An awkward moment invariably happens when meeting someone for the first time at a conference or social occasion where you’re introduced, you shake hands (or maybe fist-bump) and then get down to conversation. Within 30 seconds of doing so, most people become aware that they’ve already forgotten the name of the person they’ve just met. It’s bounced off their memory and vanished into the ether — and somewhere, the ghost of Herman Ebbinghaus enjoys another chuckle.
Human memory is an amazing thing, but it’s not a flash memory device. The only time we even come close to a flashbulb-like recording of events is during an extremely traumatic occurrence, such as an accident or when receiving very bad news. Other than that, memory relies on repetition and time.
This is an important notion to reflect upon while working on a strategy for your company’s future during this time of significant change. Professionals of all types, from computer-based knowledge workers to hands-on pros who work in health care, IT, and everything else, are considering leaving their current employers for jobs more suited to their life needs. They’re in search of positions that support flexible hours or working from home, or are simply deciding that the current work situation is no longer worth it.
One of the greatest sources of frustration and fear at the root of this exodus comes from inadequate professional development opportunities. In many cases, an employee’s training day is quite simply that — an intense class in which a lot of new knowledge is delivered in a single day. One day. And this is where the ghost of Herman Ebbinghaus comes in.
Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist and an expert on learning and memory. One of his most enduring discoveries is expressed visually in the shape of his “forgetting curve,” which displays just how drastically people forget information that’s delivered to them. Its dramatic downward arc demonstrates that people retain at best one-third of what they’ve learned after 24 hours, and maybe 25 percent a week later.
The fact that Ebbinghaus lived and worked in the era before communication technologies existed doesn’t diminish the accuracy of his discoveries on human memory, given that we all are still occupying a body design that’s at least 100,000 years old and hasn’t evolved much since. In addition, the amount of information we’re expected to consume today is exponentially greater. Worse, much of it is delivered in ways that the brain was never designed to comprehend, such as via a light source (a screen) rather than reflected light such as paper.
Frankly, training days have seldom delivered great ROI for companies. Yet they’ve been used extensively in business and continue to this day under the assumption that humans are capable of both retaining and using everything that’s taught to them at a single sitting. But this isn’t possible, even when hands-on exercises are included.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you’ll likely agree. Languages can’t be learned through crash courses. When children learn to speak as infants, they do so through mimicry, then repetition, followed by endless contextualized practice. They develop their language skills iteratively and as needed.
However, all-day training sessions do appear at first glance to be the most economical: put all your people in a room for a day with an instructor to deliver new information in bulk and as quickly as possible. But no matter how good the instructor, or how engaging the material, overload will set in within 90 minutes.
This leads to a situation in which employees leave the session doomed to forget most of what they’ve just seen, yet still burdened with the obligation to start using those same skills—skills that will inevitably intersect with wider-ranging corporate concerns such as compliance, confidentiality, and cybersecurity. Yet the employee, fearful of looking stupid or of simply needing more time to learn, continues on, hoping to fake it until they make it.
So the company moves ahead, confidently expecting, for example, that employees who were sent for cyberhygiene training now know how to use a password manager, how to ensure a secure home office, why they must avoid using third-party shadow IT to get their work done faster, how to be aware of open tabs when sharing screens on Zoom, and how to think critically before clicking on links in email.
This isn’t just an HR issue or an IT issue—it’s an executive problem. Companies can suffer irreparable damage when, for example, ransomware locks up and destroys files, ransomware that was activated by an employee who didn’t quite understand the process when attending the class and who was too shy to ask.
Corporate training must change. In fact, it must reverse itself. It must transform from classroom-based infotainment into iterative, asynchronous individualized learning opportunities, customized to match the attention span, learning style, and schedule of each student. It should be conducted online and on company time. It must embrace a micro-learning model in which small amounts of information are delivered at a time, allowing the employee to build the knowledge base, brick by brick, inside their minds. Only later should it be followed up with an instructor-led group meeting, and this should be only to connect the dots in the context of the materials reviewed.
This is where the future of work truly lies: with people being given the chance to grow their skills in a supportive environment in a way that gives them a fighting chance to practice and retain them. This not only serves the company’s interests, but also enhances the odds of the employees sticking around.