Employee “Training” in Corporate America Doesn’t Work. Here’s Why.

Starbucks is latest example of why it’s broken.

Derek Belch
May 22, 2018 · 14 min read
A sign on the front door of a Starbucks in Louisville, KY. This store is closing at 2:30pm on May 29, 8 hours earlier than normal.

Starbucks has long been known as a company that treats both its employees and its customers with the utmost respect. Indeed, this culture has played a major part in Starbucks practically inventing the concept of a quick-serve coffee shop becoming a community destination — a place where everyone wants to meet, work, eat, or simply hang out.

But as you likely know by now, Starbucks has fallen under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks for the wrongful arrest of two customers who were targeted in large part because of racial profiling — contrary to the respectful behavior for which the company is known. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz and CEO Kevin Johnson have both said all the right things in the aftermath of the incident; they haven’t dodged the controversy at all and instead chose to tackle it head on. Schultz said Starbucks should be “ashamed” with this overt display of discrimination, and Johnson decided that the company will shut down 8,000 U.S. Starbucks locations for a few hours on May 29th so that every store employee can undergo unconscious bias training. Experts have estimated the shutdown will cost Starbucks approximately $17 million in lost revenue, and millions more in wages paid, so this is clearly not an issue the company is taking lightly.

But contrary to what you may be thinking right now, what you’re about to read isn’t going to be another Starbucks-bashing piece, or thoughts about unconscious bias or race in America, for that matter. Instead, I want to discuss the response: the training itself. More specifically, how it won’t work. Not because of the research and opinion pieces documenting why unconscious bias training is largely ineffective, but because of something much deeper.

The truth is, the type of “training” Starbucks is going to deliver on May 29th isn’t going to be training at all. It’s basically going to be a transfer of information. In fact, a large majority of the biggest and most financially successful corporations throughout the world don’t truly train their talent; they simply expose them to information. Most “training” in today’s corporate landscape is little more than a check-in-the-box, and it’s killing both the productivity and morale of the American workforce.

Identifying the Problem

Let’s start by taking a look at what Starbucks is going to do next week, as their tale is emblematic of how most companies deliver these types of “trainings” to a large workforce.

According to reports, Starbucks will create the training with the help of several experts, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. While I have no doubt that the information presented will be rich and impactful — perhaps some of the ever best assembled on this topic (kudos to Starbucks for bringing in the experts, versus delivering something off-the-shelf) — the reality is that this “training” is doomed to fail.

Why? To start, Starbucks can’t possibly effectively scale the expertise of Holder, Ifill, and Stevenson across 8,000 stores and 170,000 employees in a meaningful way. They’re likely to create videos, PowerPoint slides, some combination of the two, or maybe do a live stream of this group addressing all Starbucks employees and lecturing on the topic of unconscious bias. Maybe they’ll use a “train the trainer” model, where store managers will be equipped to deliver the message. They’ll probably employ small group discussions. Maybe they’ll role play. All of these are today’s standard delivery methods for employee training, despite the fact that few of them, if any, are proven to be effective.

And herein lies the problem.

While admirable and likely rich with knowledge and information, none of what Starbucks is going to do is actually training…it’s simply exposure. And let’s be honest — how many of the 170,000 participants are going to sit in the audience scrolling through their cell phones? And for those who are paying attention, the information is likely to be forgotten after just a couple days (there’s a lot of science behind this, FYI).

In fact, I’ve recently started using this gem from Confucius when speaking at conferences and meeting with customers, which couldn’t be more true:

“I hear and I forget.

I see and I remember.

I do and I understand.”

“Training” for companies throughout the world — especially big companies with tens of thousands of employees — rarely involves doing. Instead, it’s all about seeing and hearing and simply exposing employees to information. In Starbucks’ case, when the “training” ends, the baristas will go back to work, because any additional time off the clock loses money for Starbucks. But they won’t get a chance to practice anything they just learned before going back to work; they are just expected to apply what they learned immediately on the job. How is this a recipe for a fundamental change in employee behavior? It’s not, meaning the sad reality is that the whole thing is likely going to be a big waste of time — more of a PR benefit than one that will truly drive change.

To be clear, I am not picking on Starbucks. Real, meaningful training provided to a workforce of that size is really tough to pull off, and I actually expect the company to do as good a job as possible given the situation in which they find themselves. That said, Starbucks is the most recent and tangible example to make a point about the ineffectiveness of training in Corporate America.

Let’s talk about why.

Athletes, Doctors, and Pilots Train

If you’ve ever played competitive sports, at any level, the word “training” likely has significant meaning to you. For a quarterback in football, training encompasses everything from diet to sleep to weight lifting to running to watching film. And then there are the nuances of a QB’s craft: footwork, mechanics of throwing the ball, reading a blitz, “presence” in the huddle, and so much more. Most importantly, to play at an elite level, QB’s need to constantly repeat the things they’ll do in the game in a safe environment where it’s OK to make mistakes.

Simply put, athletes need to practice. They figured this out a long time ago, and the best athletes are usually the ones who have trained the hardest, smartest, and most effectively…they’re not always the ones who are most physically gifted.

