Rethinking compliance training

dreamstime_xs_84033412Love it or loathe it, most of us in L&D will get involved at some time with the design and deployment of compliance training for our organisations.  It’s often the first learning that a new starter experiences and the one piece of learning that distracts all employees every year or so when it comes to refresher time.  Gradually, over time, more and more stakeholders in the organisation believe that their part of the business must have some of its own compliance training that seemingly everyone in the business needs to do.  Eventually, compliance training turns into a mammoth of a beast that consumes extraordinarily large amounts of time and with what results?

“Only 26% think online compliance training is effective” (“The state of compliance training today”, Filtered, 2017)

But it can – and should be – very different.

It’s time to rethink compliance training if it’s to change from being a chore with little impact to learning that delivers a safer and more conducive working environment, where there are fewer operational mistakes.

For me, there are five overriding principles underpinning compliance training:

  1. It needs to happen in the context of the role
  2. Demonstrating compliance is more important than reciting knowledge
  3. Much compliance training is common sense or already known
  4. Remaining compliant is ongoing and not just at a fixed point in time
  5. Compliance happens when behaviour is habitual
Needs to happen in context of the role

Most compliance training programmes end up with a “one-size fits all” solution.  But it will be quite rare for every employee to have to know the same information as others, or to use it in the same way.

“43% of online compliance training content isn’t relevant” (“The state of compliance training today”, Filtered, 2017)

As soon as a learner sees something that is not relevant to them, they start to skim through the content and might well then go on to miss something that is important to their role.  So how can we address this?

  1. Micro learning for common concepts. Breaking the topic down into shorter bite-sized chunks not only means that it can be packaged-up differently for different audiences, but it also makes it much easier to consume even the most broad of topics – a little and often.
  2. User-generated content (UGC) for contextualisation. Many L&D professionals will recoil in fear at the thought of user-generated content being used for compliance training, but sometimes it’s the experienced practitioners out in the business that know best how to make training more applicable to the target audience.  As part of the on-going harvesting of this content, you will naturally subject each piece to a validation exercise.
  3. Subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide the context. If UGC is still one step too far, then acknowledged subject experts in each area of the business should be enrolled to work on the content.  If you follow a micro-learning approach, then each SME could quite feasibly be responsible to creating variants of the core learning objects for their part of the business.  Offering a suite of variants could also be used to support the transition of employees when they move into different areas of the business.
  4. Social learning for added contextualisation. Compliance training need not be restricted to just formal approaches.  Online communities of practice, for example, could be used to host discussions on how certain compliance content should be applied in different roles, etc..  Other learners can usefully provide additional insights, supported by an expert community facilitator.
Demonstrating compliance is more important than reciting knowledge

Of late, I’ve had many frank discussions with fellow L&D professionals along the lines of the value in just providing knowledge around a compliance topic.

  1. Certification. Are we content to certify people just based on their ability to pass a test?  And what does that test involve?  If it’s just knowledge recall, then we know that a high percentage of that knowledge will be lost within weeks.  In my opinion, a certification test should only present the learner with scenario-based questions.  Let the learners assess themselves on how well they can apply the knowledge to a real-life situation.  Again, if you move to a micro-learning approach, you can offer more tailored certification tests too.
  2. Observational assessment. This goes one stage further than scenario-based testing.  Where the stakes might be higher, certification should also be based on an assessment of the individual undertaking a compliance-based task.  Ideally, let the manager or supervisor be the observer and build in tools that enable them to provided quality feedback to their employee.  In very high stakes situations, you will probably need an accredited observer to complete the exercise.
  3. Virtual reality layer. Virtual reality (VR) in learning is still in its infancy within the corporate L&D environment, but its use within the H&D arena – in particular – is well documented.  I’m currently talking to L&D professionals about adding a VR layer to their compliance training solutions, where the individual is not certified until they have successfully undertaken a series of exercises in a VR scenario.  Maybe they go on a quest to identify and react to a series of hazards, have to demonstrate safe operating procedures at height, or respond to an incident in a dangerous area of the business.
Compliance is ongoing not just at a point in time

Compliance training seems to have a seasonal aspect to it.  It happens on joining and then at the same time every year thereafter.  But incidents and compliance-based tasks don’t happen that way.  They could happen at any time, so it’s important that we break away from this learning rhythm.

