In Gary Larson’s famous cartoon, a student asks his teacher if he can be excused because his brain is full. It’s funny as a cartoon, but it is tragic, wasteful, and all-too-common in corporate training.

Most training programs try to jam too much content into people’s heads in too short a time. The result is what learning researchers call cognitive overload. When people are presented with too much information too quickly, they are unable to process it adequately and commit it to long-term memory. And it is not just the “extra” information that is lost: too much detail can interfere with mastering the basics.
This is not an isolated problem. We teach 6Ds Workshops to organizations around the world. One of the key questions we ask is: “What is the best ratio of delivering content to providing practice with feedback during a training program to ensure that people can apply what they learn to their jobs?”
Professional trainers overwhelmingly agree that corporate training should be more than 50% active learning; most think that 75% or more of the training time should be dedicated to practice with feedback. But when we then ask those same training professionals: “If we were to attend your current training programs, what ratio of content to practice we would actually observe?” The great majority sheepishly admit that their current training is overwhelmingly about delivering content—often as much as 90%.
Why does this happen? It is partly because we rely on subject-matter experts to teach these courses—people who have deep knowledge and great enthusiasm for their subjects. They are eager to share their expertise but often have a hard time remembering what it was like to struggle to first learn the basics. As a result, they frequently include far more detail than a practitioner needs to achieve basic competence.
It is also the result of the “tyranny of time.”  Most Human Resource Development organizations are feeling the pressure to reduce the amount of time that people spend in training. When we are able to get people together, we feel the need to maximize the value of that time by introducing as much content as possible. But this is false economy.
We need to keep in mind Ruth Clark’s famous dictum: “Content covered is not content learned.”  Just because we went over it in a class or seminar doesn’t mean people learned it, -or that they can actually apply it to their jobs.  The critical impact of cognitive overload is that beyond a certain point, the more we try to cover, the less people learn.
What can HRD and training professionals do about it?
  • Define. First, clearly define the desired business outcomes as a result of training. That is the first and most important of the six disciplines practiced by high-impact learning organizations.  Shifting the focus from learning to performance is one of the best ways to prevent “scope creep” and information overload.
  • Challenge. Second, ask subject-matter experts to think about how they mastered their fields. It wasn’t by listening to someone else expound on the topic. Expertise develops through study and practice over time; it cannot be delivered as a bolus.
  • Understand. Recognize that learning is a process, not an event.  A McKinsey Quarterly report on corporate learning concluded,  “To improve results from training programs, executives must focus on what happens in the workplace before and after employees go to class.” Don’t expect classroom training alone to improve performance.
Don’t waste precious live-training time just lecturing when there are so many other options.  There are dozens of other (and probably better) ways to deliver content, from books to the Internet.  Reserve class time for active learning and practice.  As Salas and colleagues concluded in an extensive review of the science of training: “We know from the body of research that learning occurs through the practice and feedback components.”
Bottom line: Corporate training is not about stuffing people full of facts the way one would stuff a Christmas goose. The goal of corporate training is to improve performance. That requires a process approach, more time for practice, and a lot less cognitive load.

Dr. Roy Pollock is a popular author, speaker, consultant, and business executive with more than 20 years’ experience helping organizations create competitive advantage through learning. He is Chief Learning Officer of The 6Ds Company which offers training and consulting services on how to increase the return on investments in training and development.  Roy is the co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and to the 6Ds.