Is compliance learning even a thing?

By John Helmer August 17, 2015

Graphic showing clipboards in different shaped bordersWhy do we persist in talking about compliance learning as if it were one thing when actually it’s many different things? Achieving financial compliance for a bank doesn’t really have that much in common with ensuring HSE compliance on an offshore oil rig – and technical compliance for product development is something else again. So surely the training should be quite distinct too in each case? When you look close up, compliance is such a different beast from sector to sector that it surely begs the question: is compliance learning even a meaningful category?

It might seem strange to ask this. Looking at recent research, ATD (formerly ASTD) identifies ‘Mandatory and Compliance’ as the number one content area in its 2014 ‘State of the Industry’ report, and Brandon Hall Group’s research indicates that 49% of US organizations consider compliance training to be either a priority or critical to their business. Compliance training represents a significant slab of revenues for the global training industry and – although reliable industry figures are thin on the ground here – an even larger proportion of elearning revenues, by all accounts.

However, although compliance learning is clearly a well established category so far as the vendor market is concerned, do customers view it that way? I suspect not.

How much does compliance matter?

Compliance means different things in different industries and sectors, and has widely varying levels of criticality. Without wishing to appear unduly cynical, almost any seasoned L&D professional will have had contact with compliance initiatives that, in their heart of hearts, they know are little more than box-ticking exercises – knee-jerk reactions to a high-profile failure. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, getting compliance right can be a matter of life or death, and pose macro-scale existential threats to brands, organisations and whole economies.

In the Oil & Gas industry, staff often work in extremely dangerous environments, and failure to comply with safety standards can cause injury and loss of life. Technical and procedural failures can also lead to large scale environmental disasters as in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. So seriously is compliance taken in this sector that industry bodies often define training standards, and collaborate closely with the training supplier market to standardize training across a highly globalized workforce. Compliance matters.

In the financial services industry, compliance failures might be less immediately life-threatening, but can also have macro-scale catastrophic effects. The Enron debacle, leading to the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation of 2002, caused a wave of new compliance requirements that cost business trillions of dollars to comply with – an earthquake that also moved fault-lines in the closely related IT industry. But this proved a minor disturbance next to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8, which sparked a further round of compliance requirements. Since then we’ve seen money-laundering and misselling scandals that have wiped billions off the balance sheets of financial organisations. Financial organisations are now such large and powerful multinational concerns, that their fate is closely allied to that of nations. When banks fail, economies fail; ordinary people lose their jobs and livelihoods. Compliance matters.

In both these sectors it is quite common to find Heads of Compliance at board level, with their own dedicated training budgets, where in other sectors compliance forms just part of the remit of L&D.

It might sound flippant or heartless to draw the conclusion that compliance matters less in other areas, such as diversity or accessibility training, but the reality is that some compliance failures have larger scale consequences than others, and that the bad effects that flow from failures to comply are more amenable to future prevention in some circumstances than in others.

Safety on North Sea oil rigs, for instance, has shown dramatic improvements since the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, directly as the result of better training standards. Bullying in the workplace, by contrast, appears to be extremely resistant to attempts to curb it through training.

Is compliance learning really learning?

This brings us to another weakness of the term compliance learning (or compliance training), which is the extent to which what we’re talking about here really is learning – or even training – at all.

Many so-called learning programmes within this category are in reality communications programmes, since their instructional content is minimal or non-existent. This has to do with the particular nature of compliance.

The diagram below might help in explaining why this should be.

Diagram showing compliance drivers and how they impact organisations

Starting from the bottom, the external factors that tend to trigger a compliance need are, in declining order of severity, government legislation, regulation, standards and – least onerous of all – best practice. Any one of these might have a completely generic effect – e.g. changes in the budget that every accounts department has to comply with – or an effect on the whole of a particular business sector. When it comes to individual organisations however, each will be impacted slightly differently according to their own internal circumstances. This organization-specific type of impact can be broken down in terms of policy, processes and culture.

Where a new compliance requirement triggers a change in organisational policy, it is very often the case that all the organisation needs to do to achieve compliance is to inform its staff that policy has changed – no instructional input required. This is simply a matter of communication. Similarly with processes: a new compliance requirement might call for internal procedures to be changed. And it might simply be enough to let people know about the change required for it to happen. Again, no instruction required, just good communication.

Of course, organisations need not only to tell their staff about compliance, they also need to know that their staff have read and understood the message, and they quite often have to demonstrate to outside bodies that relevant staff have read and understood the message as well. However, even if you do the communications piece and then test comprehension afterwards with a multiple choice quiz, you can’t really call that training (much less learning).

Some process changes, however require new skills, or are complex enough that we really are talking about training. Where a change of attitudes and behaviours needs to take place, where new skills have to be mastered and practiced, where complicated new procedures need to be mastered – there instructional depth is needed. However, as we can see from the above, quite large amounts of compliance learning simply don’t require any learning to be done.

The last category of organisational effects in this diagram is culture. Culture can be really difficult to change, as it can involve a large number of individuals having to change their attitudes and behaviours. Here instructional depth is almost certainly required.

Programme learning for compliance

Is this splitting hairs? Arguing over semantics? We don’t think so. Because organisations today face an ever-increasing compliance need, a need so large that it is widely recognized it can only be met if the aid of technology is enlisted to help. And if we are to use technology most effectively to help us meet this need, we need to be clear about exactly what it is we are asking it to do.

Attempts to harness technology in helping to meet compliance need have not, let’s face it, been hugely successful. The failures of the first wave of e-learning in compliance – the tales of page-turning, unengaging, ineffective online modules – have damaged the image of e-learning badly in some quarters. This has a resulted, we believe, in a situation where technology is very often deployed only in the situations where compliance learning is not critical – ie for box-tick programmes – and it is assumed that critical needs – training that has to work – will always require face-to-face interventions.

This is not making the best use of technology, and substantial productivity gains are possible from switching to a more enlightened game-plan.

We believe the answer to this problem is to be found in adopting a campaign learning approach for compliance, and we will shortly be issuing a white paper on the subject.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *