So far in this series that focuses on what works in training (as opposed to the many learning myths out there that are ever so attractive, but misleading), I’ve looked at using multiple senses in training and at chunking the content. This month, I look at the importance of context alignment in learning.
Basically, context alignment means that the learning happens in a physical context that is as close as possible to the context in which people will be expected to perform. We should make support center training as much like being on the support center floor as is possible, at least while practicing the skills the participants will actually use on the job.
Classroom training is still viable, especially for accumulating the knowledge participants will need to do the job. However, a Godden & Baddeley study on context dependent memory uncovered that divers who studied flash cards underwater recalled them more effectively underwater than on land. The results indicate that there is 50% more recall if learning and recall context are the same. This indicates that even in accumulating knowledge, context alignment has a significant impact on recall and learning transfer.
When it comes to applying the knowledge in specific situations, aligning the practice context with the workplace context will especially help the participants transfer their learning to the workplace. Context alignment is especially critical in support center training involving role play. I’ve seen most classroom role playing happen in a couple of ways:
- Participants pair up with someone in the class and take turns being the customer and the agent. Or they may be in groups of three with one person being the agent, one the customer, and the third the observer, switching roles between each role play. They may or may not have situations given to them to use in role playing.
- One person from the class is the agent, and the instructor is the customer. The role play is conducted in front of the entire class.
I have some problems with both of these scenarios and don’t see them as very realistic. In the pairs or triads situation, participants sit around looking at each other and at the agent’s computer to see just what the agent sees and each other’s body language. When the person playing the agent gets stumped, I’ve even seen the “customer” reach across and show them where to look or what to say. That doesn’t happen in the support center.
In the scenario where the instructor is playing the customer, the participant playing the agent becomes very self-conscious of performing before so many people (which is not what they have to do in the support center), other participants get bored when they are not the agent themselves, and the class loses the benefit of seeing the interaction through the eyes of the customer since they never get to play the role of the customer.
Instead, I would suggest that we always give participants situations to role play, that the participant playing the customer only know as much as any customer calling in and never volunteers advice nor sees what the agent sees on their screen. If the agent gets stumped or is having a problem, there is someone they can turn to for help (just as during a real call) – the trainer or the observer, but not the participant playing the role of the customer. I also would expect the customer to really act like customers do and get irritated or upset at delays or wrong answers, escalating the contact where called for. A customer does not sit quietly on the other end of the phone while the agent fumbles for an answer or clicks around their screen for several minutes, and we shouldn’t do that in training either.
I would go still further in order to align the training context with the workplace context. At the very least, the agent and the customer should sit with their backs to each other so that they cannot see body language and the customer cannot see the computer screens. Better yet, have the agent set up with a headset that can be dialed into and have the customer dial in. It is really a much more challenging experience hearing someone talking over headphones than hearing their voice in the room.
The workstations in training should be set up like the workstations in the support center, and role players have to navigate systems just like they will have to do on the floor. If you can use a “training” system that is just like the live system (so that new learners do not accidentally do something live that they should not do), that is ideal, although it probably limits your customer scenarios to what is available in the training system. If you don’t have a training system to use, then you might have to use the live system and go back and make sure that all of the customer records used have not been altered inappropriately.
Of course, we don’t have to be restricted to everything exactly like it is on the floor. Sometimes in beginning stages of training, certain skills are focused on in isolation of other skills in order to develop them more, adding in additional skills as competency increases. Then we might be practicing with less context alignment and adding in more context alignment as more skills are added in.
I once created a baseball game as a way to review using the system to identify and resolve customer issues. I created 70 slides using real customer phone calls (with real records in the system). I also added in some fun sound effects from baseball games. I was a little fearful that it would be too corny, but something wonderful and unexpected happened.
When the person “at bat” heard “Play ball!” they were supposed to respond with their greeting just as if they had heard a whisper tone or the call was rung into their workstation. Some people froze like deer in the headlights and couldn’t get their greeting out. That’s the same thing that happens on the floor when some people get their first live phone call. It was a wonderful way to overcome that first, immobilizing fear. Few expect to experience a completely blank mind when they first take a call, so people learned a little about themselves and how they should prepare for that first call.
In this example, the context of a baseball game really was not aligned with the workplace context, but it worked anyway since it focused on getting new agents to think on their feet and respond to customers. We did move on to more realistic role playing, but the baseball game was a foundational step towards reality.
Take a look at your training and identify areas where the training could be more realistic and more closely aligned to the workplace context. There may be steps along the way that are less aligned to the workplace, but ultimately, your training will be more effective the more you can match the training environment as close to the same environment in which your analysts will have to perform, creating less fear and strangeness to overcome and more feelings of familiarity when they actually start taking calls.