Doctors and pilots are two other examples of jobs where practice is paramount. Neither of these professions perform real-world work — surgery on a real person or a commercial flight with 200 people onboard — without repeated practice and proven proficiency at the many different things that could happen on the job. Rigorous schooling, repetition-based learning, mock surgeries, flight simulators, da Vinci Surgical Systems…all are tools afforded to these positions to help them practice their craft before doing it for real, where the stakes are tremendously high.

As it relates to athletes, doctors, and pilots, training is a pretty straightforward concept and proven to work, time and again. For them, training is about practice. And practice makes perfect.

Corporate Employees Don’t Train, They “Train”

But what does “training” mean for people who work outside of these fields, in corporations? It usually means reading a manual, watching a video, clicking through an e-learning module on a computer screen, or having someone lecture to you about what you should be doing. As we noted above, in the case of the upcoming Starbucks unconscious bias “training”, it’ll probably be some combination of those things.

While these aren’t necessarily bad ways to learn, there’s something fundamentally missing to take these efforts to the level of real training. What am I referring to? Practice. Companies today do not ask or push their employees to practice what they’ll have to do in their jobs, mainly because it is not feasible or practical.

How does a newly-hired assembly line worker practice, when mistakes could lead to the line stopping (which costs the company money), or injury, or even death? How does a retail associate practice stocking merchandise, when errors made on the shopping floor would reflect poorly on the brand’s image? How does a barista practice controlling biases (that we all have) in a safe environment, before going behind the counter?

The simple answer is: they don’t.

That’s not to say that employers, across all industries, don’t spend a lot of time and money “training” their employees. In fact, in 2017 an estimated $360B was spent on employee training around the world. While that amount of money is a strong signal that companies do, in fact, care about preparing their workforce, the problem is they aren’t actually training anyone — they’re merely teaching. Performing on the job isn’t like taking a test. It’s not good enough to know what to do. Employees need to be able to execute and actually perform when it matters. And that takes practice.

In other words, employees in Corporate America need a way to practice before the game. And now they have one.

Virtual Reality is the Solution

You knew this was coming, right? I’m the CEO of a company that uses Virtual Reality (VR) to train employees — from athletes to retail associates to construction workers to customer service representatives, so of course the entire point of this piece was to plug VR and STRIVR.


The main goal of everything you’ve read thus far was to identify a problem: companies don’t adequately train their people. For all of the reasons identified above, “training” isn’t training. And furthermore, today’s “training” stinks. The lectures, videos, PowerPoints, and manuals are disengaging and ineffective, especially for a workforce that’s getting a large influx of Millenial talent that is demanding new ways of doing just about everything.

Again, these are not just my opinions. Confucius hit the nail on the head over 2,000 years ago, and talking to leading HR & Learning practices like Bersin and Brandon Hall Group today, in 2018, has confirmed this notion. Corporate America needs to change its training culture, as fast as possible.

So let’s change it.

While VR, alone, can’t solve this problem, it’s perhaps one of the most powerful and promising technologies over the last several decades to provide a fundamental shift in the way people learn, engage, and train to do their jobs. Let’s go back to Starbucks to help illustrate why.

Starbucks faces an uphill battle to train 170,000 employees across 8,000 stores, on a topic that’s inherently difficult and at times nebulous. How do they even start? Well, if we think about this problem through a traditional Learning & Development lens, Starbucks could hire dozens of implicit bias experts and have them travel to every store throughout the year. But even if an expert could administer training to two stores per day, they would need 134 experts to deliver two trainings per day, every single day for 30 days (including weekends) to hit 8,000 stores in a timely manner. Not only is that not feasible (probably closer to impossible), but it would also be very expensive.

What’s the next-best option? Starbucks could video experts speaking and lecturing and beam it out to all 8,000 locations, either live or pre-recorded. While this definitely solves the scale and cost issues, it doesn’t address effectiveness. Using our Confucius example from above, this would be a passive experience for employees that would fall into the “I hear and I forget” category. For truly inspiring change, this one is pretty much useless.

The bottom line for Starbucks, and most large companies, is that it’s really hard to deliver training (real training) that works and sticks, in a way that is scalable and won’t cost an obscene amount of money. To help illustrate this point, here’s a simple chart about the tools afforded to the modern employee as part of Corporate America’s “training” ecosystem.

As you can see, in the world of corporate learning, companies optimize for effectiveness or scale, but rarely both. Most big companies, like Starbucks, often choose scale due to time, resource, and cost constraints. And while I can’t necessarily blame them from a business standpoint, this tradeoff creates an invisible frontier that companies will never cross: effective training isn’t scalable, and scalable training isn’t effective.

As the title of this section indicates, however, VR can achieve both scale and effectiveness, and is the solution to turn “training” into training in Corporate America. How, exactly? Let’s start with the science.

