Science of Learning - Dr. Art Kohn



All of us believe in knowledge. And when we teach a seminar or deliver an online module, we are confident that someday, somewhere, our students will find the new information valuable.  In the modern age, however, we may need to reconsider whether “training for knowledge” is really helping our organization.

When you deploy a training program, what is your real objective? For example, do you want people to “understand effective leadership” or do you want them to lead effectively? Do you want firemen to be able to “describe the techniques for extinguishing fires” or do you want them to be able to put out fires?  And do you want people to “master the rules of compliance” or do you want them to comply?

Stated simply, our real objective is not to “impart knowledge.” Instead, our objective should be to get people to behave in ways that will help our companies and organizations.

If changing people’s behavior is our real goal, is imparting knowledge at least a means to an end?  That is, does providing knowledge cause people to behave differently? Surprisingly, the answer here is “no, knowledge rarely causes behavior change.”

For example, I worked in Zimbabwe for many years, trying to get people to modify their sexual practices in order to avoid contracting HIV. Our team educated people about the risks of HIV, how the virus spreads, and ways to avoid contracting it. Despite this knowledge, it did not change their behavior at all. And as a result, we did not mitigate the epidemic.

Other examples include people who know about the risks of tobacco, but continue to smoke. And people who know a lot about nutrition, but continue to eat an unhealthy diet. The simple fact is that knowledge usually does not change people’s behavior.

Does Training Ever Help?

So does teaching new information ever make our companies more profitable?  The answer is “Yes, but only under specific conditions, and you have to know your audience.” For example, I once consulted with a regional home improvement retailer. They provided their associates with extensive product knowledge training and they enjoyed a dramatic uplift in sales. When these associates knew more, customers trusted them and bought a lot more products.

In contrast, I also consulted with a trendy sportswear retailer. They provided their employees with extensive training and within six months their employees had become product experts on fabrics, design, and manufacturing. And you know what? This training drove a zero uplift in sales. All of this product knowledge was wasted because, frankly, the customers were inspired by the brand’s wow factor and not by any details of the products. With this company, the only training that increased corporate profits were courses that taught associates new ways to promote the trendy brand.

Finally, consider a large discount department store, the kind that sells everything you could want at low prices. When we provided their associates with increased product knowledge, there was no uplift in sales. And when we trained their associates on “brand spirit,” again there was no uplift in sales. In fact, the only training that produced any uplift in sales was “courtesy training.” When they taught their employees to be more gracious, to escort the customer to particular isles, and to compliment the customer’s children, this training resulted in a significant uplift in sales.

Conclusions for a Modern World

In the modern world, traditional training may be overrated.  Knowledge rarely produces behavior change and most of the world’s information is only a click away.  And while developing employees is important, enthusiasm and courtesy often increase profits more than knowledge.