Gagne’s event number nine: What will you do back on the job?

Did you know that I can predict the future? I can, really.  Here’s what I will predict.  The next time you conduct a training program, ask the learners at the end of the final day what they commit to do differently back on the job.

Here is what will happen.  One learner after another will say something like, “I liked the part where you talked about how important it is to send an agenda before a sales call,” or “I enjoyed the discussion about overcoming objections on the telephone.” Are you listening carefully?  No one ever says, “When I get back on the job I’m committed to now ask the Six Killer Questions that we practiced yesterday,” but that is exactly what you’re hoping for, isn’t it?

So today we have Gagne’s ninth and final event of instruction:  enhancing retention and transferring the learning back to the job.  It may be the most important of all the events because it ensures that the investment in the training pays off. 

This investment is considerable and I worry about it all the time. Here’s why.  If a client hires me to train their people, I’m sensitive that they have to pay for my services and out-of-pocket expenses, so it’s important for me to do a great job for them and that my effort causes a change in behavior. If not, I don’t eat.

There is also another larger expense for my client and that is the opportunity cost for taking salespeople off the line for a period of time to train them, as they could be out selling instead.  So for these two reasons, the training had better work.

If you are a trainer, what do you do now to provide for learner retention and a transfer of the content to the job?  The generally accepted method is a “learning contract” wherein training says “we will train your people to do this and that, and you in turn promise to manage to these new behaviors.”

If you don’t have this kind of agreement, you run the risk that if behavior doesn’t change, management may say that “the training didn’t do us any good.” In my business I can’t afford to have that happen, so I become a professional nag.  I follow up with line management and ask them what they’re doing to ensure their team is engaging in the new skills on the job, and offer assistance in getting them to do so.

There are many approaches you can use as a sales manager to ensure transfer.  Here are just a few:

  • go on joint calls with your team and observe their behavior yourself, and coach
  • create a tool or job aid that the team must use to provide evidence that the new methods were used
  • arrange for skill practice or content review in your sales meetings. 

There are others, but you see the idea.  You must follow up, and not waste your investment.

This wraps up Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction and I hope you enjoyed exploring them with me, just as I enjoyed writing about them. For designers, these events are a great “audit” tool to ensure you covered every criterion. 

There will be no blog post on Tuesday as my newsletter goes out that day.  See you again back here on Friday. Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

Gagne’s event number 8: assess performance (and my rant on e-learning)

Remember I gave you some suggestions on using intermediate tests during training as a way to enhance the learning experience? This was in Gagne’s event number six, elicit performance. Learners tend to remember the questions they missed, and they pay more attention if they know they are going to be tested. 

So if you’re teaching skills, you have people practice, and if you are teaching information, or problem-solving, both cognitive domain areas, you test, and the tests are for formative development.  They help people learn.

But in event number 8, Gagne addresses a different form of test and that is to ensure that the learners know the content and can perform the skills at the end of training.  For example, management may have a formal test procedure to ensure the training “took” and that the learners “passed.”

One method I like a lot because it works, is when the learners attend training because they are expected to be certified in a specific customer relationship approach, or permitted to sell a certain type of product, such as insurance or mutual funds.  You can see the direct linkage between the efficacy of the training program and the success of the learners.

Let’s separate skill development, which is best conducted by instructor-led training (ILT), from the tremendous amount of training that takes place in many companies today that is strictly cognitive content.  In the latter, the focus is often on the company’s products, procedures, or compliance areas.  Learners memorize things, use reason, and solve problems. Quite often the most cost-effective means of delivery is e-learning.

I have a bias against e-learning.  You might say that’s because all my work is ILT. I focus a lot on skills since I teach people how to sell things and to do that you have to practice.  But my real gripe with most e-learning applications I’ve seen is that the testing is so poor because few developers can write the content well.

