Companies spend time and money each year coaching, training and cultivating customer-facing employees ahead of events such as product launches. Yet when it comes time for these employees to apply new information on the job, managers find some of their staff barely able to recall what they were told days ago, let alone a month or more.
This “forgetting curve” is actually a well-documented phenomenon and was referenced as early as 1885 by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. Up to 79 percent of knowledge is lost within the first month after it’s acquired.
It’s not a function of how good your employees are -- it’s merely how the brain works. Over 20 randomized clinical trials conducted at Harvard have explored how the human brain acquires knowledge and loses it. More importantly, researchers looked at how to retain knowledge so that it lasts.
The spacing and testing effects. Harvard research shows that the best way to fix this “forgetting curve” comes through two very simple concepts known as interval reinforcement and active recall. Interval reinforcement refers to the “spacing effect.” When you present small amounts of information and reinforce it over spaced intervals of time, you increase the efficiency of information uptake so that it’s preferentially retained.
Active recall refers to the “testing effect.” Researchers found that recall of information over time -- or retrieval practice -- can dramatically improve knowledge retention when combined with immediate answer feedback. Studies show this approach is far more effective than passive learning by, say, watching a video or reading.
Putting brain science into action. Despite these crucial findings, many companies continue to tackle knowledge reinforcement using traditional methods, including “Death by PowerPoint.” While getting everyone together for a big meeting is a worthy team-building goal, organizations will unload too much information on staff -- then ask them to defy brain science to remember it all.
Here are five ways that managers can help their employee’s remember important information required to meet organizational goals:
1. Small bites, consumed quickly. If you are going to hold a big company meeting, make sure you follow it up with reminders that reassert a few core messages, a few small bites at a time. That way information is digested and retained.
2. Put information in context. Challenge staff not simply on rote information, but on their ability to apply it in scenario-based challenges that reflect the real-life context they’ll be up against. Like word problems in math class, thinking in context is hard, and reflects genuine understanding. Employees who show they can think in context can apply new information when it’s needed most.
3. Keep it simple and convenient. Reinforcement needs to be flexible and available to the employee at a time and place that works for them. For years, American Medical Systems, a unit of Endo International, found that by using challenge questions that could be answered in three to five minutes, post-event mastery scores were boosted from 68 to 92 percent.
4. Make it motivational and fun. Leaderboards, scoring and awards keep it fun and help build a friendly sense of competition that can drive engagement -- a metric of participation and follow-through to the end of the program.
5. Collect data, but use it wisely. Measuring what employees retain opens the door to effective, personalized coaching. Knowledge retention data also can flag potential issues. For example, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies was able to spot sales reps struggling on a specific topic. This helped them to quickly uncover a potentially damaging disconnect between sales and marketing and fix it -- simply by examining the data.
Recognizing the role of brain science in changing behaviors has tremendous impact for urging teams forward. Achieving revenue growth and other organizational goals requires defining a direction and shaping others’ behavior to acquire it. When teams remember what they need to know, everyone wins.