades are a form of gamification. 

However, gamification can be difficult to get right. It only works to the extent that employees care about the points, badges or other rewards on offer. The focus on external rewards can also take away from the employees' motivation to deeply learn the material. It can be a nice nudge to help employees stay on track, though. TalentLMS incorporates gamification into its training programs.

An alternative conception of gamification is to provide the "players" with storylines to follow and decisions to make. This aligns closely with the simulation approach.

Adaptive learning

Adaptive learning leverages AI to create models of what the employees know and tailor instruction to meet their needs. An understanding of the learner's current knowledge and skill level makes instruction more efficient. This is a natural fit with a micro-learning approach and can potentially fit a simulation-based approach as well. Given the expense of creating custom VR scenarios, adaptive learning may have an advantage over a VR-based approach.

Assessment

The traditional way of assessing employee training programs is through short quizzes at the end of blocked training sessions or by simply verifying that the employees completed the training modules. The recent trend is toward formative assessment – evaluations of employee skill during the learning process, which provides important feedback to the employees about their performance. As the science of learning shows, this kind of feedback is vital for learners to improve over time. Unboxed Technology is one company that emphasizes formative assessment and adaptive learning.

Multi-platform access

Increasingly, corporate training solutions are offered across multiple platforms (e.g., phones, tablets and computers; Apple, Android and Windows products). Again, VR is a little more specialized and won't necessarily work across platforms.

Augmented reality 

Another trend to keep an eye on is employees using mobile phones for augmented reality experiences. Basically, when the phone is in a certain location, the phone's camera will display an overlay with extra information. 

This approach was used in the popular Pokemon Go game and has been used in museum experiences. In some cases, it's similar to a scavenger hunt. An employee might trigger a lesson by being in a relevant location and have to use the information they see on their phone to perform a learning task. You might also use AR in a simulation-based approach as a group of employees collectively integrates information and makes further decisions.

Did we miss anything? If you're experimenting with new corporate training methods, we'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Image Credit: nd3000 / Getty Images
Ulrich Boser
Ulrich Boser,
business.com Writer
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Boser’s work has been influential, and his research and writing have been featured in a variety of outlets ranging from “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” to the front page of USA Today. Boser has also served as an adviser to many institutions including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) drafted a change to federal law based on Boser’s work. Boser also wrote Learn Better, a book that examines the new science of learning. Released in 2017, the book was featured in Wired, Slate, Vox, Fast Company, and The Atlantic. Amazon called it simply “the best science book of the year.” Before American Progress, Boser worked as a contributing editor for U.S. News and World Report and a researcher for the newspaper Education Week. He has also been an Arthur F. Burns fellow, winner of an Education Writers Award, and featured on CNN, NPR, and “NBC Nightly News.” Boser’s writings have appeared in a variety of publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Wired, Slate, Smithsonian, and many other publications. Boser’s examination of brain training was featured on the front page of the Outlook section of The Washington Post. Earlier in his career, Boser wrote The Leap: The Science of Trust and Why It Matters, which Forbes called “recommended reading” and Talking Points Memo described as “both comprehensive and engaging.” He also the author of The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, which became a national best-seller and was optioned for film. Boser’s career has also included stints as a reporter, editor, and English-language instructor. He graduated from Dartmouth College with honors.