When it’s not up to you: compliance training and decision-making

Training, as we think of it, involves decision-making. We design training for a particular job role by delineating the set of decision-making contexts—tasks—that make up the role, and we develop the content of the training by supplying those contexts with the same richness and ambiguity of detail that make them challenging on the job. When all goes well, the final products put people in realistic situations, challenge them to make decisions, and teach them the difference between good decisions and bad decisions by showing them the consequences of both.

It’s easy to see why the decision-making-based approach works for training that aims to teach people how to perform the tasks most central to their role. It works the same way chemistry lab worked: by providing an environment in which you are safe and free to explore connections between cause and effect, choice and consequence, reagent and distillate.

But businesses require, and so we create, a lot of compliance training—training on “the rules” of this or that—and compliance training, at first glance, isn’t amenable to this kind of treatment. It’s often felt that when the pedagogical goals of a training involve “the rules,” that in itself is reason to favor the methods of the chemistry lecture, rather than the chemistry lab. Present the information, administer the test, lather, rinse, and repeat: what works best for memorizing the periodic table, so (it’s thought) works for learning the requirements of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Now, we don’t think this idea is right. But it’s widespread enough that it can’t be crazy. So what are the reasons behind it? Here, I think, are four big ones:

  1. Compliance courses have to deliver the goods
    Compliance courses aren’t just about requirements. Generally they are also subject to requirements. They have to deliver a certain minimum of information. Parking that information on the screen and forcing people to read it is the safest way of meeting such requirements. So decision-making-based courses may sound risky, since they can deliver different experiences depending on the choices learners make.
  2. In compliance contexts, the consequence of a good decision is that nothing happens
    In training aimed at enhancing performance, it’s both plausible and instructionally sound to put learners in situations in which the consequences of good decisions are good business results (congratulations! you’ve delighted the client!). But in compliance courses, the only thing that happens when you make the right choice is nothing. There’s no special reward for following the rules. So an approach that emphasizes the value of depicting good consequences may look like a non-starter.
  3. Bad deeds go unpunished
    This one is a corollary to #2. In many compliance courses, the rules at issue go unenforced, violations undetected, and mistakes unpunished, much of the time. Consider—to take an example of a course we developed recently for one of our clients—a course that trains people on compliance with information security guidelines. It would be unrealistic to suggest, in such a course, that every slight infraction of the policy will cause the sky to fall. Sending an email you know you shouldn’t send, or clicking a link you know you shouldn’t click, is like riding in a car without fastening your seat belt. It might kill you. It probably won’t kill you. (And, what’s most unsatisfying, you could do the smart thing and get killed anyway.) There’s not a reliable or even reliably detectable correspondence between good choices and good outcomes or between bad choices and bad outcomes. Here again, an instructional approach focused on the value of consequences may seem unsuitable, because in these realms of decision-making it may be hard to draw a line from those consequences back to the choice they sprang from.
  4. Bad consequences can be nasty
    Consider a training on sexual misconduct. Does it really need to show vile behavior in order to convey that such behavior is wrong? Would a depiction of such behavior risk constituting an offense (albeit of lesser degree) of the same kind as the behavior itself? These are not comfortable questions to deal with, and with the information-presentation approach we can avoid them altogether.

My sense is that some combination of these concerns lies behind the assumption that compliance training should do no more than present information. For now I just wanted to get these thoughts on the table. In my next post, I’ll explain how some of our recent designs address these concerns while maintaing their focus on decision-making.

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