Here’s an example.  You are the learner and you are taking some e-training program at your company.  You read a couple of panels that explain how you are supposed to do something. The instruction says, “Mrs. Green (the customer) states that she would prefer to not to have to make a lump sum payment. Your best response to Mrs. Green is…”

Most often, a chimp can select from among the responses provided to Mrs. Green.  There will be one standout answer, something like, “Tell Mrs. Green you certainly understand, and ask her if she would like you to recommend some alternative payment schedules.”  You might select this without having read any of the previous content!

How hard is it to select this response over, “Tell Mrs. Green that if she doesn’t like to make a lump sum payment she should consider buying the service elsewhere.”  There may be another selection for you to consider along the lines of, “Apologize to Mrs. Green and explain that lump sum is the only payment option available,” when on the previous panel all the payment alternatives are shown.

Designers of e-learning are generally great technicians, and the programs are often fun to take, but I seldom see any that are so well-written that the learner has to use deep reasoning skills or have an eidetic memory for content.

Conclusion:  Buy all your training from me. I’ll make you practice til you drop!

We’ll look at our final Step, number 9, “enhance retention and transfer to the job,” on Friday.  Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

Provide feedback: “You did a lousy job!”

Ever since you were a child, you’ve been given feedback about your behavior, from your parents, teachers and friends when you were a kid, to your managers, spouse, friends and probably even your own kids, as an adult.

And I’m willing to bet that not all of it was positive, and that it didn’t always make you feel good.  When someone says something hurtful, it doesn’t make it any better when you hear, “I was just giving you my honest feedback.”

For each of Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, I’ve given you just a few words from my own experience to explain the rationale and provide illustrative examples of these events in a training context.  But I could write an entire book on Gagne’s Event Number 7, provide feedback, because I’ve seen many instances where feedback was handled so poorly that it has had the opposite effect of what was supposedly intended, to help the learner improve.

So today I’m going to put you in a training situation that you know well.  You have small groups, four learners in each, and the assignment is for each of the learners to role play a sales call on a prospect, while two observe.  After each role play, there is a debrief discussion so the role player can receive feedback from the other learners.

In the debrief, you notice that the typical “feedback” response goes something like this:

“Overall, you did a pretty good job. You opened well and your body language was good.  But you could have paused more to let the prospect speak, and most of your questions were closed-ended. I didn’t know if you realized that. Also, you had a number of opportunities to use a summary or trial close during the conversation but you didn’t, so you might want to focus on that next time.  I also noticed that you didn’t…”

Now tell me, if you were the role player, how would you be feeling right now?  What learning are you getting from this? What new behavior will you commit to adopting in the future? Oh, wait! It’s the next person’s turn to give you feedback.

A better way to provide feedback is to reinforce the positive behaviors, and help learners self-discover what they need to do differently, not beat them up.  So I have a very strict model for this type of practice, and I encourage you to use it too.

First, ask the role player what he thought he did well, and let him talk. Discourage him from talking about what did NOT work. Just focus on the positive.

Second, let everyone else speak on the same subject, including the learner who played the prospect:  “Here’s what you did well…” using specific, behavioral language.

Third, as the facilitator, offer your own observations on what the learner did well and back it up with your written notes, thus modeling how to observe for the others.

Finally, ask the learner to comment on one area he needs to work on, and when he’s finished, the “feedback” is finished.  No additional piling on!

I take this method so seriously that I post the instructions on a flip chart and I watch every debrief to ensure it’s being done correctly.  You try it too.  You’ll find that the learners feel good about the exercise, are more willing to practice more, and come away with a focus on what to do differently.

We’ll look at Step 8, “assess performance,” on Tuesday.  Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

Gagne’s event number 6: Elicit the learner’s performance

One of my clients negotiates payments between health care providers and insurance companies, so that the final bill is fair.  They earn their money by taking a percentage of the gap between the amount billed by the hospital and the amount they negotiate in favor of the insurance company. 

Needless to say, these negotiations are tough.  I work with two groups, the front-line salespeople who sell the company’s services to insurance companies and the in-house negotiators who spend their day on the phone with the hospitals.  Their communication skills are a critical element to their success, so they must understand why and how they say the things they do, and have the skill to say just the right thing at each critical time.

