Learning Curve: How Employers Can Change Steep To Genial Learning Experiences
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How Can The Learning Curve Help Employers Change Learning Experiences?

When new processes, procedures or tools are introduced in the workplace, it’s natural for employees to feel overwhelmed. The steep initial learning curve associated with embracing such change is often what gives workers cause for stress.

What Is The Learning Curve?

At it’s most basic level when used to measure accomplishments or lack thereof, a curve is associated with a gradual incline, uphill or steep, or decline, down-hill or “less steep”, in reported results. The learning curve is typically used as a measure that determines how difficult or easy it is for educators to impart knowledge, and for employees to learn new skills or acquire additional competencies.

Typically, most learners experience a steep curve at the beginning of their new learning experience, and then that incline tapers-off as they gradually master the subject matter. However, although it has the term “learning” attached to it, the learning curve has a much broader application.

A survey by a British professional accounting certification body, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), revealed the widespread application of the learning curve in real-life work situations.

This underscores the importance of using the theory behind the curve to support learning experiences across a wide spectrum of practical environments. For instance, when discussing learning curves in a manufacturing or production context, the Harvard Business Review defines it as follows: “The learning curve (also called the progress function and start-up function) shows that manufacturing costs fall as volume rises.”

So, if we draw from that underlying description, and apply it to a corporate educational context, there are several facets of the learning curve:

  • It measures the relationships between how successfully an employee performs a new task that he/she may have trained for, or learned, versus the time, energy or cost invested in such learning and training.
  • It typically leads us to conclude that the more time spent by an employee learning about a new task, and then doing it, the less time they’ll need in the future to perform it.
  • It also implies that educators can’t expect training to deliver unlimited performance benefits. At some point in time, the time and cost of providing the same training outweigh any potential benefits to the company.

The “curve” offers fascinating insights about how employees learn and then use that learning to improve on the job performance. But what the curve doesn’t tell us much about is what employers, educators, and Instructional Designers can do to manage that curve to facilitate how employees learn better.

Flattening The Learning Curve

There’s an old adage that hikers and mountaineers use. The steeper the incline, the harder the climb! It’s only the fittest of hikers or climbers, who are equipped with the appropriate gear and lots of stamina, that can negotiate steep inclines. And that’s exactly how it is with employees who are put into a learning situation without being properly supported for their learning experience.

So, what can companies and corporate trainers do to help employees make the best of new learning situations?

Well, here are a few tips that might help:

1. Hiring

When organizations hire, they typically review educational background, previous experience, and references. However, other traits like soft skills and cultural fit can greatly impact a hiring decision. Candidates who are not a good fit for the organization, but are still hired, are likely to experience a steeper training and learning curve than those that “blend” well into the organization’s culture.

2. Onboarding

Hiring oversights can often be compensated for if the company has a good training program in place. And the first encounter with such a program is during the employee onboarding process. If employers provide newly hired workers the right information, training, and tools during their initiation process, the learning curve for them to become productive will be much shorter.

3. Matching Training To Jobs

Often, corporations deliver the employees the “standard” training package in the hope that they’ll become productive as soon as they complete the course. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work well. There’s a growing realization among employers of the need for personalized training to flatten the learning curve.

4. Mentoring

Good training does not always mean in-class studies or self-paced distance learning. There’s a strong case to be made for on-job mentorship programs to shorten the learning curve. Sometimes, no matter how well a formal training program is structured, it will not impart all of the wisdom and knowledge needed for an employee to be his/her best in the real world. Mentors have the real-life expertise that they can very effectively pass onto new employees. The result is a more genial learning curve.

5. Using Technology

More organizations are learning the importance of machine learning and data analytics to shorten the learning curve among their employees. These solutions can parse large amounts of corporate digital assets and turn them into insightful and personalized learning content to be used for targeted training.

There are two other points for consideration, for employers who wish to support their employees make the best of training opportunities, and both relate to training timelines.

Make sure that you train new hires as soon as possible once you’ve hired them. And make sure you continue to offer skills' improvement and targeted learning to long-serving employees. Without this two-pronged training and learning strategy in place, employees will experience steeper learning curves each time they are put into new work or learning situations.

Learning By Doing: Closing The Gap

Quality training makes for better employees. However, training alone isn’t what truly improves productivity, that comes with real life, hands-on, on the job experience. One popular model of the learning curve, the 80% model, holds that each time a new employee, presumably trained on a new process or a task, produces a batch of output, the cost of that new batch is 80% of what the first batch costs.

This is an important point for employers to note. Spending time and money on training can have positive ROI, of up to 20% cost reductions in the near term. However, at some point in time though, the laws of diminishing returns kick in, and no amounts of learning or doing will produce corresponding returns.

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