Take A Look At Your Training. Is It Sabotaging Learning?

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Learning and training are the foundations of effective performance.

Learning–the acquisition of skills and knowledge–is critical to the financial industry because unlike other professions, such as accounting, there is no specific preparatory college curriculum. Jobs in the financial services industry tend to be complicated, and the more complicated the job, the more agents, managers and staff need to be continually learning. Building skills and knowledge through learning is a key ingredient to individual and company success in our industry.

Training–the process of delivering skills and knowledge to the people who need to acquire them–is an important part of what a company offers to the people who want work for it. Companies, distributors and product manufacturers have a major role in providing training. Poorly trained agents, administrative staff and managers perform poorly, make costly mistakes and leave for better companies.

A company that provides training on its products and services is more likely to have agents place business with it, since that training demonstrates the companys commitment to the agent and the value of dealing with the company.

In addition, industry groups also play a major role in providing training and education. For example, the American College and the Society of Financial Service Professionals provide training for new and experienced agents, managers and staff, while LOMA provides training for home office staff.

Finally, vendors of systems and services have a responsibility to provide training on how to effectively use the programs they sell.

Given the importance of training, one would expect it to be a high priority for the industry. What is surprising is that it isnt a high priority in all companies. Training is expensive and the amount that companies provide ebbs and flows as their philosophies and bottom lines change.

Of equal importance, the quality of training varies widely in the industry. Some companies are good at it, while others probably shouldnt provide training since it is a waste of their money and the learners time. Variations in the quality of training and the amount available often create significant problems for new and experienced people in the industry.

Since resources are limited, the more effective strategy to solve the problem of providing the training needed by people in our industry is to improve the quality of training. It is likely that companies could save considerable resources by providing less but higher quality training. One way to do this is to focus on how training sabotages learning.

How Does Training Sabotage Learning?

Some of the problems with training in the financial services industry that sabotage learning are:

  • Too much information. Often the training overwhelms the learner with too many subjects, too much information and too many details that need to be learned in too short a time. The “must know” information is embedded in “nice to know” information and is lost.
  • Not everything has to be memorized. Training often fails to provide the learner with aids and tools to make information available when he or she needs it. Instead, it assumes the learner will remember all the information. That strategy may not be in the learners best interest. Training should provide the learner with easy to access sources and references for the information provided.
  • The medium becomes the message. The computer over-complicates, the trainer over-entertains and the text over-burdens with too many side issues. What is to be learned is sometimes lost in the method used to deliver the training. Poorly designed and developed training is not improved by delivering it on the computer. Bells and whistles cant take the place of quality training.
  • Training objectives are not relevant. Too often the training is based on what home office experts (who sometimes have done best practice research with other home office experts) think is relevant. The training may be high quality, but it doesnt do anyone any good if it doesnt meet the needs of the target audience. Trainers must obtain the input of the agents, administrative staff and managers who will be expected to use the skills and knowledge and then test out the training to make certain it meets their needs.
  • Training is not tailored to the target audience. Even when the design and development of training involves subject matter experts (SMEs), too often these people (e.g., agents) are not representative of the target audience for which the training is being designed. Top agents are sometimes involved in helping design training for all agents based on an assumption that they are highly successful and some of this success will “rub off” on the training. However, the markets, approaches and skills of top agents may not be appropriate for the majority of the agents who take the training.
  • Training is not applicable. Too often training contains information that cannot be applied to the job, raising criticism that it is theoretical and too conceptual. Sometimes the problem is that the training provides the right skills and knowledge, but does not teach how to apply them in the agents or managers job. From the viewpoint of agents, managers and staff, this sabotages learning. Training in how to practically apply learning is one of the hardest training goals to accomplish. Trainers need to design their training around how skills and knowledge are applied rather than treating that objective as an afterthought.
  • Training is poorly sequenced. Skills and knowledge form a hierarchy, but sometimes they are not provided that way. Complex concepts are provided before basic ones. Complex skills are presented assuming the learner already has the basic ones mastered. Learners who are unprepared cannot benefit from the training no matter how well designed it is.
  • There is no testing. Trainers need testing to understand if their training achieves its goals and learners need testing to know if they have mastered the training. If training isnt important enough to test, then it may not be important enough to learn.

What Can Trainers Do?

Steps can be taken to remove the ways that training sabotages learning, but they often require trainers to change their mindset about training and learning. Some of the things trainers can do to improve training are:

  • Focus training on the highest priority objectives and develop modules that contain only one to two learning objectives at a time. By limiting content and focusing it on important, meaningful objectives, the training can be more efficient. Base the training on how much the learner can absorb and not on how much the trainer can deliver.
  • Prepare the learner for the task of learning. Be clear about what the learner must already know to be able to benefit from the training. There is nothing more frustrating to a learner than to discover after he has begun training that he is unprepared for it. Identify how long it will take to accomplish the training and what the learner will get out of it. Provide the learner with tips on how to maximize learning the information provided in the training as well as learning aides he can carry away from the training.
  • Index and organize training so that the learner can locate quickly and easily the training and information needed. Learning should be a resource the learner can return to for additional training in specific skills and knowledge as they are needed.
  • Provide tools and aids that reduce the amount of memorization and support the use of the learning back on the job. A checklist that gives all the steps needed in a process can aid in the acquisition of the knowledge. Over time, as the process is mastered, the checklist is no longer used.
  • Have field people provide direction and content, but make sure that content is crafted into effective training by skilled, professional trainers. Dont rely on the most successful agent to be able to conduct a successful training program. The audience may enjoy it, but it doesnt mean they learned anything. Be careful to avoid mistaking training for entertainment at meetings, conferences and training sessions.
  • Clearly define the target audience and then make certain the field people involved in helping design training are representative of that target audience.
  • Provide training in multiple formats and media. Not everyone can sit through a 60-minute course. Some people learn better on the computer, while others benefit most from a text. Still others learn best when trained one-on-one by a coach. Help learners discover the medium that best fits their learning skills and abilities or help them become proficient in the learning skills needed to use a medium in which the company has invested.
  • Test out the training before using it. Get the input of the target audience to shape the final product. Once the training is in use, survey the target audience of learners satisfaction with it. Training should not be a bitter medicine that learners have to endure. Use learner feedback to improve training and education efforts in a consistent way.
  • Use testing to help the learner gauge the effectiveness of their efforts and to monitor the effectiveness of the investment in training. Testing is a key ingredient for maintaining motivation and focus.

, PhD, CLU, ChFC, is a principal in Groner & Associates, a consulting firm that supports financial services companies in the areas of agent, agency and management development and compliance and market conduct. He can be reached at GronerAssociates@aol.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 5, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.