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The Disengaged Learner

Anyone who has ever been involved in training people in the workplace will know the feeling well. You’ve spent weeks preparing the training course, the materials, the content. You’ve made it relevant, focused and engaging. You arrive on the day, deliver a concise and clear introduction and then, as the course continues, you start to notice the level of engagement of each of the participants.

Some will be fully engaged – you’ll notice their body language. Leaning forward, nodding, smiling, reacting to what is being said, offering their own suggestions, thoughts and questions. Others will be paying full attention, but perhaps a little more passively. There may be a few who are feverishly scribbling notes – it doesn’t seem to matter how many hand-outs you give – some prefer to make their own summaries. And then there are a number who are less engaged. Maybe they’re checking their emails on their mobile phones, or sitting, arms folded, staring into space. Whatever they are doing, it’s clear they are not engaging with your training programme – they don’t want to be there, and they have no intention of getting involved.

If you’ve spent enough time in the pharmaceutical industry, you will have seen this sort of scene time and time again. It’s highly possible that you’ve found yourself in each of those levels of engagement yourself – I know I have!

Unfortunately, when it comes to training, the famous quote from John Lydate applies – “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” However, there are a few tips and tricks that can be used to maximise engagement levels and, at the same time, utilise the expertise and experience of the more experienced members of the team.

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Why are some learners disengaged?

There are so many reasons why someone may turn up to a training/learning session and not fully engage with it. Some of the more common ones are:

Unrelated to the training
Work pressures – “There’s so much I need to get done right now.”
Family/personal issues – “I’m so angry I’ve got to spend another night away from home.”
Broader issues with the company – “I’m looking for another job anyway.”

Related to the training
Poor prior experience of learning – “These courses are always pointless – I never learn anything.”
Confidence issues – “Maybe they’ll discover I know less than everyone else in the team.”
Relevance to role – “This topic is not directly relevant to my role. I can’t see why I need to learn it.”
Relevance to self – “I already know all about this topic. I’ve done training courses on this before.”

Clearly, there isn’t a single tactic which will address all the potential reasons why a learner might not engage with a training programme. Very different approaches will be required for an induction/onboarding programme versus a training session for a well-established team of very experienced MSLs, for example. But even by tailoring the training to suit the majority of the delegates, you may still find some individuals who are not really involved in the programme.

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How to engage the Experienced Disengaged Learner

I have worked with – and managed - some incredibly knowledgeable and experienced MSLs. In some cases, they had worked in the same company, in the same therapeutic area and with the same products for longer than I had been in the Pharmaceutical Industry. They had been out there, doing the MSL role for years and years. What could a training programme possibly teach them that they don’t already know? Whether the training is Knowledge or Skills-based, there are some common approaches which may be useful.

There is every likelihood that experienced KAMs and MSLs who have spent several years in a single company can be considered product and therapy area experts. If the training course being planned is a knowledge-based programme, around the data, for example, it’s possible that your more senior field-force members are not likely to fully engage in the training if they already know the data being discussed. Logically, therefore, it would make sense to utilise their skills and knowledge in the design and delivery of the programme – giving them ownership of specific elements for example, or facilitating sessions within small groups. One advantage of this is that by listening to their experienced peers, the other learners will pick up practical and implementable ways of explaining complex topics, data and outcomes.

There is a clear benefit to involving the most experienced KAMs and MSLs in the design and delivery of the training programme – by feeling that they have played a part in it, they will have an interest in making it a success (especially if you implement feedback forms to assess the quality of the training course, giving a quantifiable output).

The same applies to skills-based training programmes, which tend to be more experiential and interactive than most knowledge-based programmes. In skill development sessions, participants learn by doing, and having experienced KAMs or MSLs working alongside less experienced colleagues gives plenty of opportunity for sharing of best practice and peer-to-peer learning.

Whether the training is knowledge or skills-based, it is important to ensure that these experienced team members get something useful from it. Whilst it is very nice to be seen as an expert resource, the whole point of a training programme is that it allows for the development of every participant.

