The Road to Retention: How to Make Technical Training Stick

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The Road to Retention: How to Make Technical Training Stick

If there’s one perennial issue that learning leaders struggle with, regardless of subject matter or delivery method, it’s learning retention. Essentially, how can they make training stick?

Fortunately, Judy Whitcomb, senior vice president for HR and learning at Vi, a national developer, owner and manager of high-end retirement communities, said there are some practical strategies learning leaders can use to ensure the impact from their technical training efforts lasts longer than a single event or program.

What are the most important things to consider when it comes to learning retention for technical subject matter?

I don’t know if it’s different for technical learning. For all training to stick a few things have to happen. First, we can’t assume that if we put someone in a class, or they take an online course or participate in a seminar, the training’s going to stick. People assume that individuals involved in technology prefer to have training online, but you can’t make that assumption. You have to understand your learners. Check out our 2018 Developer Learning Survey.

For training to stick, and the skills and knowledge to really take hold, you have to have repetition and real application. For technical training, application in the classroom must be relevant to the work. Anything you can do to tie training to an individual’s role – and build that into the curriculum, whether its online, virtual or classroom – is going to make a difference in how it sticks.

The other thing that is absolutely critical for learning to stick and for learners to apply it is, do they find it useful? Can performance be replicated outside of the classroom? It’s also really important to have manager support. There’s a ton of research out there that shows that manager engagement with his or her employee in the learning process is highly correlated to learner engagement.

Did my managers support me in taking this class or participating in this program? What discussions is that manager having with his or her employee before, during and after class? Then, how does the manager support the employee as it relates to application? Once the employee participates in a learning program, does the manager sit down with them to talk about how do we apply that?

Do those same tactics impact retention in online training environments?

Online is a really good learning tool, but you can miss the learning that you might get from your colleagues and discussions, being able to provide context and put what you’re learning into a larger picture. So much learning happens between people when they get together. Some of that can be done through virtual classrooms and virtual learning, but there is still a tremendous amount of value in classroom learning. I prefer blended approaches where you have classroom training, and you can leverage technology and use it to reinforce training.

What causes poor training retention?

When you don’t have good retention or good training results, you often don’t understand what your goal is in the first place: Have really clear goals, ask what are your desired outcomes and learning objectives, what behaviors are you trying to modify or enhance, what skills are you trying to cultivate? Then ask, what’s the application to the business? That’s important.

Then, you need to be able to measure. In the beginning, you need to know where people are, and you have to have participants aligned with the class. Or, have the right audience for that learning. Then, determine what success look like?

You also have to understand your learners, how they learn, their preferences, and understand what’s going on in the business. Learning leaders really need to understand business challenges and bring that to the classroom to help facilitate a meaningful discussion that ties into the learning. If you don’t do those things in advance of a class, you’re not going to have the retention or the outcomes that you’re looking for.

Sometimes that’s a challenging discussion because your business partners want to have a class, but they don’t really know what they’re trying to change. It’s just the idea of having a class sounds good. In many organizations I’ve worked in, any time there’s a performance issue or a business change people say, well, people need training. But they often forget about change management, communication, and what exactly are you trying to do?

As learning leaders, we have to be really disciplined and able to push back on our clients to help them understand the bigger picture. Sometimes people think training is the solution when they haven’t uncovered what the root issue is. Uncovering the root need is really important, and sometimes there is no root need. They just want to have a class. Then you have to evaluate, is this the best priority for my company?

Can you share more about how measurement plays into training retention?

I can’t put enough emphasis on the importance of understanding your outcomes and figuring out how you’re going to measure success. And not just success right after the program, but sustained success. Success is behavior, skill, knowledge, change and application that drives business results.

The other piece that is critical for any learning leader trying to change behavior – and again retention is about behavior, skills and knowledge – is getting your business partners involved in the solution. We’ve had good success with that. Your business partners should be involved in the development, the delivery, and not just at the beginning of a learning program but throughout. Then, they should share in the results when you’re done.

That makes sense. You have to be able to gauge the pre- and post-learning state, and leader involvement would increase engagement.

Right. It signals importance, and if you can align it with your rewards systems and competencies and stuff that’s even better.