  1. Performance support. I’m a great believer that there are times when we should look at performance support as the solution, not a learning course.  Simple checklists and short summaries might all be that’s required to focus the mind of the employee on what needs to be done.  These are also much easier to update than a learning course.  If your business operates with bespoke applications, for example, then work with the developers of the software to introduce prompts and sign-off points that reinforce the compliance messages.
  2. Learning in the workflow. The use of micro-learning can benefit us here too, by making short bursts of just-in-time content available at the time and place it’s needed.  Including links to relevant LMS-hosted content within the steps of a process detailed on your corporate intranet is a good starting point.
Much content is already known

If we’re honest, a lot of compliance training is actually the application of common sense and it’s not uncommon to find that many people already know the content – and no doubt dread that time of year when they have to sit through it all again.

“53% already know the content of compliance training” (“The state of compliance training today”, Filtered, 2017)

I believe we need to acknowledge these factors in our designs.

  1. Might just need refreshers. It’s not common for the annual compliance training programme to be called “refresher training”, but typically it involves the learners just having to repeat everything they did the year before.  But a true “refresher” should just focus on triggering the recall of what was learned the year before, plus adding in anything new.  Perhaps you create just a short piece of micro-learning each year that contains this shorter-form content.
  2. Quizzes. For me, we can do a lot more with compliance training than just deliver it via courses.  If we acknowledge the elements of common sense and experience that make up how we react to different situations, plus a smattering of what we can remember from more formal training, then quizzes are a great way to trigger that essential recall, specifically with quiz questions that are scenario-based.  If someone gets something wrong, then you deliver up a tiny piece of remedial content, but if they respond well – and don’t forget to provide some reinforcing feedback – then study times could be much shortened for one thing.
  3. Games. Taking the quiz concept one stage further, I’ve seen effective use made of games to deliver compliance learning.  Personally I started off with a snakes and ladders format.  Get the question right, you go up the ladder, get it wrong – or need a hint – then a piece of micro-learning will pop up within the online game board.  If your audience would respond favourably to it, then add in some elements of gamification and a leaderboard.  Another benefit from the gaming format is that – in subsequent years – the game can be replayed, but with a different set of questions.
Compliance happens when behaviour is habitual

I’ve alluded to the fact that compliance training shouldn’t just be about knowledge transfer.  In fact, compliant behaviour only truly materialises when it becomes a habit and we know how hard habits are to change.

“On average it takes 66 days to change a habit” (Phillippa Lally, UCL, 2009).  Though this study did also say the recorded range was from 18 days to 254 days.

So when we look at the content of our compliance training itself, I recommend there’s a focus on content that will support the changing of habits.

  1. Learning theories that focus on habit changing should be considered. I recommend Chapter 9 (Design for Habits) in “Design for How People Learn” by Julie Dirksen.
  2. Social learning. We learn from others and so using social learning approaches to connect learners with examples of good habits should prove valuable.  Social interactions can also provide peer support and positive reinforcement to affect the necessary behavioural change.  The sharing of individual success stories is also a great mechanism to motivate others to make the change to more compliant behaviour.
  3. Stages of change. Models such as the transtheoretical model of change can help to structure our learning to support people to make the required changes.  In this instance, we can take the learner from not knowing there’s an issue to making sure they never turn back to the old ways.


So now is the time to rethink how we deliver compliance training  In fact, with the fast-approaching new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regime coming into force next year, now is a very good time to pause and stop ourselves falling into the old compliance training traps of the past and to do something different and more effective this time around.


Rethinking compliance training

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