I’m going to call this company, “Sample A.”

I have several other clients who fall into one of these three categories: they have “seasoned” veteran salespeople who resent going to training, are not incented well to achieve new sales, or they have a loose sales management process.  I’ll call all these companies “Sample B.”

I can always tell the difference when I train “A” companies and “B” companies, because when we discuss a new concept, approach or behavior, the learners in the “A” companies say, “Can we role play that?”, while the “B” learners moan, “Oh, you’re not going to make us role play this are you?  I hate role play.”

“A” company learners recognize that the training room is a perfect and safe place to practice doing something differently, and they will practice as much as they can, in order to be more effective on the job. Role play or skill practice of any behavior is one of the best methods to help people learn.  Look at that old guy in the green shirt learning how to run up a hill!

When you elicit learner performance, you not only give them a chance to practice, you also help them to recognize when they have done something correctly or incorrectly. In other words, like most things in life, they learn from their mistakes.

Gagne recognized this opportunity to practice, make mistakes, correct the behavior and internalize the learning as a critical event.  Most good trainers use a lot of practice.  In my workshops I make people practice just about everything, from two-person role plays, to triads (where one person is a coach/observer), to fishbowl exercises where I might call on someone at random with, “(Name), say that back to me just the way you would say it to a customer.” It really accelerates the learning if you can make the learners work.

For non-skill areas, or what we call the cognitive domain content, you do best with informal testing.  Remember that joke “pay attention because there’s going to be a test”?  I use pop quizzes all the time, because I find that people remember the content better if they’re quizzed on it. Learners get excited to take a quiz, compare answers and discuss the questions afterwards.

You might ask yourself how well you are doing with this key event of instruction.  How many skills do you role play?  How much of the fact-based content do you test on?

If a one-day workshop does not contain at least four short quizzes, then you are missing a chance to elicit performance.  One final tip: if Human Resources insists you can’t use quizzes and tests in training, explain that the tests are destroyed and scores are not kept. The test is for learning purposes only.

We’ll look at Step 7, “provide feedback,” on Friday.  Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer

“All a pure facilitator can do is pool all the ignorance in the room.”

I got an email from a friend who follows this blog and he joked, “Enough with Gagne and these events.  Go back to the stories and tips!”  (At least I hope he was joking.)  But I take his point; this stuff is a bit dry.  But when I started this blog I said my objective was to teach and provide stories, ideas and tips for salespeople, sales managers, and trainers, and I have been remiss in not giving enough content to the trainers.  So you’ll just have to suffer through all nine of Gagne’s events. It won’t kill you.

Today we’re going to explore the fourth event, “present the learning content,” which Gagne originally wrote as “present stimulus material.”

At some point it makes sense that the trainer ought to provide learners with new information.  You cannot simply facilitate discussions all day.  I had a boss once who expressed many great ideas in imaginative ways and one thing he said about facilitators always made me smile:  “Nobody ever learned anything from a pure facilitator.  The best they can do is to pool all the ignorance in the room.”

I agree, but I also have a problem with “presenters” and I would amend my boss’ comment to say that “few people retain anything that comes from a pure presenter.”  In fact, I have often argued that Power Point has done more to prevent learning than to aid it, simply because it is so easy to create a deck of content, display it, and read it to the audience.

I can’t think of any approach to learning that is more dangerous, boring and wasteful than reading Power Point slides to an audience, and yet I am victimized by it at least once a week.

This is why instructional designers take into account the various learning styles of those to be taught, and create a plan for instructional methods and accompanying media to achieve two ends.  First, the content has to be organized in meaningful, chewable and digestible chunks, similar to the way you learned to write letters in elementary school, writing lower and upper case, one letter at a time.  Second, to accommodate the varied learning styles, new content must be delivered in various ways.

Let me give you a quick example of a common approach that is efficient and aids retention. Suppose I have a five-step process I want you to learn.  I might have it on a PP slide, or on a prepared flip chart, concealed for the time being.  Now I ask you, “If you were going to do this (process/procedure/task), what would you do first, second and so on? Work within your group and develop a process.”

