When you get down to it, what does it mean to learn something? What are we trying to achieve when we train someone? When you ask people this question you generally get responses that refer to new skills and giving people a better quality of life.
Now that’s true, good training will give people new skills and improve their prospects, but what we are actually doing is behavior modification. Think about it carefully. When you train someone you either teach them a new behavior or you help them replace an existing behavior with a new one. Of course these are complex things under the hood here, but from the outside it’s only behavior that visibly changes.
If you frame training in this way it actually changes the way you look at designing your training. Of course this sounds similar to classic behaviourism, where you didn’t really care about understanding or anything like that, but just if someone did something correctly or not. Behaviorism is basically why some of us learnt basic mathematics using punishment as an incentive. We had no idea why we had to learn something, simple that it was a way to avoid punishment and obtain reward.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about training in such a way that people apply certain behaviors to problems without having to engage in cognitively strenuous thinking when it really isn’t necessary.
There is a field known as Organisational Behavior Management (OBM) of which Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is a practical example.
So let’s quickly discuss what BBS is in order to provide context for the training approach it uses. BBS applies behavioural science to the problem of workplace safety. Organisational Behavior Management applies that same science to organisational problems in general. So hopefully the conceptual hierarchy is clear.
One of the most notable things we can take a lesson from is that BBS training and procedures are not limited to a small subset or specialized group of employees. EVERY employee from the lowest level workers all the way to the CEO are a part of the training programme and to the culture of safety. Total training is given to the organisation as a whole, not to each individual employee. What does this mean? It means that each person only learns what they need in order to achieve the goals of the organisation at a higher level of abstraction.
So the way this works is that you aren’t teaching theory or trying to engender complex problem solving skills. You are teaching specific behaviours that combine into a sort of meta-system with each person making up a component of that system. In a company that uses BBS each person has a set of behaviours and checklists that they complete under specific conditions or as part of a routine. The inputs and outputs of each person’s actions are connected to those of others.
Now, each person does not have to be in the dark about why they are doing what they have been trained to do, but they also don’t have to commit masses of irrelevant rote learning to memory. Efficiency is the name of the game and to that end people who are closest to a particular process are given the responsibility of observing it and reporting on what they see as part of a larger analysis system. Since these tasks are repetitive and not necessarily engaging the observations and other actions are broken up into multiple checklists, which saves unnecessary cognitive load on the part of the trainees.
Rather than memorizing procedures that will be remembered imperfectly and degrade over time, trainees simply select the right checklist at the right time. The ubiquity of mobile technology systems such as smartphones also provide new opportunities to use people on the ground as intelligent decision making systems.
BBS is not only about teaching a set of behaviours in order to reduce the potential for injury. It’s about using the observations that each person makes about the safety issues that are closest to them to make a change to the environment. Especially when safety behaviors are not performed as a result of human behavior. It may be, for example, that there is something that should be done but isn’t because it goes counter to human nature, it is better to adapt the process so that people are more likely to do it than to get people to behave in a way inconsistent with what feels normal.
This is why people trained in a BBS program are taught to own their part of the safety process. They aren’t just expected to blindly follow a checklist, but to observe as they go and note anything they think can be improved.
What the BBS and OBM approach tells us is that maybe our approach to training doesn’t need to be information heavy and largely irrelevant to individuals who will forget the bulk of the info anyway (thanks to things like the forgetting curve) and can be one component of a larger meta-system.
When we design our training, even if it isn’t safety training, we can take many cues from BBS.
There is no standard set of practices or rules that encompasses all of BBS, in principle it is simply an approach to safety that takes human nature into account and tries to leverage it to increase safety. This is expressed in some of the practices described above, but the scope for its application is much wider.
So when we design training in a way that takes behaviour into account it has to adhere to the following principles:
In this way BBS is a self-correcting system that creates employees that do not only possess static knowledge, but who are given the tools to spot and solve problems in their own immediate environment. If you do this throughout the structure of the organisation it forms a very resilient and efficient system of continuous monitoring and improvement that has certainly helped improve the actual level of safety in dangerous workplaces, but also has the potential to innovate in other complex work contexts.
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