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Amber Stark

The Pandemic Has Changed Training, but Research-Based Guidelines to Good Practice Endure

Submitted by SIOP Fellow Wayne F. Cascio, University of Colorado Denver

In a November 27, 2021, Wall Street Journal article, “How the Covid-19 Pandemic Changed Employee Training,” author Suman Bhattacharyya argues that fundamental changes are underway in how companies train their workers. In-person classes are out, while technologies that deliver training whether employees are at the office or at home are in. Companies are also using new ways of packaging that training, making it more appealing and useful. Many of these changes were underway before COVID-19, but the pandemic speeded their adoption.

The article described five such changes:

  1. Break the training into small chunks (rather than offering a full day or week of classes)
  2. Train more often (to enable practice and to continue training to ensure that the new skills will be applied to the job)
  3. Provide a range of activities beyond passive listening (e.g., minigames, quizzes)
  4. Have workers learn from each other (e.g., in biweekly sales meetings, top sellers coach other salespeople)
  5. Avoid one-size-fits-all training (e.g., by using artificial intelligence to address different levels of workers’ skills and different career plans)

These are all positive developments and generally consistent with well-established principles of learning that have been developed over the past century. For example, change #1 above reflects a shift away from mass to more distributed practice. Research shows that the latter is superior in most learning situations. Changes #2 and #3 emphasize active practice and positive transfer of learning from training to the job. Change #4 is consistent with findings on the effects of behavior modeling. Finally, Change #5 is consistent with findings regarding adaptive training, trainability, and individual differences.

At the same time, the article serves as a reminder to I-O psychologists of John Campbell’s classic call in his 1971 Annual Review of Psychology article on training and development to resist the temptation to overemphasize technology and techniques in training. Campbell stressed that we should not lose sight of the basic ingredients that make training effective. The process begins a thorough needs assessment that will reveal what is to be learned at the individual or team level and what the substantive content of training and development should be.

It’s also critical to create an optimal environment for learning to occur—by ensuring that objectives are clear, that material is meaningful and relevant, and by providing opportunities for practice and feedback. Goal setting and behavior modeling are essential components, whether the focus is on learning skills or on factual material. These are all important elements of design and implementation, but measuring the outcomes of training is just as important so that we can say something about the practical and theoretical significance of the results. To do that well, there should be enough experimental control to allow the causal arrow to point to the training program.

Approaches to training and development are certainly changing, largely in response to new working arrangements spawned by the pandemic. Yet the prize, superior learning of relevant material at the individual or team level, coupled with positive transfer back to the job, requires that we never lose sight of the fundamental principles of learning as well as research-based guidelines for effective training design, implementation, and the measurement of outcomes.

SIOP Fellow Wayne Cascio was invited to submit this piece as a reflection on the 2021 pandemic-impacted workplace through the lens of training, research, and application. He is a past SIOP president and past recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award. He has also held leadership positions in the SHRM Foundation and the Academy of Management.

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