Going Beyond Engagement in the Training Room

Several years ago, I remember participating in a training-focused Tweet Chat when learning research guru Patti Shank suggested that she didn’t care so much about engagement in the classroom, she felt impact and results were the most important thing.

She received a lot of pushback from other participants in the chat (including from me).

Four(ish) years later, I get her point.  

I honestly don’t think she meant that instructional design had to be either/or – either engagement or impact/results. I think her point, which is difficult to completely make in a Tweet Chat when you’re limited to 140 characters – was that too much time and attention and energy is devoted to exercises and activities in the training room to engage participants, but those activities don’t equip training participants with the skills they’ll need to do a better job when they leave the training room.

About a month ago I was asked to observe a core training program for a client. It was the most interactive, engaging training program I’d seen this client implement during the several years we’ve been working together.

Participants were up and moving and engaging with each other, talking and brainstorming and sharing experiences and flip-charting. But something was still amiss.

It finally struck me – even though participants were engaged, all of their conversations were happening at the conceptual level. The trainers could tell if the participants were getting the concepts, which is important, and sometimes when you only have 60 minutes for a training session, that’s as far as you can go.

These participants had two full days, but they weren’t being challenged to actually use the concepts and knowledge that they were discussing. The trainers could not honestly say whether the participants could demonstrate their sales skills any differently at the end of the program than they could at the beginning of the program.

They were engaged, but were they any better off?

How Do You Go Beyond Engagement?

Engaging participants through discussion, pair-shares, brainstorming, journaling, and flip-charting are all effective strategies to make sure they’re grasping key concepts. I really only have one strategy that I can suggest to go beyond engagement to determine how well participants can actually do something:

Create opportunities for your participants to simulate what they will need to do in real life.

If you’re training people on business writing, then leave some time in your training program to challenge them to craft an email or an executive summary that people will read.

If you’re training people on sales skills, then you can’t stop when you simply introduce them to your sales selling process model. They’ll need (a variety of) opportunities to role play sales conversations.

If you’re training anyone – quality control staff, sales staff, etc – how to make observations and recommendations and you’re stuck in a training room, then bring photos or props into the room and have participants examine the artifacts and report their findings.

If you’re training people on behavior-based interview techniques, have them actually practice interviewing someone else in the training room.

If you’re training staff on customer service skills, go beyond principles of customer service and case studies, beyond engagement, and actually have them work in small groups to demonstrate what “good” customer service looks like.

Many simulated training experiences involve some sort of role play, which is a strategy that many participants don’t like and which many trainers either shy away from or don’t give enough structure for the exercise to be useful. Here are some ideas on how to make role plays and simulations more effective.

The bottom line is that engagement is a good first step, but it’s not the end-goal for training. Offering participants a “laboratory without consequences” – an opportunity to practice their skills in a supportive environment and to make mistakes without real-world repercussions – can make the difference between people simply knowing the right thing and doing the right thing.

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