Compliance or competence? Choose your target

A few years back, I had the opportunity to take on a consultancy assignment in deepest Africa. Before I could go, I had to complete an e-learning course around issues of health, safety and security. As I found out, in some parts of the world safety and security are very important issues, with real risk of deadly diseases, kidnappings, muggings, not to mention getting caught up in wars or terrorist incidents. There’s a lot that can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.
As you can imagine, this is a fascinating topic and the course could have been really interesting and engaging. It might even have worked if it had been properly positioned and reinforced.
The trouble is, this was a compulsory course, followed by a very long test which I had to pass if I was to continue with the assignment. The game became beating the system – passing the test with the least possible effort. I failed in this respect because I didn’t pass the test first time round. It was a good job I had written down the answers to the more tricky questions, so I wouldn’t mess up a second time.
And, of course, I had forgotten everything I had ‘learned’ within a few days.
What could have been a highly intriguing exploration of issues likely to have a very real impact on my personal well-being became a rather frustrating chore to be finished as quickly as possible.
To be fair, my client was, in this case, probably really looking to increase the competence of its employees and sub-contractors in dealing with issues of safety and security. What they got was compliance, i.e. people who could pass a quiz. Compliance training is carried out in order to meet a regulatory requirement or to reduce a risk of legal liability. Training must be seen to have taken place. Real learning is a bonus. Competence-based training, on the other hand, is focused on performance – making sure employees can do their job properly.
Compliance training is designed to be as efficient as possible – that means cheap, quick and non-disruptive. Whereas competency-based training is designed to be as effective as possible. In other words, it works.
So, why is compliance-based training not effective? Well, firstly it is compulsory, which causes resentment – a ‘teach-me-if-you-can’ mentality.
It tends to start with the assumption that the learner is guilty (of discrimination, of poor security, etc.) until proven innocent, which causes defensiveness. And most compliance training involves testing, which causes stress.
Resentment, defensiveness and stress are not so good for learning.
Compliance training also damages e-learning. Here’s why: (1) learners are resistant so (2) trainers hate training it so (3) they use e-learning instead so (4) now learners hate e-learning
To ensure competence, an intervention needs to cover all the bases:

  • First of all, it needs to encourage an emotional reaction, so the learner cares about the subject in question
  • it should present the absolute minimum of technical information – no more, in fact, than the learner needs to start working with the new ideas for themselves
  • it should provide plenty of examples, including those tough marginal cases
  • it should allow the learner ample opportunity for practice, safe from danger and from the risk of embarrassment (which is where simulations and scenarios come in handy)
  • the learner must be supported in applying what they have learned to the job, perhaps by coaching, by reference information available on demand, or through communities of practice;
  • And managers need to reinforce the new behaviours by modelling the skills themselves and by providing rewards through the performance management system.

By contrast, a typical compliance programme does this:

  • Present the policies and procedures
  • Test knowledge of policies and procedures
  • As a result, most compliance training is like drinking from a fire hose.

Compliance training only works as a tick-box exercise – it doesn’t result in changed behaviour (and it damages the reputation of
e-learning). To really make a difference, the emphasis needs to shift to competence: a more sophisticated and costly blend of activities, but with a strong chance of success.
But success really is worth striving for: less discrimination, fewer accidents, fewer security issues, fewer security lapses, fewer legal claims, fewer PR disasters.