Virtual Reality is the Ultimate Practice Machine

My co-founder at STRIVR, Jeremy Bailenson, is one of the world’s leading experts in VR, specifically the effects of VR on the human brain when we put on a headset. Jeremy constantly makes reference (in his latest book, in his many talks at conferences, and on Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab website) to VR as a perfect substitute for learning-by-doing, where people can learn from making mistakes in a safe environment. The word “safe”, in the case of the myriad jobs in Corporate America, could be both literal and metaphorical, where VR offers both a physically safe space for practicing dangerous tasks and a “safe space” where making a mistake will not be awkward or embarrassing. Jeremy specifically references intense and realistic training simulations as “a home-run use of the technology”.

But Jeremy is just one in a growingly large community that is studying the powerful effects of virtual simulations on the human brain. VR has been dubbed “the ultimate empathy machine”, and study after study has found that VR can have a powerful and deep effect on human behavior, to the point where behavior change is not just possible but probable. As it relates to the work STRIVR has done with athletes, Walmart employees, and nursing students, to name a few, we’ve shown first-hand that, when adopted and integrated into an organization’s culture of employee development, VR’s impact is significant and the results are real.

And then there’s scale. You may be wondering how a VR headset can scale to a workforce of 170,000 when it’s a one-to-one device.

On the surface of the scale discussion, you’re right. VR is not scalable in the same way that an email link or online video is scalable. But VR is scalable when companies rethink how they train their talent. For the last time, let’s revisit Starbucks as an example.

In every Starbucks store, there is enough room in the back, out of view from customers, to keep one VR headset at all times. Starbucks could create a library of virtual simulations that address almost everything an employee needs to know — from basic concepts like how to operate machines, to customer interactions, to more complex and high-impact scenarios like those involving unconscious bias. And, true to the promises of academic research, training store employees using VR will ensure that it’s not a passive experience. With VR, employees could be standing in the back room but their brains think they are really on the job. It’s like a library of e-learning courses on steroids.

What’s more, Starbucks employees can truly train, as in practice, on the core things that are necessary to do their jobs, because VR allows for infinite repetitions again and again and again.

VR also allows for perfect consistency. The training is the same in every headset across the country. No differences in instruction due to location, instructor, or individual disparities (something Starbucks must take into account next week). In this way, perfect training is more scalable than ever.

A Major Culture Shift

To be clear, VR, alone, is not a panacea. While it’s clearly a new and powerful technology, VR doesn’t just show up and solve an organization’s “training” problems.

Surprisingly, the success of VR actually has very little to do with the technology itself and more to do with the implementation within an organization. Who will use it? What problem are we trying to solve? Where and when will they use it? Why VR over other methods? And how will it be integrated into their employee development culture? These are the questions that need to be answered to ensure VR has a chance to succeed and not become another shiny new toy that ultimately sits in the corner and collects dust.

What do I really mean by this? I mean a paradigm shift that allows employees to use a technology like VR to get valuable practice repetitions, the same way an athlete, a doctor, or a pilot practices via simulation-based learning.

If every Starbucks in America had a VR headset in the back room, VR would, in theory, be accessible at any given time to every employee that worked in every store. Starbucks could require that employees spend as little as ten minutes per day, or even per week, in VR, training and practicing on the things that matter for their job. Maybe they require an initial ramp of 100 minutes in VR during the first month on the job and then 20 minutes per month after that. Maybe it’s quarterly. Maybe it’s daily. It really doesn’t matter, so long as there’s a consistent cadence that requires employees to truly train for high performance in their jobs.

In this way, Starbucks would achieve the paradigm shift I’m talking about. A completely new approach to talent development that affords its employees to truly practice for the things they are likely to encounter in the real world, things they otherwise can’t prepare for.

It’s Time to Turn “Training” Into Training

No doubt, Starbucks has a big task ahead of them on May 29, and certainly beyond. They’ve already said they are committed to better training beyond this single day, which is great to hear. But frankly, as we’ve discussed at length already, they’re already setup to fail, mainly because the entire system is designed to go against what they want to achieve. “Training” in Corporate America is not training in the way that can yield great performance results. What Starbucks will be doing on May 29, and what the vast majority of the Fortune 500 does on a daily basis, will achieve a suboptimal outcome because it’s not really training.

So let’s give Corporate America’s workforce a chance to truly train. Stop putting employees in front of a computer screen or a video, where they end up mindlessly clicking through the content because they can’t wait for it to be over. Give them the new, high-tech tools they’re already craving anyway, tools that will be more effective and more impactful to both the employee training experience and the bottom line of the business.

VR is poised to solve some of corporate learning’s biggest problems. The technology not only provides a much more effective way to train — that is, simulate, practice, repeat — but also allows a company to deliver perfectly consistent training, everywhere. When it’s time to actually go do their jobs for real, employees will be more confident and they’ll perform better, both immediately and sustainably into the future.

When properly integrated into the culture of an organization’s approach to talent development, the benefits of virtual training are truly endless. In just the last year, we’ve seen VR training be accredited to a 10% increase in customer service scores, training time cut in half, and quarterbacks achieve career best years. And all that during the part of the VR lifecycle when organizations are just figuring out how to use it. Imagine where we’ll be once the paradigm shift is in full force…corporations training their people by affording them the opportunity to learn by doing, practice, and repeat.

Confucius would be proud.

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