With COVID-19 changing operational structures throughout the engineering and sciences industries, learning and development (L&D) departments have taken on an outsized role in maintaining company-wide effectiveness. As an L&D professional, you have probably felt the sudden surge in demand for workplace initiatives such as software tutorials, upskilling and resource-sharing.

Even for companies with entire workstreams on hold, much of their normal activity will return eventually, and being prepared is key. Preparation now will prevent lag later, as science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) employees are brought up to speed and reboarded. Especially in industries that are moving ahead with completely new workflows, there’s no time to waste on ineffective training.

No matter where your department is currently positioned, now is a great time to reevaluate some common training approaches and consider three proven STEM training strategies that are more important than ever:

1. Focus on Performance Support Over Training

Your company may have had some difficulties transitioning to a new operational model in the face of COVID-19, which is understandable. There’s been major upheaval. But the traditional L&D training approach may also be a contributing factor, because it often fails during times of immediate need.

When many people think of training, the most readily available image is a seminar or materials offered in advance of an issue rather than concurrently. When using this fallback method, trainees often struggle to recall a symposium from several months ago when it’s actually time to perform a task they learned there. This approach can result in breakdowns and lags.

Instead of following this “training in advance” model, try building performance support materials, such as process maps, that learners can use as a resource for task completion. In instances where processes are evolving or unclear — a common occurrence during a pandemic — process maps also need to include tips for collaborative project management.

Schedule operational conversations with other department heads so you can make accurate note of evolving processes. These discussions may be time- and cost-intensive, but they will result in more effective support materials and greater operational efficiency down the line.

2. Develop Behavior Before Knowledge

Knowledge capture has always been a key conversation in STEM-related fields, but (perhaps counterintuitively) training that values knowledge over behavioral development can be inefficient. Employees need to be clear on behavioral expectations before knowledge can have value or take root, which is why it makes sense to implement an L&D approach that provides only the necessary amount of knowledge to perform tasks.

This process can be especially tricky to negotiate in a post-COVID-19 environment. With a massive amount of experienced employees exiting the workforce — due to retirements and COVID-19 — and carrying knowledge out the door with them, there’s an understandable impulse to correct the issue by building that knowledge base back up.

Resist it.

Now more than ever, we need to use knowledge as a catalyst for best practice behavior and then support the development of knowledge through applied experience, rather than starting with knowledge capture as a primary goal.

3. Train Within Workflow Rather Than Separately

Retention improves when the conditions of learning match the conditions of application as closely as possible. Make it a goal to deliver behavior-focused performance support using methods that echo learners’ required tasks.

Before COVID-19, this strategy meant avoiding training formats that pulled people off the floor and put them in a classroom to learn about tasks they’d be expected to perform back on the floor. Over-the-shoulder training was a much-preferred method. Now, with a largely remote workforce, workflow training requires screen sharing and online “ride-alongs.”

Since you want trainees to encode information the way they will recall it, it’s also crucial to alter your learning materials to reflect the new workflow. If employees are suddenly troubleshooting machine processes remotely, for example, retraining them will require building new support materials that reflect the change rather than continuing with old resources and expecting your trainees to translate them.

With so much changing in a post-coronavirus world, L&D has a lot more slack to pick up, and you and your team are certainly feeling the strain. Unless you’re in a position to bring on additional staff, you and your L&D department probably have more work to do — and fewer people to do it. The resultant resource crunch makes training best practices more important than ever. Regardless of where you are in the L&D evaluation process, the one tool every training department needs most right now is a clear priority structure with buy-in for applying these three approaches to the highest-value tasks.

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