The Death of “Training” and the Rise of Cohort-Based Learning

An expressive oil painting of a computer with a screen full of faces on a Zoom call
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I’ve worked with 22 Fortune 500 companies in my career.

As partners to these companies, we have one clear goal: to help their people reach their full potential.

I’ve seen passionate clients who pour their souls into transforming people. They strategize like CEOs and design learning experiences like the Old Masters.

A matisse painting of a teacher in front of a classroom of adults
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I’ve also seen tired, underpaid ‘professionals’ who consider developing people “just a job.” People who rinse off what they did the previous year, paint over the ugly parts and rush training out the door.

A Baz Lurhman style painting of a tired, bored person working at a computer
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Seriously, as Johnny Cash said, I’ve Been Everywhere.

So I sat down with one journal prompt:

Why has training failed?

Here’s what I wrote down.

16 Reasons Why Training Fails

  1. Training is a hammer, and the performance problems aren’t nails.
  2. Training is the right solution, but the training content doesn’t get results.
  3. Too much training content is delivered too quickly and too soon.
  4. The instructional design is weak, resulting in a poor learner experience.
  5. An endless parade of talking head SMEs and PPTs.
  6. No reinforcement plan to foil the forgetting curve.
  7. No deliberate practice with built-in feedback loops.
  8. No purposeful plan to help learners apply what they have learned.
  9. No measurement plan to assess the effectiveness or allow pivots.
  10. No checkpoints, assessments, skill validations, or certifications (what do they know or what can they do?).
  11. Managers don’t coach their people to mastery.
  12. “Go get ’em, tiger!” (i.e., hire experienced people, give them some training, and leave them to “get on with it”)
  13. No focus on behaviors (i.e., not answering “what should they do differently?”)
  14. Events like in-person or virtual boot camps with no follow-up or continued tracking toward milestones
  15. No widely accepted change management plan
  16. Poor hiring and selection practices

13 Things You Can Do About It

To radically improve your outcomes, you need to start doing things differently. So I sat down with another prompt:

What should learning and enablement practitioners do differently?

This is what I came up with.

  1. Ensure you’re teaching content that matters and will get results in the real world.
  2. Prioritize need-to-know content and teach it by milestone.
  3. Set performance milestones that progressively move people toward acceptable levels of performance.
  4. Set those levels of performance based on behavior you can measure.
  5. Incorporate prior knowledge in your learning design.
  6. Chunk, sequence, and layer your content for better absorption and retention.
  7. Don’t teach randomly organized content, even if it’s chunked, sequenced, and layered.
  8. Maximize modern learning methods for efficiency and effectiveness.
  9. Use process and workflow to teach people how to do their job.
  10. Encourage your people to teach each other.
  11. Support your training program with systems thinking.
  12. Create a culture in which learning is continuous.
  13. Learn from your mistakes.

Reflecting on this list, it fills me with confidence that our work at Curious Lion is helping our clients meet their goals. 

Here’s what I mean:

Why Cohort Learning Experiences Promote Bottoms-Up Learning

Traditional “training by events” is dead. Companies are embracing the power of cohort-based learning.

Why?

Because employees don’t learn by PowerPoint. They don’t learn by figuring things out alone. They don’t learn by clicking through slides. They don’t learn by watching videos. So they are saying no to the traditional way companies “train.”

Top-down training vs bottoms-up learning
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Instead, people are turning to learning from each other. Reflecting on their experiences. Sharing observations with peers. Engaging in meaningful dialogue. Gathering in cohorts and learning from each other. Accelerating their careers armed with nothing but a Zoom room and a Slack channel.

They won’t be going back to “training events.” Because they don’t want training.

They want to learn.

Cohort Learning Experiences
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Cohort Learning Experiences promote this kind of bottoms-up learning. They also incorporate the best of modern learning methods.

How Cohort Learning Experiences Incorporate Modern Learning Methods

Assessments and Personalized Learning Paths

We use proficiency self-assessments as a learning tool for individuals. Here is what a completed one looks like:

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In a nutshell, self-assessment is an ongoing process of three elements:

  • Awareness of one’s own thinking, behavior, and actions
  • Reviewing one’s progress, achievements, and effectiveness
  • Adjusting one’s approach to improve performance

Taking a moment to self-assess learning helps learners:

  • Internalize learning
  • Celebrate wins
  • Reflect on any struggles, mistakes, or disappointments
  • Keep a sense of purpose and motivation
  • Take care not to waver off track

We find that these assessments hold learners accountable for applying the skills they learn and give them a roadmap for personalizing the learning experience by prioritizing the areas (and, therefore, the content) they need to focus on the most. Using aggregate data, you can also group learners into cohorts strategically by matching people with complementary skill sets to allow for rapid knowledge sharing.

Bite-sized and Mobile

Less is more in Cohort Learning Experiences. Content is intentionally pared down to the smallest essence to introduce new mental models and frameworks to people. It’s chunked, sequenced, and layered to give the minimum effective dose – just enough content to introduce someone to a new way of thinking.

