Consider the recent history of BP, Wells Fargo, or Volkswagen. Corporate scandal has forced governments, shareholders, business leaders, and employees to reconsider the economic model of the enterprise. Many assumptions regarding risk and short-term business results have been questioned and found wanting. There has been a massive rise in compliance activity. Learning often ends up in the front line of this wave of change, as the enterprise seeks to prove to stakeholders that it can simultaneously reduce risk, grow profits, and meet ever more stringent regulatory requirements.
Given this context, one feature of learning in a risk-adverse environment is the mandatory training programme. Usually occurring in the wake of a crisis, these programmes must reach large numbers of staff. Compulsory training can be unpopular. It is primarily for the benefit of the employer rather than the employee. Various sanctions are used to ensure attendance. Ironically, as budgets for this type of learning increase, the reputation of the learning function may decline. Training programmes that once supported business development and talent management are often delayed or displaced. In the rush to support compliance, the learning function may fail to acknowledge alternative longer-term strategies.
Little research exists on the effectiveness of mandatory training for employees. Does it reduce risk and promote the right behaviour in staff and senior leaders? Or is it purely for show? One rare study by Warren, Gasper and Laufer from The Wharton Business School, suggests that the positive impact can be long lasting. Staff may retain lessons learned for up to two years. Successful outcomes depend on staff perceptions that whistle-blowing procedures, bonus awards, and promotion decisions are closely aligned to the compliance and risk agenda. Without this alignment, well-designed training can fail, resulting in widespread cynicism. Another dependency is highlighted in a second study by McKee and McLaverty: the need for executives to model appropriate behaviour. This can be a major barrier. For example, only 18 percent of senior leaders in this study consulted their compliance function when faced with an ethical dilemma. Their actions overrode the advice of the mandatory programmes they had attended and sponsored.
What happens to learning as the original corporate crisis recedes into the past? There is an opportunity for the learning function to regain some lost credibility. There may be constraints. Risk-adverse environments may be wary of innovation and creativity—this applies as much to learning as it does to other areas of the business. Learning functions need to be sensitive to regulator opinion and seek feedback to any changes in the curriculum. No one wants to trivialise or make frivolous the path to genuine corporate recovery.
The mandatory curriculum may be continued, with different channels used for delivery. New content, tools, and techniques can be deployed to make the learner experience more engaging. Five-minute “microbursts” of training downloaded at the learner’s convenience onto their mobile device may be one option. Another is using adaptive learning tools. These can accelerate the pace of learning for those in high-risk positions facing continual retesting of their knowledge. Gamification, quizzes, interdepartmental competitions, and leader boards can help with acquiring and retaining knowledge.
Alternatively, the mandatory curriculum can be assimilated into a “back to business as usual” learning strategy. Agendas on growing business, supporting new capabilities, and developing emerging talent can sit alongside a need to manage risk. Risk avoidance and mitigation may form part of staff onboarding or become an integral part of case studies used in assessment and development centres for talent programmes. Learning experts will need to manage a paradox summarised by one chief learning officer in financial services, “We are teaching our emerging leaders to drive the business using the accelerator and brake pedal simultaneously.” This quote highlights some of the challenges that learning practitioners encounter working in a risk-adverse environment