In today’s knowledge economy, companies invest rising amounts in corporate training to give their workforces a competitive edge. Much of the investment flows into expensive in-person events to build domain-specific skills. Why not improve the cognitive skill that underlies all domain-specific performance, aka intelligence, in a virtual intervention, namely dual n-back training, that costs almost nothing?
Traditional Corporate Training and Its Limitations
Nowadays, much of the economic output throughout the world is produced by knowledge workers. As markets get increasingly global and competitive, companies win and die by the quality of their insights and ideas, their ability to out-innovate their competitors, and their creative problem-solving skills. It is thus not surprising that companies are increasingly ready to make hefty investments in corporate training. In the United States alone, these investments add up to close to $100 billion per year!
Traditionally, corporate training has been targeted at building domain-specific skills, and the interventions tend to consist of in-person training events that are often surprisingly expensive. Indeed, for U.S. companies, expenditures on mere ancillary items like travel, facilities, and equipment add up to an astonishing $30 billion per year.
At the same time, it’s not obvious that these interventions are actually having much of an impact. An inspirational lecture on customer service might, at best, leave the audience revved up with excitement, but that effect may not be long-lasting, and, a few months hence, most training participants may no longer be able to recall much of what had been said.
Dual N-Back to the Rescue
There is an exciting opportunity for companies to get vastly more bang for their buck. Instead of narrowly training your workforce to improve their skills one domain at a time, why not train their overall problem-solving capacity, thus affecting their performance across all kinds of conceivable tasks at once?
A tough, but simple, working memory exercise called “dual n-back,” has been shown, in more than a decade’s worth of peer-reviewed scientific research, to have a statistically significant effect on intelligence. The total amount of time it takes to complete a typical dual n-back program is less than 7 hours — less than the length of a typical workday! There is no need to coordinate schedules, book facilities and accommodations, or fly in participants and speakers — all you need to do is get each of your employees to download a dual n-back app and then nudge them to complete all required sessions.
If you are interested in taking a closer look, check out the N-Back Challenge, available both on iOS and on Android. Our founders, both of them PhDs, worked hard to ensure that its design remains as true as practical to the format of the training used in the scientific studies. This maximizes the likelihood that learners will, in fact, experience the cognitive benefits demonstrated in the research. In addition, we framed the app around a “20-Day Challenge,” which is designed to foster a meaningful commitment by learners to actually complete the entire program.
Ways to Promote Program Completion
Lack of persistence, indeed, is the main obstacle to deriving benefits from dual n-back: Since the working memory exercise itself is cognitively very exhausting, it demands a substantial amount of self-discipline to complete the program, and a number of learners abandon it prematurely. If you plan to introduce dual n-back training to your company, there are a few things you can do to try and raise the completion rates. Note that the below is by no means a comprehensive list — if you brainstorm with your team, you will surely come up with even better ideas!
Incentivize program completion. Consider inventing some sort of incentive for your employees to complete all 20 sessions. For example, you could promise to add the names of all learners who successfully complete the Challenge to a pool, from which, at the end, you draw a lucky winner who earns a meaningful prize. Since you will need to buy only a single prize to motivate an entire class of participants, and since you’ll be saving on typical corporate training expenses such as travel, facilities, and equipment, you can afford to be generous and offer a prize that is truly exciting — which should, in turn, spark substantial buzz among your employees.
Publicly track progress. As an experienced manager, you’ll appreciate how much easier it is to get things done if you create transparency around everyone’s progress. The same is true for a dual n-back training program. Consider creating a weekly leaderboard which tracks the number of sessions completed by each training participant. This will create a healthy pressure on laggards to catch up with their peers.
Stoke friendly competition. Finally, consider stoking the competitive flames by pitting one team or department against another. For example, the competition could be about which team, in full, completes the Challenge fastest (i.e., with the fewest delays in daily sessions). Or it could be about the total number of sessions completed within 30 calendar days. Or about the highest Challenge completion rate, within each team, by a certain deadline. Ideally, you’ll find a creative way of tying a fun reward to winning the competition. For example, in the early days of Google, the product management group competed against the corporate marketing group on a different corporate initiative, namely the adherence to a new project management tool that required the filing of so-called “snippets.” The teams agreed that the group ending the quarter with lower compliance would have to wash the other group manager’s car, while the winning team assaulted the loser with water balloons. The result? A dramatic increase in adherence, with the winning team achieving an unprecedented 100% filing rate!
In short, there are numerous ways in which you can nudge your employees to actually complete the entire 20-day program — and thus earn a return on educational investment for your workforce that might well be one or more orders of magnitude above those from the more traditional corporate training programs run by your competitors.