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Why High-Profile Speakers' Seminars and Workshops Don't Deliver CEO offers advice on using online software to provide leadership development strategies for employees.

By Dan Blacharski Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


The gold standard of company training sessions has long been delivering the staff to a glamorous, off-site location like Maui for the weekend, putting them up in a resort, filling them with booze and bringing in expensive and very dynamic public speakers to inspire them.

Newer edtech companies, though, are starting to question the wisdom of this age-old model and asking the big question: What happens when everybody gets back to the office? And, more to the point: How can we replicate a highly personalized learning experience in software?

"The good thing about bringing people together in a room is that you can inspire them," says Barry Kayton, CEO and co-founder of edtech company Cognician. "You can hire a great speaker and really boost morale. The downside of that is everybody returns back to their drab office at the end of the weekend, and it's back to normal, and people backslide into their comfort zones, and you don't see the behavior change you're looking for,"

Clearly, the demand for corporate training and leadership development exists, and U.S. companies alone spend about $14 billion every year on it. According to a McKinsey & Company survey, executives ranked leadership development in the top three human capital priorities, with two-thirds of respondents calling leadership development their number one concern.

Everybody is happy. Was the workshop a success?

Probably not. Those offsite workshops are great morale boosters, but they are expensive, and they seldom lead to lasting changes; attendees are more likely to remember how many Jell-O shots their co-workers put away than the new leadership tactics the speaker talked about.

According to McKinsey, after even the most basic training sessions, adults tend to retain only about 10 percent of what they heard in a classroom lecture.

Related: Why Leadership Development Needs to Be Updated

Kayton blames that failure on what he calls an "information centric approach to learning." According to Kayton, "An information-centric approach to learning solves the problem of producing learning quickly, but it doesn't solve the problem of learning. It only solves the problem of transmitting information -- but information won't actually change anybody's behavior.

"If we changed behavior based on information," Kayton says, "nobody would smoke and nobody would eat sugar. The only way to get people to change their behavior is to create an experience that starts not with the information, but with where the learner is at."

Amas Tenumah, customer experience consultant at BetterCXperience, suggests that most workshops try to do too many things, or may have too many goals. The problem is often a lack of context. "Many speakers don't customize the content for their audience," says Tenumah. "They just roll out their greatest hits and hope it sticks. Generally, they should focus on fewer things that fall into two categories -- inspiring everyone to make a specific change and forcing the dynamic speakers to focus on very narrow and specific outcomes."

Kayton points to three elements to a successful learning experience: inspiration, guidance and follow-through. "When you put people in a room, and you have a speaker speaking to thousands of people, the only thing you can do is inspire," he says. "There is a limit on the amount of guidance you can offer. People retain very little of what they hear in a conversation, or even from a great speaker."

Fast-tracking the learning process

Back when he was studying advertising in Cape Town in the 1990s, Kayton says, he read about a company which taught adults how to read, using popular advertisements. "The company figured out if you start with something that is actually known by the user -- such as brand names like Coca Cola or Ford -- you can fast-track the learning process," Kayton says. "But, more importantly, you show great respect for people in the learning process."

Kayton wrote his thesis on the company's methods, and went on to use that system to train adult illiterates. He never lost sight of the founding principle, which was to figure out what the learner already knows, and leverage what he or she is passionate about. While running a seminar at the University of Cape Town, Kayton then applied those methods, and found that they resonated with the students.

So, instead of simply providing information, he provided people with questions that fundamentally changed how they thought about things. When he asked himself, "I wonder if I can do in software what I'm doing in the seminar?" that was the trigger for launching Cognician, and creating an instructional model based on three principles: what somebody already knows, what he or she is passionate about and what questions need to be provided to people to change the way they think about something.

Related: Why You Need to Invest in a Leadership Development Program

Changing expectations

Corporate learning has matured, and the expectations of today's employees have changed. Companies are moving away from those expensive off-site seminars, but at the same time, expectations are high for online learning environments. While earlier online learning environments were mostly information-based, not interactive, and lacked the social component found in the classroom, today's millennial learners are quick to reject that model and demand much more from the emerging edtech industry.

"The key point," Kayton says, "is that people expect high-quality learning solutions. They expect the same kind of experience they get from the iPhone or Android phone -- instant feedback, an engaging experience and they don't want to wait for the system."

These changing expectations demand new technologies. But at the same time, they demand a return to something very old, which Kayton calls the master-sage relationship. "You want individuals to figure things out for themselves. The problem with software that does it for you is that it doesn't raise your maturity level," he says.

"This is the way learning used to happen before Gutenburg invented printing, making books possible. Learning was primarily a master-apprentice relationship, where you would learn from the master who would have unique questions that he or she would ask and you would learn to absorb the questions from an accomplished expert.

Those became the questions you yourself asked," Kayton continues. "So it is that you stand on the shoulders of giants and you figure out new questions that take you in new directions; then you pass those on to your own apprentices. That's the way it used to happen, and that's the way our software works."

A little more Socrates, a little less high tech

More than 2,000 years ago, Socrates said that knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. But information-centric approaches to learning don't allow for this type of self-reflection.

What doesn't work? What doesn't work are big lecture-style workshops with dynamic speakers who inspire but don't follow through. Equally ineffective are online learning methods that focus on providing information, while ignoring the social needs of the learner, and don't ask the basic question of the learner, "Why do I want to know this?"

Instead, the perfect corporate learning environment sounds a lot like those Berkeley-esque literature seminars that were always held in an eclectic off-campus venue, with eight students and a professor in a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, exchanging ideas over cappuccinos about why Bram Stoker's Dracula was a metaphor for the evils of capitalism.

Related: 4 Ways to Make Leadership Development Part of Your Company Culture

Capturing that highly personalized give-and-take, self-reflective model that guides students to raise their maturity levels and figure things out for themselves -- and putting that model into software that can scale to a larger group -- is the next generation of intelligent learning.

Dan Blacharski

Author of

Dan Blacharski is a thought leader and PR counsel to several Internet startups. He is author of the book "Born in the Cloud Marketing: Transformative Strategies for the Next Generation of Cloud-Based Businesses."

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