Case studies: the bridge between policy and reality

Learning in the workplace: some employees are eager to take in new information, others do so with a certain measure of reluctance (sometime a lot). Large companies often offer lifelong learning programs, sometimes with courses that employees are required to take, like a course or workshop on compliance, for example, or on the company’s code of conduct, safety, human factors, privacy and so on. It is a given that employees need to perform their work properly and safely. These programs often take the form of classroom training, e-learning and/or an exam. This way the managers know that everyone has received the information. The question is, however, how do you ensure that employees not only receive that information, but also remember it, understand it and apply it when necessary?

Enhancing the learning effect

You can enhance the learning effect by making people put in more effort. When people have to make a greater effort to retrieve information from their memory, the connections in the brain multiply and get stronger. As a result, they understand the material better and they can retrieve it faster. They do not achieve this by exclusively reading thick textbooks or participating in (often passive) classroom training.

Learning to do the right thing with case studies

To increase the learning motivation, you can use case studies in your course, that’s to say practical examples that bridge the gap between policy and practice. Case studies increase a persons’ ability to recognize and assess the rules and risks in everyday (but also less commonly occurring) events. No matter how well you know the rules in theory, when suddenly faced with a situation where you have to apply those rules in practice, well, that’s a completely different story. Do you recognize the situation? Do you know what the rules are? Do you know how you should conduct yourself in this situation? By making participants think about specific scenarios, you increase the chance that they will respond appropriately at the right time. You can, for example, use actual incidents from the past, such as an industrial accident, which the employees then analyze. Then ask them questions about the case study. This makes it realistic and really demonstrates the need to know how to do the right thing at the right time.

Imagine that you are setting up a compliance policy training program. Instead of line after line of text and an endless list of rules for employees to learn by heart, you present real-life situations, scenarios that reflect the actual work situation and that really could happen. A bit of tweaking and you have covered several issues with each case study, considering aspects like which actions should employees take in situation W? What is the risk in scenario X? Is there cause for concern in the event of Y? Or, if event Z arises, what actions need to be taken and in what order?

Knowledge, recognition, awareness, assessment and making choices – it all comes together. It takes more effort than just reading or listening, and it increases the chance that people will make the right decisions at the right time. It is also scalable, because you can present the same dilemmas to a large group of employees, as long as the situation is one that the group can recognize. In order to develop the most realistic case studies, it is important for an expert on the relevant topic to work together with L&D and possibly also with subject matter experts in the business.

Brain teasers to raise awareness further

You can work out the case studies in various ways. You can opt to present a relatively easy scenario, one in which it is quite clear what behavior is expected of people. With this approach, they will know which answer is desired. There’s nothing wrong with that. The objective is to get them thinking, make them aware of situations that can occur and of what would be expected of them under such circumstances. However, you can also make it more complex: you can present them with scenarios where the right action to take is not so obvious – real dilemmas where you have to choose between two equally undesirable choices. After all, things are not always so clear cut. These dilemma scenarios are real brain teasers: you have to think carefully about the situation and weigh various aspects against each other. This makes case studies very suitable for issues involving ethics and/or integrity.

Be open about gray areas

Be sure to give positive feedback right away so that the participants learn from the dilemmas they face. Why is one answer the better choice over the other? What is the basis for the desired behavior? Certainly in cases in which there are gray areas, it is important that you explain the situations well. Also, it’s very important to give employees the opportunity to discuss the case studies. How realistic are the dilemmas? What decisions are the best? What happens if I make the wrong choice? What do my coworkers think? It is essential that you create a safe environment where matters of this kind can be discussed openly, without fear of judgment. This is the best way for people to learn what to do and what not to do.

Understanding faster, working better

Does this mean that the use of case studies is the Holy Grail? There are, of course, plenty of other learning methods that promote knowledge retention, though not all equally scalable. What’s more, workplace factors also play a role when it comes to learning and correctly applying rules, factors like corporate culture, role models (certain coworkers or managers/directors, for example), compliance enforcement, and so on. But what is certain is that when people work their brains harder, they retain more information.

And that’s why it’s a good idea to work your learning material into case studies and set your employees to work on them: they will absorb information faster, retain it better, understand it better, and apply it correctly in the workplace when needed. The ultimate result is your employees working smarter, faster, better and safer!