I could debrief all the group responses, then show the best practice process, revealing the slide, and then lead a discussion about what is best to do and why.  Usually the learners retain the content because they have an opportunity to contrast it with their own ideas, and to self-discover the best way. The learners can apply the material to their own life experiences and internalize the content.

When you have new material to present, do you mix it up a bit and get people engaged? Or do you present it from a deck?  You can see that this step requires some sophisticated design.

We’ll look at Step Five, “provide learning guidance,” on Friday.  Meanwhile…

Think Like Your Customer


Gagne’s Event Number Three: Stimulate recall of prior learning

In my post last Friday, I misled you about this past Tuesday, saying that I would talk about Gagne’s instructional event number 3, stimulating recall of prior learning. I forgot that my newsletter was going out that day and I never post on the blog on that day. Sorry. So now let’s look at the event I promised. What does Gagne mean when he advises you to “stimulate recall of prior learning”?

Here is one way to understand it. In any workshop I conduct that has multiple days of training, I always open each day with a small group exercise. I get the learners to pick a number from one to ten, and say that someone calls out “six,” I instruct them to come up with a list of the six most important ideas, skills, or practices that they remember from the session. I give them a few minutes, then I go around the room getting one comment from each table, continuing until they have no more.

As they state each one, I question them more deeply, asking what else they remember about it, why it’s a good idea, and so on. Then I add comments about each one. By the time we finish the activity, about 20-30 minutes, all the content from the previous day is now top of mind, and it is much easier to “layer in” new content.

The brain tends to absorb and process this new content more easily because there is context. You see similar examples in soap operas and serials, where the announcer says, “When we last saw Jane and Phil, they were planning their wedding…” and immediately you recall that discussion. We do this very naturally in our personal conversations. “Hey, remember last week when we said we were going to…?”

Context also works well for future discussion and learning. In many instructive programs, customer relationships and interpersonal communication it’s useful to set expectations. For example, I have learned that in a training program, some learners are uncomfortable if they don’t have an agenda. In fact most of us are more comfortable if we know what is coming next. And in fact, you knew when you opened this post just what I was going to talk about.

Providing context and organizing the dialog or program is essential in getting people engaged with you. All of us have gone through the agony of listening to those who have an attention disorder and cannot organize their thoughts, or a friend who speaks in a “stream of consciousness” manner. It’s even worse if they’re your boss or spouse.

Context helps listeners and learners to be in sync with you, and it makes it easier for people to think, converse and learn. Gagne recognized that engaging recall of prior learning is a critical step in the next level of development. We’ll look at Step Four, “present the learning content,” on Tuesday.


Think Like Your Customer

Today I’m going to bore you to death with objectives

Without a doubt the most boring part of instructional design is writing the learning objectives, but I promised you I would take you through Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, and the second one is “inform the learners of the objectives.” 

 I never write a blog post longer than 600 words, but I could write a book about learning objectives. So if you want an academic treatise on them, read Robert Mager’s book “Preparing Instructional Objectives.”  It’s short, easy to read and makes perfect sense. It’s also considered by designers to be the best work on the subject and no one will ever argue with you if you say your approach is based on Mager.

 When you write learning objectives in the classical way, according to Mager, you will have some verb, such as “at the end of the instruction, learners will be able to detect a counterfeit bill.” Mager also includes the conditions under which one would detect the bill, along with any criteria if necessary.  This means for example, that you could detect counterfeits accurately ten times out of ten (criteria) without using any outside testing equipment (conditions).  When you take a design workshop, they always make you practice writing objectives, and I bet I’ve written a jillion of them. Once you catch on, they’re easy to write.

One important tip.  Make sure you write them in learner-centric language. Write what the learner will know (cognitive domain), do (psychomotor domain), or feel (affective domain) as an outcome of the training.  Don’t write “the facilitator will help the learners practice making outside phone calls” for example. If you write a bad objective like this and I find out about it, I will write to your manager and try to get you fired.

