Facing the Forgetting Curve: New Approaches to Employee Training & Onboarding

By Oded Ilan | 6 Jun 2016

How much did your organisation spend on employee training and onboarding in 2015? If your organisation is like most organisations today, the answer is probably large sums of money. But let’s be honest, despite offering new employees days’ worth of classroom (or virtual classroom) training packed into a 4-6 day period, hoping they are made “ready” for their post, the result isn’t all that productive. To say the truth, about 80%-90% of what is presented to new employees during these first, few days is lost and forgotten within, well, days. This disturbing statistic is a part of a known problem in the learning and training industry called the Forgetting Curve. 

The forgetting curve is a representation of an actual decline in retention of memory. The idea is that our memory can only hold information for a limited amount of time before information starts to leak.

Originally coined by German researcher Herman Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century the forgetting curve, has become even more relevant a hundred years later. Ebbinghaus had proven that, by default, people tend to forget approximately 80%-90% of the material learned over the course of 6 days.

Impact on Enterprise Employee Training

Try to reflect back to your university days and to your exam terms. Remember the experience of cramming the enormous amount of material into your brain during the days before the exam? Well, you might also recall how all this knowledge evaporated and disappeared from your memory in the days that followed. Now try to imagine what happens when people are expected to quickly assimilate large and varied arrays of skills within days.

As the employees join the company they immediately undergo initial “boot camp” training. Onboarding personnel ensure that are provided with all relevant knowledge in... say... one week, and then send them off "fully trained" for the job. Most employees (especially new generation ones who process huge amounts of data on a daily basis) - simply file all this away as "ok... they instructed me.. do I need it now? (I'll keep it) .. If I don't I'll just forget it and deal with it when I actually have to."

What are the impacts of this phenomena?

To start with, this means organisations need to budget additional resources earmarked towards employee support – support for new software, software used irregularly, new versions. Software and IT support are considered an unavoidable spend, yet an altogether separate budget source. However, both these budgets come out of the organisation’s overhead and are directly affected by the forgetting curve.

The second impact, which is potentially even more harmful, is that new hires, who could be excellent employees, actually fail to learn how to use the organisation’s software. These employees are stamped as lacking motivation or compliance, which negatively factors their onboarding evaluation. This results in very expensive and high employee churn and turnover rates.  

Both issues are directly translated into loss of funds. Employee turnover rate today stands at an average of 15% industry wide in the US. Industry leaders are constantly looking for ways to reduce this percentage, even if slightly, as it is a black hole in overall company expenses. Successful onboarding won’t solve all the problems, but it can certainly help to ensure the good employees don’t fail because of this. In order to achieve that, we must first understand how the forgetting curve works and how to deal with it.  

Forgetting Curve vs. Learning

Let’s, for example, say we’ve just taken an online course on how to use a certain CRM system – if we were to simply let this newly acquired knowledge lie in our minds without using/applying/repeating it, we would forget nearly 60% of it by the end of that day! Like a mirror reflection of its nemesis, the learning curve, the initial loss (compared with the initial gain) is the most dramatic one. 

The only way to reverse this process, claimed Ebbinghaus, is through methodic spaced repetition, for example, an effective review of the material learned – within the first 24 hours of initial learning – can minimise the damage inflicted by the forgetting curve. Yet employees need to learn so much during the first few days, that repetition is a luxury the organisation (believes it) cannot afford. New hires are rushed to the next product and then to the next; from the CRM to the ERP through finding their way around the office and, of course, through reading the Company Culture manuals. You may very well ask “How much do they manage to retain of all that in just a few days..?” (You can guess the answer).

So… what’s to be done?

We should first ask ourselves – what is our goal? Do we want our users to learn, or do we want our users to perform? Inevitably, the answer is both. This calls for radically different, disruptive thinking in the field. Rather than hope trainees learn and retain, they should be made to assimilate new skills on the job, in the workplace, over time, with multiple learning venues that address a wide and diverse range of learning styles. Technology can offer trainees just what they need, when they need it, and not more.

And thankfully, today we have many wonderful technological advances that can help us win back knowledge lost because of the forgetting curve.   

Supportive Training Technologies

New technologies bring about paradigm shifts in the way we perceive requirements. GPS technology allows us to quickly get from one address to the other, removing the need for maps or for a compass. While we might find it nice to have the local map “in our mind,” no one can object to the fact that GPS technology has made our lives easier – so why not use it?!

In the same fashion, instead of battling the forgetting curve we should accept it as a fact and employ new, available technologies which present a paradigm shift in onboarding employees. Why force employees to learn everything during the first few days if these technologies can offer smarter and more efficient ways to onboard them? Rather than challenging new employees with tasks that are not immediately needed, organisations should assist them and ease them into the knowledge needed by making training an ongoing, integral part of their day to day activities.  

The Future of Employee Training is interactive, immersive, engaging and responsive, and it beats to the same drum that our employees dance to. A correct combination of innovative technologies can answer the problem of the forgetting curve, without actually needing to battle it. These include:

  • Microlearning programs - While traditional training expects employees to take in long videos and information packed lectures, choosing a microlearning approach allows employees to use what they need, when they need it, in “consumable” portions, and also makes content easily searchable, accessible. 
  • Contextualised smart courses – Training should be available to employees as they use the product. Even better, have the training “pop-up” automatically for users based on their activities and history. 
  • Augmented reality – provide the training courses “on top” of the product itself. Don’t separate the two. This will make the experience real for your trainees and create a strong mental connection between the product and “how to use it.”
  • Personalisation of training - When you train everyone, you can’t offer every employee a personalised experience. In essence you dump into their proverbial lap information that just clatters up their already clattered mind. Personalise learning content, self-paced and targeted to their needs enhance your employees’ skills in what they actually need.
  • Cloud technologies – Using cloud based training solutions allow you to offer the training sessions to a global team, wherever and when-ever they might be. Combined with self-launched, user based, content such solutions allow you to globally monitor the effectivity of your training and, on the employee side provide higher confidence in the availability of the training.
  • Gamification & rich content – Integrate video, images and forms into your training or offer trainees incentives by engaging them with small and large tasks. Provide the trainees with feedback about their progress with badges and awards. All these increase user interest and keep the content even more “live” in their minds.
  • Measured tools – New technologies allow you to measure user activity. This is a powerful tool which allows you to evaluate the quality of your training and the overall financial effectivity. Review engagement analytics, user feedback and support requests to see how effective your program is. Use these metrics to better the training and support offered and to increase employee satisfaction and confidence.

As can be seen, emerging technologies are moving in the direction of supportive training and effective conditioning, rather than simply using the old learning and memorising techniques. In today’s fast-paced technological environment, we no longer have the luxury to master new software using traditional learning methods. Rather than battling the natural aspects of the human brain technology allows us to outsmart and circumvent the forgetting curve to deliver the skills to new employees

Outsmarting the Forgetting Curve in Training

Trying to predict what the future of user training will look like, it seems we are already getting a taste of it: ever-advancing technologies act as cognition-enhancing tools in a shifting perception of what learning and training are. Training has become more efficient and cost-effective, freeing us to use the tools we acquire rather than spend more and more resources on learning how to use them.

Blending contextual, integrated training technologies with in-application performance support solutions is the key to battling the "forgetting curve". It is understood that a user will not retain everything, but through performance support you have the ability to eliminate that pain point all-together. 

By Oded Ilan, CMO, Iridize.

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