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Why Google Has Forever Changed the Forgetting Curve at Work

Forgetting is a big part of the learning process. We all know this. It’s why so many of us held last-minute study sessions in college, trying to cram all of the information that we’d once learned back into our heads. After re-reading notes, eventually, we’d get through the test, receive our grade, and do it all over again—learn, forget, re-learn, repeat.

At work, the process of learning and forgetting plays out a little differently. There are still classroom-like experiences, and sometimes even “grades,” but the real test happens on the job. It could be the missing step in a software procedure or an unexpected question from a customer, but the key difference is that employees don’t have time to study—nor do they always know what, exactly, to prepare for.

At work, there are still classroom-like experiences, and sometimes even “grades,” but the real test happens on the job.

For a long time, employees were simply expected to do their best to recall as much as they could from classroom training, even though everyone—training managers included—knew that forgetting was inevitable. So, what’s changed?

In this post, we show you how employees have used Google to combat the forgetting curve at work. But here’s another secret: Google is only the beginning.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

First, just how quickly do we forget? It’s by no means a hard-and-fast rule for every person, but Hermann Ebbinghaus noticed startling trends from his research back in 1885. Based upon his own memory, Ebbinghaus studied random syllables and plotted what he could remember onto a graph that we now call the “forgetting curve.” ebbinghaus-forgetting-curve

The results? For starters, Ebbinghaus found he only remembered 100 percent of the information at the time of acquisition. After that, he started forgetting information very quickly. In a mere 20 minutes, 42 percent of what he’d learned was lost. Within 24 hours, 67 percent was gone. Finally, a month later, he only remembered 21 percent of what he’d originally memorized.

A Time and Place for Forgetting

When we start to put actual training dollars next to the forgetting curve, this lost information isn’t just annoying, but also a very costly shortcoming of the human brain.

However, Training Magazine reminds us that the phenomenon of forgetting isn’t just normal, it’s actually healthy: “Most of the things we remember (like where we set our glasses), are only of short-term importance, and after a day or so the brain needs to suppress such time-limited memories in order to free space for information that may be of more immediate value.”

In other words, we shouldn’t try to remember everything. Our brains need space to process the important stuff, such as human interaction or strategic long-term thinking. Much like reading a favorite recipe or looking at a map for the right directions, we re-remind ourselves of details everyday—and have no intention of trying to memorize them.

Beating the Curve with Google

Of course, we don’t memorize these details because we know that we’ll have the right support on-hand, at the moment of need. At work, that same assurance has come with Google. We know that Google can pull up millions of answers to our questions in seconds, so we’ve come to depend on it.

Flash back to those on-the-job “tests,” the customer question or missing step: odds are, a quick Google search gets you over that hurdle in no time.

A More Sophisticated Search

But, there’s risk with Google, too. Unlike your carefully curated training materials, Google will give your employees the most relevant answers based upon your employee’s search query—not whether it’s most relevant to your business. It can be dangerous for your employees to depend on Google. The problem is, everyone is already doing it.

As they say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and today’s forward-thinking companies are doing just that. They’re deploying training tools with sophisticated search functions that allow employees to scroll through training content and find what they need, fast. Not only does that combat the forgetting curve, but it also limits the time that employees have to spend in the classroom (no more time spent memorizing the work-equivalent of recipes and maps).

The Bottom Line

If search had been around when Hermann Ebbinghaus was alive, he might have performed a different test—instead of analyzing how much information he lost, he might have studied how quickly he could find it. Because in the end, that’s what matters at work. Employees are not college students trying to pass a big exam. They simply need the right tools to find the right answers and pass those everyday, on-the-job tests.

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