Okay, I was just trying to lighten things up.

 Here is tip number one.  In academic writing, learning objectives are stated as being important for a number of reasons, such as “guides the learner, guides the teacher, allows for analysis,” etc.  But in my work with clients, I find the two most important benefits to writing objectives are:

  1. The process of clarifying the objectives with the client helps you to gain more precision about the outcome.  For example, if the client says “we want them to be more comfortable and confident when they make prospecting calls,” you would naturally ask, “Comfortable or confident? Which? What are they doing now? Are they telling you they are uncomfortable, or is their performance suffering because you think they’re not confident?”  You can then explore what was observed, or learned from the group to be trained.
  2. Once the learning objectives have been agreed-upon, you protect yourself somewhat from complaint or criticism from management of the group to be trained. In post-training assessment you always go back to the agreed-upon objectives as a starting point for discussion. “The outcome you’re looking for was never discussed as an objective. What has changed?”  I always ask, “Is there anything else you want the learners to know, feel or do?”

Tip number two:  Never simply inform the learners of the objectives.  Engage them with the objectives, like this: “(Name), read aloud our first objective and tell us why you think it’s important.”  Then connect this reasoning to the session activities and content.  This approach is more consistent with what Gagne had in mind I think.

 We’ll look at Step Three, “stimulate recall of prior learning,” on Tuesday.  Meanwhile…

 Think Like Your Customer

You too can be an instructional designer!

While most of my clients have competent training departments, few have instructional designers, those who analyze the training needs, determine content, and select the instructional methods and media.  This is a difficult job that requires some educational background and understanding of adult learning principles.

Some years ago when I worked for a training firm, one of our designers left and we advertised for a replacement. I thought our ad was clear, but we got dozens of responses from people whose resumes showed a strong background in graphic design.  Clearly, they didn’t understand what the job entailed. The instructional designer is NOT the person who creates the training materials, graphics and PowerPoint presentations.

One of my clients, a designer herself, told me that when a request for new training comes into her department, most of her people begin by writing a course map.  This is not design either, as it omits the critical upfront analysis process.

But the fact is that many companies design their own programs and do so very quickly, because they haven’t the time and resources to use a complete design process, and often the training need has come up suddenly and with urgency.  Over time I’ve learned that if I want to eat, I need to help clients create the most effective design within these constraints.

If you find yourself with the responsibility of creating a new training program for your company and you are not a designer, you may wish to read everything you can about Robert Gagne, who in 1965 published a book, “The Conditions of Learning.” In that book, Gagne offered a nine-step process he called “the events of instruction.”  When I design any program, I always compare it with Gagne’s nine events to ensure that I’ve included the critical learning steps.

Here they are, and in this and future posts, I’ll share ideas, stories and experiences I’ve had in incorporating these events into my own programs.

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction

  1. Gain the learners’ attention
  2. Inform the learners of the objectives
  3. Stimulate recall of prior learning
  4. Present the learning content
  5. Provide learning guidance
  6. Elicit performance
  7. Provide feedback
  8. Assess performance
  9. Enhance retention and transfer of the learning to the job.

Let’s examine step one today, “gain the learners’ attention.”  Many trainers think of this as the “icebreaker”, where you get the learners “warmed up” and enthusiastic about the training, and that does have some attention-getting elements to it, but I would like to think of this step as taking place much earlier than, “Okay everybody listen up!” 

If you worked for Acme Company and knew you were “selected” to go to a training program, what would be more likely to get your attention, an ice breaker to start the session, or a letter from the company CEO telling you why it’s important for you to attend the training and what is expected of you? 

Good answer!  So now you know the first tip.  When designing training, use Gagne’s Step One to design a message that will get the learners to sit up and pay attention. Engage the most senior person in the business to communicate directly with the learners that the training is important. I remind clients to do this all the time and often draft the letter for them.  An in-person kickoff speech or short video from the exec to be played at the start of training is also effective.

We’ll look at Step Two on Friday.  Meanwhile…

 Think Like Your Customer