Q&A with Eduardo Salas: Learning Is Not a One-Time Event

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“Learning” may just seem like the latest corporate buzzword, but in our fast-changing work landscape, the value of employee education shouldn’t be underestimated. As the skills required to stay competitive expand and become more complex, arming your employees with the right knowledge is critical for business success.

Not surprisingly, companies are investing heavily in learning and development (L&D). A Bersin by Deloitte study found that spending on learning grew 10% in 2014 alone. But money doesn’t translate to impact: 66% of L&D professionals have trouble engaging employees with their programs, and even though people say training opportunities are a top priority in their careers, the average employee spends just 1% of his or her week on development.

What’s the disconnect? “Training” brings to mind a big conference room and never-ending lectures—and, all too often, that’s the reality. But learning at work doesn’t have to reflect the classroom. In fact, it shouldn’t. Thanks to new technologies and recent research on how people truly learn, there are several new strategies companies can integrate that are not only more affordable than the classroom approach, but also more effective.

We caught up with Eduardo Salas, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rice University—who studies how to optimize environments for learning and development—to chat about the current learning landscape, common mistakes, and how companies can design truly impactful programs.

[Question] What does the learning and development landscape look like today?

[Answer] The landscape is beginning to change even from the label. Trainers have moved away from talking about learning and development—the buzzwords are now talent management, talent needs, talent gaps. I’m not surprised by that; over the 30 years I’ve followed training literature, it goes in waves and the labels change according to the needs. I think it’s all positive.

How is this shifted focus on “talent” impacting learning programs?

The more aligned learning and development is with the organizational strategy, the better off you are in terms of what learning can do for the organization. “Talent” is now the word used for strategy. It used to be human strategy. People in human resources—the good ones, at least—tend to align themselves with the business strategy when it comes to finding talent.

The second trend is on more collaborative teamwork skills and how to boost innovation. Lots of organizations rely on teams to tackle different problems. There’s a Deloitte report, and the number-one trend they identified is the rise of teams in organizations, and they call it a “network of collective activity.” So, everybody wants more teamwork and collaboration, more people to be team players and play well with others.

What defines a successful learning program?

A needs analysis; precise learning objectives; that you deliver a learning system that incorporates practice and feedback; and you evaluate and improve the program to make sure you get the results you expected.

My experience is that most organizations are not informed by the science, and what the [research] tells you very clearly is you need to understand your skills gaps and what you need to train employees on. So some companies are missing the mark. It’s hit or miss, and some of them get lucky.

By getting lucky, I mean they implement something without much analysis and things work out because people are motivated to learn. Motivation to learn is a powerful predictor. Motivation has three aspects: motivation to attend training, motivation to learn during the training, and motivation to apply what you’ve learned—so it’s a big predictor and it trumps a lot of bad instruction.

What common pitfalls in L&D should companies be wary of?

[Companies] think that training is a one-time event. So there’s no follow-up, no coaching, no other resources that need to be in place after the training.

Another big one is organizations believe you have to focus on what happened during training—you have the slides, the right place, the right instructors, the nice videos. Really, it’s about what happened before; the analysis and ensuring the transfer of knowledge and that employees are motivated to apply the skills. When I talk to organizations I tell them to pay more attention to what happened before and after, rather than during, training.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.