Training reinforcement: The 20% rule

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Chief Learning Officer®

by David Vance:

Training may not be rocket science, but it is a lot more complicated than it first appears. This is especially true when it comes to reinforcing learning so that it will be applied and have the planned impact. After all, if the learning is not actually applied, it will be “scrap learning” regardless of how well it is designed or brilliantly delivered.

Your learning can be well received (high level 1 participant reaction) and the target audience can demonstrate mastery of the content (high level 2), but if it is not applied (level 3) there will be no impact (level 4), and the ROI will be negative (level 5). Unfortunately, all too often we don’t even measure level 3 to find out if learning was applied. We deliver the training, hope for the best, and move on to the next need.

We need to do better.

Our greatest opportunity here is to help the sponsors who requested the learning for their employees understand their very important role in managing and reinforcing learning. Learning professionals can provide advice, but they cannot do this for them. Sponsors need to understand their role in communicating to employees the need and benefits associated with training.

Ideally, the employee’s supervisor will communicate expectations immediately preceding the course. The sponsor needs to ensure the intended target audience takes the course, and follow up with those who did not. Again, they need to clearly state what they expect post-training, and let employees know what they are looking for to make sure the new knowledge, skills or behaviors are being used.

The employees, individually or as a group, should meet with supervisor to discuss the training and confirm application plans. The sponsor will need to be ready with both positive and negative consequences to elicit the desired results. All of this constitutes a robust, proactive reinforcement plan which should ideally be in place before the training is provided.


As you can tell, this takes time and effort. How much effort? I believe it will take at least 20 percent of the time you dedicate to planning, developing and delivering to do this well. So, if it takes five weeks to plan, develop and deliver a course, are you planning to spend at least 40 hours on reinforcement?


Many sponsors and supervisors have no clue about the importance of reinforcement and will not do it unless you can make them understand the importance. Many think that once they engage L&D, their job is done, and training will take care of everything else. However, this cannot possibly be the case.

The target audience employees don’t work for L&D, and L&D professionals cannot make employees in sales or quality or manufacturing do anything. L&D certainly cannot compel these employees to apply their learning – only the leaders who asked for the training can do this. So, you need to convince the sponsor that they have a very important role to play in training. L&D can do the needs analysis, design and develop the training with help from SMEs, and deliver it, but only the sponsor and leaders in the sponsor’s organization can make their employees apply it.

Impact and results depend on both L&D and on the sponsor – neither one can do it alone. On this we must stand firm as learning professionals. If a sponsor tells you they don’t have time for these reinforcement tasks, you need to respectfully decline to provide the learning because it is likely to be a complete waste of time and money. And don’t let them shift the burden of reinforcement to you. It is your responsibility to assist them, but it is their responsibility to do it.

With this understanding, are you dedicating enough time to reinforcement? When I was the learning leader at Caterpillar we had to redirect resources from design and delivery to reinforcement — you too may have to make a trade off — we decided it was better to deliver less learning but do it well rather than deliver more learning that would become scrap.

What is your strategy?

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Author: Admin