Information Overload: The Plague of Learning and Development


The world has changed. Consumers and buyers today have information at their fingertips, more discerning criteria for how they spend their money along with continuously shifting expectations. To keep up with customers, many business leaders have recognized that having great products isn’t enough. They must also create great experiences for their customers by leveraging the increasingly complex technology landscape that has become part of life. To do so, most companies will invest in learning and development with the goal of enabling their employees to deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Unfortunately, many of these programs do not produce quantifiable results. In interviews conducted with CEOs and other business leaders, my team and I asked the question, “What do you think you get from the money you spend on your support? Or on the people who create learning for your employees?” We received the same answer, repeatedly: “We have people that create stuff to keep us compliant. Beyond that, it’s not clear.”

This is startling, but not unrecognizable. The investments made to help people adapt to disruptive change — such as retooling salesforces, changing product portfolios, rethinking go-to-market strategies and going through structural reorganizations — aren’t moving the needle.

The problem is that there is only so much people can learn at one time. There are new technologies to navigate, new processes to engineer and adopt and entirely new conversations that need to take place at work and with customers. There is so much pressure to change and seemingly so little time to do it. An almost mystical belief prevails where all you need to do is send those salespeople, managers or engineers to a five-day training course to solve all the company’s problems.

Of course, most people don’t believe a five-day course will magically transform their teams. There are other things that will take place that will help those people, right? But who is thinking about what those things are? Who is deciding how much content is too much? And who is factoring in that learning a concept, skill or piece of knowledge happens through time?

Studies show how information overload, multitasking and prolonged repetition impair productivity, performance and decision-making. Yet, year after year, billions of dollars are spent on initiatives, programs, change efforts, revamps, classes, new technologies and courseware. What’s the result? A major increase in noise.

Information overload tends to manifest itself in the following ways:

The amount of content that people are expected to process and digest, let alone allow to change their behavior, is overwhelming. We did a process audit with one client and found that new-hire salespeople would routinely receive 50 emails announcing all the “mandatory” training they were expected to complete. The result? 100 percent of the salespeople opted out of 100 percent of the training.

Content is deployed regardless of its cognitive ease. We conducted hundreds of content audits where 100 percent of the information deemed necessary to know was delivered in homogenous bulleted text, PowerPoint decks with over 50 slides or voiced-over slides. What recipient would declare themselves “trained” after this?

Content is not connected to a plausible, measurable goal. In our reviews of thousands of courses, modules, online learning and instructor-led materials, only a handful of the content could be connected to a specific, measurable outcome.

The uncomfortable conclusion that can be drawn from this is decision-makers are wasting their company’s money. At best, they are investing in something and have no idea what the return is, so they write it off as the cost of doing business. The L&D industry represents a market of $140 billion on technology, tools and content. Could it be that enablement teams — the people in charge of creating stuff to help people learn something — are not truly understanding the business outcome that they are working to fix?

There is a big difference between an outcome and an output. The “stuff” we create to help people do their jobs better does not constitute an outcome for the business. These are outputs. On the other hand, outcomes are the measurable results you’re driving toward, such as acquisition rates, increased revenue, reduced costs, increased conversion rates and more upsell and cross-sell opportunities.

When you determine the desired results first, you can then identify the tasks necessary to achieve them. When you are outcome-based, you always have the bigger picture in mind. You make decisions about outputs and tasks based on whether they move you forward toward the outcome. Only then can you ensure the tasks you’re asking people to complete will help them to attain identified business goals. Moreover, you can determine when team members need accomplish these tasks, so that you’re not overwhelming them with everything all at once.

By focusing on outcomes, you’ll be able to create learning and development programs that are worth the investment.


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