Why Corporate Training Falls Short
September 26th | 2017
Zach Jenson

It’s not enough just to give people information, quiz them on it, and call it a day.

It’ll certainly get you compliance, but when did you ever say, “I sure wish my employees were compliant with our corporate training?” The most important goal of corporate training, after all, isn’t actually to impart information. It’s to change behavior. The most important goal is, in the end, to change your company from the inside out.

When the Corporate Sustainability team from General Mills approached us last year with an opportunity to help enroll employees in their new climate change commitment, we knew from the start that it would be a unique challenge. The company’s bold pledge to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2025 puts them on the forefront of corporate sustainability, but its success depends on every person in the organization radically reevaluating the way that they go about their work. It was a big problem that defied simple, checklist-driven solutions. Success here depended not on memorizing a small set of best practices, but on fundamentally shifting the mindset — and the behavior — of its tens of thousands of employees.

As the client team brought us up to speed on the science behind their pledge and the steps they were taking to fulfill it, the first challenge became telling a complex emissions story in a simple way — a way that would be memorable enough to change how people thought and acted.

General Mills World Headquarters
Photo credit: HGA Architects

To answer the question of how we could tell such a story, we looked to new sources of inspiration:

Non-profits sharing the vision behind their organizations with consumers,

consultancies telling the stories of their interventions with their peers,

and magazines looking to digital journalism to tell more interactive stories.

In short, we held ourselves to the standards of the best external storytelling we could find, not just internal. It was only by looking at how sources that had to earn their audience, rather than those that had it delivered to them, captive, that we could be sure we were creating an experience that would really make an impression on its users. Though we looked at many, we found no organizational training examples that stood up to the task.

This treatment of the project like an external communications exercise carried over into the way that we developed the training experience itself. We needed a cross-disciplinary team that could keep us honest, both in terms of the scientific underpinnings of the experience, and the various work cultures that would make up our audience. In other words, we needed a team that would act like our toughest customers and tell us what would actually change things in their everyday lives. Ultimately, we brought together all the relevant parties — from marketers to food scientists to package designers — for a five-day sprint during which we explored visions for the experience, prototyped two potential approaches, and, finally, tested them with General Mills employees.

The diversity of voices in the room, and their honest passion for both the topic and the difference it could make for the world, was the true determinant of our final success. Only by having the entire supply chain represented in the planning process were we able to tell the story of a complex and deeply-rooted issue through a series of simple, engaging interactions. This expertise carried over into the final product in countless ways, from the level of background education included to the true-to-life scenarios that made up the core of the experience.

We offered a clear and simple upfront that laid the groundwork for why change was needed. 

We introduced key actions to take. 

We placed trainees in a beautiful digital world that gave them a grounding in where they were within the organization. 

Most importantly, we made their actions real by putting them into accurate, practical situations that forced them to rethink how climate change could be part of their everyday decisions.

In other words, we took an idea, we made it beautiful, we made it interactive, and we made it a challenge.

That’s the level to which all corporate training should be held, if it’s truly going to make a difference for those who take it and the organizations who want to succeed at changing from within.

In truth, it’ll be years before we understand the full impact that the training has had on an organization of this size. But what we’ve heard so far has been pretty encouraging. Employees have told us that it was like no other training they’d ever done — and that it was fulfilling and exciting to be part of an experience that not only recognizes their role, but offers practical, real-life ways to change their work for the better. The fact that it’s beautiful, and avoids the robotic and disciplinary tone that so many corporate education pieces are known for? That’s pretty nice, too. In the end, it’s all part of what makes a project like this exciting to share — its ability to sidestep educational conventions and tell a human-centric story that makes big, company-wide change feel real and achievable.