Fads in Corporate Training

What do Betty Boop, tie-dye t-shirts, the Rubics cube, American Idol, roller blades, and Occupy Wall Street all have in common? They were all fads from past decades.


I remember in the 80’s when my older sister and her friend decided I would look cool in a Hind biker’s hat with my bangs curled up over the raised bill. I spent an afternoon at their prodding to gain this “look”. Perhaps it was then that I decided I wasn’t a fan of fads. (Though her friend was pretty cute, so I wasn’t complaining too loudly.)

Now in my early 40’s, I’ve seen a lot of crazy fads come and go. To the best of my recollection, I’ve never really been an adopter. I’ve always preferred tested methods, safe concepts, established activities. When I look at the training world today, I see a lot of fads that folks adopt thinking it will be the “new thing to revolutionize training.” These fads are not necessarily a bad thing, but the adoption rate by people rings with intense and widely shared enthusiasm, and it causes me to pump the breaks. A few examples:

  • Gamification
  • Social Learning
  • Mobile learning
  • Onboarding

Now at this point, I know there must be a bunch of my colleagues out there crying foul and ready to close this article. How dare I call these critical training initiatives a “fad”!! Well hang with me – if you keep reading, it will make sense. First, let me reiterate that these aren’t

First, let me reiterate that these aren’t necessarily bad things. In fact, I’ve worked with, or on, many of them myself. But let’s take a brief look at each to explore why they are on this list.

Gamification – According to the Gamification WikiGamification is the concept of applying game mechanics and game design techniques to engage and motivate people to achieve their goals. What we have today are two extremes: on one end are people like Jane McGonigal who are doing amazing, literally life-altering things with gamification. These folks exemplify what gamification should and can be. At the other end, you have well-intentioned instructional designers who just don’t get it. In some cases with up to an 80% failure rate! Somewhere along the way, a lot of instructional designers forgot that games are supposed to be fun. (My daughter made fun of me for trying this one out.)

Notice back in the definition it said “to engage and motivate people.” If a gamification implementation doesn’t engage or motivate, and isn’t fun, then it’s just a waste of time and resources. (You did beta test the concept AND the design of that gamified content, right?!) Done well, gamification can be amazing. Done like most  people are doing it, gamification is just a sad fad that needs to die.

Social Learning – Businessdictionary.com says that social learning is a “process in which individuals observe the behavior of others and its consequences, and modify their own behavior accordingly.” Read any publication on training and you’ll see someone mention social learning. It’s talked about extensively today across all industries, and is a huge movement.

Here’s the thing. Don’t miss this. Learning has always been social. Since the days of Adam and Eve, we’ve watched each other make mistakes or have successes, and modified our own efforts as a result. (What younger sibling doesn’t learn from their older brother or sister and avoid some of those mistakes?) To call social learning a new concept, or to even go so far as to call it a new learning theory or model, flies in the face of all we know about history. Social learning is not new. We just finally got around to recognizing and naming it. Oh, and adding a “Like” button to your LMS is not social learning in any form.

Mobile Learning – Mobile learning or M-learning is the concept of making training available on mobile devices so learners can access it wherever they go and whenever they need to. Now I’m a huge proponent of learning at the point of need, and mobile learning can be a really effective method of achieving that. But, mobile learning is not just taking existing training and cramming it into a mobile screen. Much like with gamification, there are companies that do it well and companies that fail miserably. The difference between the two? Planning, sound strategy, successful testing, and refinement. Viewed another way, it’s moving beyond the fad of the idea and into sound execution of learning principles.

Onboarding – If I read one more article about onboarding, I think I’m going to throw up a little in my mouth. It is so over-talked about, over-complicated, and over-thought.  Wikipedia defines onboarding as “the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members and insiders.” Everyone claims to have the perfect solution to onboarding. There are even companies that specialize in helping you design your onboarding experience. (And in case you were wondering, there IS a difference between onboarding and orientation.) I won’t go so far as to say onboarding is an easy task. It can be very complicated in the right industries. But, its complications don’t come from it being a difficult concept. They come from the complexities of the jobs being onboarded.

The concept of onboarding, in itself, is very straight forward: get new employees trained in their job as efficiently and completely as possible. The “fad” aspect of this comes into play because so many companies stink at onboarding, and as the recession hit, they all ignored it. Now that the lack of onboarding is catching up to companies, everyone is talking about it. How about we all just take the time to make sure our people really know their jobs, and do so by providing a consistent message. Bam. Instant onboarding program.

Summary. Not all fads are bad (yay for cheese-wiz and energy drinks!) and the above items are no exception. But it is time to move beyond the bandwagon and enter into the proper execution of solid technique. Mark Rosenburg famously said “Bad training + technology = more efficient bad training” and it’s one of my favorite quotes. Content is king. If you are embarking on one of these fads, stop. Check your excitement for the method at the door, and make sure your content, research, and measurable outcomes are sound first. Then proceed with your implementation.

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