Bite-size content is perfect for mobile, making it available anywhere, anytime, and on any device.

Asynchronous (Self-Directed) Learning

Bite-size content delivered in a Cohort Learning Experience is always self-directed. We recommend learners block time to consume the content (this could be on a run or while working in a garden, of course). This is an effective form of prework for live sessions or reinforcement and learning support after live sessions. It can also provide a way for learners to test out topics and leapfrog to different curriculum sections.

Spaced Repetition, Retrieval Learning, and Feedback Loops

We also recommend learners block time for deliberate reflection. What is deliberate reflection? It’s the key to getting the most out of the asynchronous content. Deliberate reflection uses a series of specifically-designed prompts to encourage the learner to consider how the new mental models or frameworks apply to their current work.

Another reason reflection is important: it combats the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that memory weakens over time, and the biggest drop happens right after we learn something.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
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Individual reflection helps combat this by bringing ideas to working memory again. This is reinforced by discussions on the topic in the live learning sessions and even asynchronously through Slack or Teams channels for cohorts of learners to continue the discussion.

Finally, the fact that this is a system for learning and that, done right, you run Cohort Learning Experiences regularly throughout the year means you have spaced repetition and retrieval practice built into your learning design.

Synchronous, Live Learning – We Learn Best From Each Other

This is where the magic happens. Interaction, discussion, brainstorming, application.

It has been shown that imitation is the fundamental mechanism of human behavior for skills and behaviors. We learn best from others. This is, of course, the core reason mentoring is such a powerful mechanism for learning.

In his book, Smartcuts, Shane Snow explores how incredibly successful people and companies do extraordinary things in short timeframes. He identifies mentorship as a critical component of this.

“Mentorship is the secret of many of the highest-profile achievers throughout history. Socrates mentored young Plato, who in turn mentored Aristotle. Aristotle mentored a boy named Alexander, who conquered the known world as Alexander the Great.”

Another key reason why we learn best from each other is feedback.

Maria Konnikova, a best-selling author turned professional poker player, learned how to play by being mentored by Erik Seidel, the Michael Jordan of poker.

Maria Konnikova and Erik Seidel
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His role in providing feedback was critical for her rapid learning, as she describes:

“That’s how he taught me. It was not a prescriptive ‘this is what you do here.’ It was ‘Ah. Why did you do this? What motivated you? What were you thinking?’ That’s fascinating because you’re getting a lot of it iterations, and you’re getting feedback.”

Feedback from others helps us evaluate our decisions and refine our thinking by introducing new information and perspectives we could never have on our own.

People learning in groups feel accountable to their peers. It’s like a workout class. If you attend every class and suddenly miss one, there is a feeling of letting everyone down. You’re in this together. This creates stickiness and a sense of community around learning.

There is another interesting reason why learning together with others works.

Learning is a journey, and everyone is at different stages of the journey. Some groups (Journey Groups) are characterized by having people with a similar (but not the same) experience and skill levels to each other. Other groups (Destination Groups) are characterized by some members already doing what others aspire to do. The experience and skill gap is much wider.

They both have benefits to learning.

you need both to make a transformation.
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Journey Groups, in which you’re working closely with others with a similar experience and skill level to you, are better for learning from the struggles of others. Your struggles are similar. By being smaller, Journey Groups are better for finding partners to keep you accountable and honest. Finally, you get much tighter feedback loops from close-knit Journey Groups.

In contrast, Destination Groups give you the ultimate shortcut to learning by exposing you to the ideas and frameworks of mentors you aspire to emulate. Similarly, being around those you admire can motivate you to set bigger, hairier goals. Destination Groups also tend to set the constraints around which the overall learning experience is built.

I’ve written more about Destination and Journey Groups here.

Social and Informal Learning

There is a lot of talk these days about the “20” in the 70-20-10 principle:

  • 70% of learning comes from on-the-job experiences
  • 20% comes from social or informal interactions with others
  • 10% comes from formal training events.

Cohort Learning Experiences combine all of these.

Cohort Learning Experiences are the 100% of learning – they:

  • Incorporate a buddy system with peers learning from peers.
  • Orchestrate sharing at scale between the most and the least experienced on your team.
  • Are a source of best practices.
  • Encourage learners to reflect on their learning and share their thoughts with their cohorts.
  • They Provide on-the-job training by focusing on actual business challenges and crowdsourcing solutions to them.
  • Are intentionally structured, so you avoid having “the blind leading the blind.”

To summarize, Cohort Learning Experiences unlock the power of mentorship from every member of your team, which is the fastest way to scale your team’s technical, product, and soft skill development. CLXs do this through a synchronous, live learning system that incorporates social and informal learning elements and accelerated feedback loops.

To learn more about how to set up this approach at your company, check out our step-by-step tutorial.

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