Learning Before The Flood

Learning Before The Flood

     The hurricane brought sustained winds of 120 mph, up to 20 inches of rain in parts of southeast Louisiana and storm surge that topped levees in the New Orleans area. More than one million residents evacuated and the storm destroyed over 600,000 buildings.  A report on hurricane Katrina?   No, this was the opening of a FEMA press release one year before Katrina, describing a five day planning exercise with emergency officials from 50 parish, state, federal and volunteer organizations.  Their purpose was to learn how to coordinate a quick response for a catastrophic hurricane in Louisiana.


     What followed in August, 2005 was the real thing.  Little evidence exists that there was much application from the FEMA workshop.    While most of us provide lessons that are usually a much different kind, we all too often share the frustration of having little to show in application for the training provided. 


Just On Vacation


The issue is called ‘transfer’.   Whether it’s failing to apply lessons from a classroom, an e-learning program or even a live simulation, it is the most challenging aspect of formal development.   Over the years, I’ve observed that each party in a development effort misreads their role.


  • The Learning Participant.  Trouble begins when training lacks relevance and a participant treats a workshop as vacation:  “Just here for the food and sights, with not much to take back except for a few good memories.”  Likewise, rushing through an e-learning module as one clears junk from an overloaded email box fails to provide much benefit.  Of course, we infrequently set-up learning events with the expectation of accountability for the learner or the direct manager.
  • The Learner’s Manager.  While most will want a fully trained employee, managers often fail to support the training opportunity.  They treat it as nothing more that scheduling an employee absence due to vacation.  But rarely is the manager asked to do more to leverage learning, primarily due to the lack of contact with the Learning and Development (L&D) Leader.
  • L&D Leader.  I admit playing vacation planner rather than focusing on performance expectations for both participants and managers.  The instant gratification that comes from happy learners in the event or positive buzz from an online module provides the premature feeling of mission accomplished.  I miss asking the hard question about whether anything covered was applied later.  But I am paying attention to transfer more, thanks to a recent field trip.


Lessons From a Field Trip


     A simple two day offering has taught me much about strong transfer back on the job.  Called Getting Things Done (GTD), it’s a custom version of the David Allen Co. popular time and workflow management training.   In observing the impressive impact of this training, I’ve discovered four principles which enable transfer by taking a break from the formal instruction.


  • The Field Trip Principle – Build in time and support for hands-on application during the learning.    Most training separates the learning from the application.  Most people take a time management class to deal with their mountain of ‘to-dos’, not intending to add a new layer of tasks after a class.  We designed a stealth application session into the program, where participants are sent back to their offices (or laptops) on the second day of the program to start applying the class material.
  • The Accountability Principle – Design supportive accountability measures to help the learner follow-through.  To overcome the temptation of just doing normal office work during the field trip, each participant was intentional in their learning by first mapping out which GTD lesson would be applied.  Upon their return to the class, they reported back progress and surprises.
  • The Your Enthusiasm Helps PrincipleProvide coaching and encouragement as lessons are being applied.  The debrief session provides great peer-to-peer teaching as well as inspiration when participants enthusiastically share their progress and obstacles in first time application.  Seeing someone else apply a lesson with success provides additional confidence and encouragement for further application.
  • The Stick Around PrincipleKeep following up with support and encouragement overtime.  We’ve extended the spirit of the field trip debrief by offering post-program support, including emails with tips and encouragement, as well as beginning to leverage social media to keep learning cohorts together after the event.


Transfer for Value


The value of any development effort is more in the application and impact than in the program itself.  The lesson of the FEMA workshop is that the worth isn’t in the elegance of the five-day event, but the practical application when the storm hits.  Avoid falling into the ‘training as vacation’ trap by applying the principles of the field trip to ensure the learning transfers to real value on job.

© Kevin D. Wilde