Five Ways to Decrease Learning Decay in the Workplace

Don’t let learning decay cripple your development efforts. These five approaches can help new skills become habitual.

Learning decay is the Achilles’ heel for virtually all training initiatives. A training may have been delivered brilliantly to a highly engaged audience who leave the class or training event enthusiastically committed to applying the new learnings, but this alone will not stop learning decay. The training may have been delivered online, through a webinar, in a classroom or self-taught. Whatever the delivery mechanism, if the understanding and application are not retained for the long term, the training has little true value.

It’s important to understand that participants do not intentionally forget the content or consciously decide not to apply their new learnings. Rather, the reality of day-to-day pressures, incoming emails, key priorities and comfort with the old ways of doing things all contribute to learning decay. As humans, we just tend to forget over time unless new ways are kept top of mind until they become habitual.

Once we ingrain new habits, they will become a part of the way we always act. If these new ways of behaving are a result of recent training, then that training is truly of great value. Hence, prioritizing the elimination of learning decay is critical.

There are five ways to address the challenge of learning decay, and organizations need to decide which of these are most appropriate for their training initiatives.

1. In-Class Application

In addition to teaching new skills and giving participants a chance to practice them, the training should include time set aside for specific application of those skills. This would include requiring participants to determine where, when and how they can apply them. Make this practical for participants by asking them what they will stop doing, what they will continue to do and what they will start doing as a result of the training.

It’s important for participants to think through how they will apply the learning back at work immediately after the training. Once this application thinking has occurred, it can be discussed with colleagues and the facilitator. This allows participants to ensure their intended application is in fact practical, and it will make a meaningful difference.

Requiring this form of application allows participants to leave with an action plan, which is a great start to thinking about adopting new behaviors right away. It also provides a tool that can be used in discussion with their manager once they’re back on the job.

2. Manager Support

Once something new has been learned, the most effective way to make it operational is to have ongoing coaching from a manager. This puts the responsibility on the manager to know what has been taught, as well as what new behaviors are intended. However, armed with this knowledge, the manager can then encourage and support the new behaviors on the job.

Key to this is the manager’s ability to coach, as individuals are often willing to apply new skills but are not always sure how to do so in every situation. We are all comfortable with the approach that is traditionally taken, but when given new skills or behaviors, applying them in real-world situations is not always as straightforward as it seemed in the classroom. In those instances, employees should be able to look to their leader for coaching that will help them master both the skill and the application.

3. Post-Class Follow-Up

One way to keep the learning top of mind is to ensure that a follow-up mechanism is in place. This follow-up could include items such as regular meetings with other participants, coaching sessions with immediate supervisors or opportunities to connect with a facilitator via webinar.

If application plans have been part of the original training package, then follow-up on these application plans can occur for three to six months after the training. The results of the application can be evaluated, and then through discussion team members can determine whether learning is being applied as intended.

When this level of application rigor is applied, participants have an opportunity not only to fully learn the content but also to appreciate the fact that they are expected to apply it back on the job!

4. Link to Measurable Results

Typically individuals are participating in training programs — whether functional (such as how to enter data into a customer service system) or behavioral (such as time management) — because their behavior needs to improve or change.

The result of new or changed behavior should be an improvement in capability, performance or results. Metrics can be created in each of these areas and used to provide feedback to the participants. If an employee is required to attend a training session, they should also be required to improve their performance as a result, and the metrics are a way of tracking that.

5. Frequent Reminders

In the same way that products are promoted through advertisements on billboards, television and the radio to keep them front and center in the consumer’s mind, new learnings can be kept front of mind through frequent reminders.

These reminders could be videos from senior management emphasizing the importance of the content, posters summarizing key messages or case studies that capture best practices from employees who have successfully applied the new learning.

Whatever approaches are selected, it is important to ensure the principles that are taught are repeatedly reinforced and visible. This helps participants associate them with the same importance and value as when they were first introduced in training.

Addressing learning decay is often more administratively heavy and time-consuming than delivering the actual training. However, the real magic of changing behavior is not in simply telling people what to do differently but in supporting them on the journey until they have successfully applied the learnings on the job.

Phil Geldart is founder and chief executive officer of corporate training provider Eagle’s Flight. To comment, email