If You’re Going to Waste Their Time, Let Them Sleep

As a consultant/instructional designer, I’ve developed some internal rules about how to design learning for adults. My first two rules often act as an internal STOP sign: “Wait! Stop! Make sure the solution is complying with your first two rules!”

  1. Don’t waste their time.
  2. Keep them awake.

The order of the rules is important.  Rule #2 comes after rule #1 because if a participant is asleep, they’re getting rest. (I reason that rest is not wasting their time!)

My clients smile when I share these rules. Then I explain that complying with Rule #1 is harder than we think. We all have good intentions, but wasting participants’ time happens more frequently than we would like, and it impacts the company’s bottom line.   

I’m going to focus on my first rule. I’m sure that you can rattle off a list of ways we waste learners’ time from your own experiences, but here are some scenarios I’ve encountered:

  • A customer service representative returns to work after being away for six months. There have been some changes to the procedures at the call center during his absence. The management team decides to put him through three weeks of new hire training again. In the end, only 15% of the training is new for him.
  • Leadership requested that a lecture or e-learning on the history of the company (or product, or whatever) be included in training. The history doesn’t include how to apply the information on the job and the information is on the company’s website.
  • A trainer is teaching employees how to use a machine and doesn’t give them a chance to practice and apply the skills. It is assumed they can do it back on the job.
  • A high-level sales representative has joined a company. She is experienced in sales and has a network of contacts in the industry. However, she needs to learn the organization’s internal processes and products. Because there are so few people in her position, the company doesn’t have new hire training for her. The training department includes her in another department’s new hire training.  In the end, the information is too focused on that department’s processes and doesn’t apply to her. Additionally, she already knew the product information from her own research.
  • A team is being trained on new software to be implemented into the organization in three months. When the software is implemented, the team attends training again because they have forgotten what they learned.

Why Do We Waste Learners’ Time?

In every scenario above, the decision makers had good intentions.  I know this because I’ve been a decision maker in some of these cases.

Why does this happen? And how can we as consultants and/or designers stop wasting learners’ time?

  • In the scenario about the returning customer service representative, the training team may have been at capacity. It was outside of their bandwidth to take the time to identify what the returning customer service representative required for training. It was easier to have him attend training and determine for himself what was new. But what was the cost to the department to have someone in training for three weeks, versus one day?
  • Teaching employees the history of a product or company falls under the nice-to-know instead of need-to-know training category. The leadership had good intentions in their request. It requires strong consulting skills on your part to help leadership understand the cost of this training. You need to ask questions to understand the business reason for this training request. Often, these discussions will uncover the real problem and a different training solution is required.
  • A trainer who demonstrates how to use a machine without providing time for skill practice may be an expert on the machine, but lack a deeper understanding of how adults learn. Alternately, there may be pressure on the training department to make the training short so the employees can go back to their jobs. In these cases, you need to draw attention to the overall impact on the company. If the employees go back to their job but make mistakes, or additional hours are taken to complete unplanned training on the job, how cost-effective is that for the company?
  • I’ve often seen high-level sales representatives not being provided with training. This situation occurs because these employees have previous industry and sales knowledge, are self-driven, and the team is so small that it doesn’t seem cost-effective to design training for them. However, the company feels they should receive training as part of their onboarding, so they end up attending training that is irrelevant to their jobs. Or training is not provided and the efficient sales representative learns her job through trial by fire. In these situations, it’s important to think about how these employees support their business’s goals. It’s likely their work is critical to the financial success of the company, so you can make a case for the need for specific training.
  • Good intentions have led to the team being trained on the software too early.  I’ve seen this happen when the training is ready but the software isn’t. This decision is made by someone who doesn’t understand that adults need to use the skills in order to retain them. Your role is to help the decision makers understand that adults need to apply skills in order to retain knowledge. Help them calculate how many hours will be wasted if training is delivered too early.

If you can comply with my first rule, you are a long way toward meeting the business goals of an organization. (Rule #2 is challenging also, but I’ll leave that one to you!)

Have you experienced training that was a waste of time? As a consultant or designer, what critical steps do you take to avoid wasting participants’ time?