Firstly, by becoming teachers, the experienced MSLs and KAMs will find they will develop a better understanding of the topics they are teaching. The benefits of learning-by-teaching have been demonstrated in many studies. People who spend time teaching what they’ve learned demonstrate better understanding and knowledge retention than people who just spend the same time re-studying. The time spent reformulating the information, working out the best way to condense and clarify it and deliver it effectively and concisely to the audience all help to create a clear understanding of the most important elements.

The benefits of a skills-based programme depend, to a certain extent, on the programme itself – the content, delivery and outputs. I have seen very experienced MSLs reluctantly shuffle into “yet another” skills-based training programme, only to emerge hours later with a beaming grin and telling everyone who will listen that “That was the best training I’ve ever been to”. So how do you design a training programme which will ensure that sort of feedback from all attendees?

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Ensuring Maximal Engagement

We haven’t yet mentioned onboarding and induction programmes. By and large, most new employees are very keen to learn – there is an expectation, both from the company and from the individual that that’s what they need to do in the early days. In addition, new employees do not want to be seen to be disengaged, for a variety of obvious reasons (getting to know the team and their manager, still in probation…) However, I have been in situations where poorly thought-out training programmes have led to individuals (or, in a couple of cases, the entire audience) becoming disengaged and distanced from the learning, which leads us nicely to the following hints and tips for designing and delivering training programmes.

There are potentially several reasons why training might go wrong and start to disengage learners:
• Too much information delivered too quickly
• Topics being covered are not directly relevant to the audience (or the relevance has not been sufficiently explained)
• Too much up-front presentation – not enough experiential learning
• Too few breaks
• Drifting off-topic, leading to long discussions about irrelevant or unimportant issues
• Not keeping to time
• Too much assessment, testing and learners being “put on the spot”
• Too few opportunities for peer-to-peer learning and sharing of best practice

With this in mind, here are a few things which should be considered for every training programme:

Understand your audience.
• Who are they?
• What are their current levels of experience/knowledge/skills?
• What are their priorities in their current work?

Understand the aims of the training.
• What is the desired outcome?
• What does the company require the attendees to know/learn/develop by the end of the programme?

Link the aims of the training to the attendees’ work and keep it relevant.
• How will this new knowledge/skill be useful to the attendees?
• How should they use it?
• Ensure that everything delivered is relevant to real-world application.

Stay focused
• The audience have given up their valuable time to attend this training course – make sure the content is focused, relevant, and delivered in an efficient manner.
• Use a whiteboard to capture “off-topic” questions and topics, and follow up on these, either at the end of the training, or separately after the training has finished.

Carefully manage and facilitate conversation
• Almost all training session have one or two attendees who like to dominate the conversation. It is important that the facilitator is comfortable in managing big personalities and in ensuring everyone can participate in discussions.
• The facilitator also needs to ensure the conversation remains positive and relevant.

Utilise Experiential Learning
• People learn better by trying things out.
• Encourage a safe learning environment in which participants can try things out without fear of humiliation, reprisal or punishment. The training sessions should be an ideal place to “try it for size” before using something in the field.

Mix It Up
• Use a variety of methods to deliver and practice new knowledge and/or skills.
• Plenary discussions, small group discussions and workshops, working in pairs or threes, role- playing, games and quizzes can all be used to embed and reinforce learning.
• Some of the most memorable learning programmes utilise innovative and creative exercises to illustrate a point or new data. (eg – making a poster, pitching on “Dragons Den”).
• However, don’t get so creative that the content is lost!

Ensure High Value Deliverables and Follow Up
• Whilst the focus is naturally on the training course itself, it is important to consider what materials the participants will be taking away with them at the end, and ensuring these are useful to them.
• Take-aways should recap and extend upon what has been taught. Links to additional resource material can be useful for longer term learning.
• E-learning could be utilised for ongoing learning and self-assessment.
• Consider whether consolidation or refresher training might be required in the near-mid future.

Utilise Positive Reinforcement
• Ensure the participants know they are on target with learning aims.
• Continually revisit the learning aims and progress towards these aims.

At ACHiiVE we specialise in providing a range of programmes which help companies deliver high quality training to field teams, utilising a range of experiential simulations and programmes. Our experienced trainers have a wealth of experience leading and facilitating training programmes in pharmaceutical and healthcare companies and can add value to your knowledge and/or skills-based training programmes.

Please contact us to find out more.

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