Today, conventional learning finds itself plagued by two challenges that new apps have circumvented. Unfortunately, learning loses much of its value in two places: the retention gap and the information-application gap. The retention gap is most vividly demonstrated by the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which shows us that people generally forget 40 percent of what they’ve learned within a few days of learning it. The information-application gap is harder to measure, but recent studies by the Association of Talent Development and 24×7 Learning estimate that trainees are only able to successfully apply 12 to 15 percent of what they learn. As a result, even when employees enjoy a training, most of what they hear falls through either the retention gap or information-application gap.
Habit development is a superior alternative to conventional learning because its focus is behavior change, not information acquisition. This is especially true for so-called “soft skills,” which are in high demand but harder to teach than more technical skills. By definition, habit development crosses the information-application gap and makes the retention gap a moot point, because ultimately, the behaviors become so ingrained that trainees won’t have to think about doing them in order to do them.
As it is, habits already make up as much as 40 percent of people’s daily behaviors, and a wide range of other fields are taking advantage to help people change their behaviors or to get people to use their products regularly. In the field of health, Omada Health is helping people at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes develop healthy habits around eating and physical activity. Omada has far outpaced similar in-person programs, having served hundreds of thousands of adults and achieved far better engagement rates and significant outcomes. Similarly, Joyable is helping people develop healthy mental and emotional habits as a way to reduce social anxiety and mild depression. Duolingo has taken the language-learning field by storm with its fun, habit-forming app, which now has 25 million active monthly users. Facebook, Instagram, Candy Crush, Angry Bird and hundreds of other apps have incorporated the same strategies.
How can corporate training learn from how these companies designed their products to facilitate habit development? The opportunities are many and have begun to fill books (e.g., “Hooked” by Nir Eyal) and colleges (i.e., Stanford’s “Good Habits” program). To start, these three design practices can help.
Focus on behaviors, not content.
Today, most trainers are “focused on delivery of learning rather than on improved results,” says Calhoun Wick, co-author of “Getting Your Money’s Worth” and founder of Fort Hill Company, a training consultancy. Content has wrongly been made the king of training programs, when behaviors should be. Joyable drives users to action by calling their content “activities” rather than lessons. Duolingo puts a big emphasis on practicing what you’ve learned, because it has found that successful users strike a better balance between lessons (learning new material) and practice (reviewing older material) than the people who ultimately give up.
Rather than starting a training design process with the question, “What content should we share?”, ask, “What behaviors do we want trainees to exhibit after training? And what is the best way to structure this training to help them master those behaviors?”
Deliver consistently and in small doses.
While daylong training can help build culture and promote teamwork, it isn’t great for the training of new skills. Duolingo has found that one of the best predictors of long-term success is engaging in its app on a regular basis. Those who binge study quit much sooner, on average, than those who engage in what’s called distributed practice, a number of short study sessions over a long period of time. Joyable also focuses on short, consistent engagement with its “bite-size activities, big-size outcomes” approach of delivering five-minute activities to users.
With the ubiquity of online learning platforms that support personalized learning paths and come loaded with timely reminders and other features, it’s now easier to provide ongoing training in small chunks. Take full advantage of existing platforms and employee connection points by using them to facilitate shorter, ongoing training.
Offer human support at the time of need.
Developing habits requires real-time coaching and encouragement. Changing your behaviors is challenging and plagued by lapses in motivation. Joyable connects coaches to users for this very reason: to personalize the program and motivate users. Omada Health coaches offer reminders at the right time for each individual – for example, “Remember to swap out instant oats for steel cut.” Omada’s program also places users in small groups with people who share similar goals and struggles in order to provide additional support.
Even the best content and activities can be challenging to apply in the real world. Many workplaces have formal mentoring programs in place, but they are generally not connected in a meaningful way to the training programs. It’s worth considering the potential benefits of integrating mentoring programs with training programs.
These three practices are just the tip of the iceberg, but companies can start small in shifting their training programs to focus on habit development. In doing so, they can reap many of the same benefits these apps have demonstrated.