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The “Goldilocks” Training Dilemma: Does It Fit?

Like many smart leaders in the 21st century, you have decided to deliver Building a Respectful Workplace training to your employees. There are so many decisions to be made when you are developing a training program, beyond the important issue of content, that you can often feel like Goldilocks with her dilemma: too big, too small. This article will help you get it just right. Among the many factors to consider when planning training are: 

  • who should participate;
  • when the program should be delivered;
  • the length of the presentation; and
  • the very important selection of the presenter for the program.

Many of those factors are addressed in the EPS’ podcast entitled Everything You Need to Consider in Planning Your Next Training Initiative from May 2015. One important point not discussed in that podcast is the size of training sessions, and this article will address that point. 

I have delivered 6-hour training programs one-on-one in a small conference room, and a 90-minute program to 350 people in the ballroom of a hotel in Las Vegas, neither of which offered an optimal learning experience for the participants. In both cases, the participants missed out on the learning that comes from classroom interaction and group discussion. What is the optimal number of participants? From my experience, having delivered hundreds of programs of varying lengths to small and large groups, the “sweet spot” for training is about 25 people. But that is not the end of the discussion because, for a variety of reasons, one size does not fit all.

When determining class size, you first need to determine the following: 

  • Your target audience, i.e., who will be participating in the training program;
  • Space considerations – what kinds of spaces are available;
  • Cost considerations – how large is the investment that you are making in your initiative;
  • Material to be covered – what are the objectives and the take-aways most critical to your trainees and the organization; and
  • Any mandated requirements, e.g., are you conducting the training in California, where some mandated training must be “interactive”, or is the training mandated by the EEOC or other government agency in a conciliation agreement that prescribes group size. 

While the optimal size may be 25 participants, there are occasions when training is most effective when delivered to smaller or somewhat larger groups. Small groups and one-on-one training can be appropriate when you have a single individual or individuals who are in need of direct, remedial instruction on a workplace topic, e.g., disability discrimination or sexual harassment. Small group presentations are also appropriate when the target audience is small, e.g., you would like your Human Resources staff to develop their investigation skills, and there are only four people in the department. In these situations, small group presentations are unavoidable but, more importantly, very effective and the smaller the group, the more conducive it will be to deep discussion, interaction and ultimately, retention.

You may decide to present to a large group of participants, still no more than 30, when the material is a refresher presentation for subject matter experts. A large group presentation gives an organization the opportunity to “check the box” (which is never the best way to invest your training dollars), but you would want to schedule more time for a large audience to allow for interaction by participants, both with the facilitator and each other. A large group presentation offers its own unique challenges – not all presenters are adept at facilitating a large group discussion. You must be thoughtful about your presenter selection – make sure you identify someone with successful experiences presenting to larger groups. Beyond a group of 30 participants, regardless of the skills of the presenter, interaction becomes more unlikely and retention drops. 

This brings me back to 25, the optimal class size. This is the ideal Goldilocks solution: not too big, not too small, but just right. Why? My experience indicates that an audience of that size provides the optimal environment for interaction and diverse opinions. It is comfortable for people who might not be comfortable speaking in a large group, but a size that works well for those who do like to join the discussion but that can be managed effectively by the presenter. It is the comfort zone for a facilitator, as well. A skilled facilitator can easily navigate between competing views and comments, interject thought provoking real-life and hypothetical scenarios, yet keep the discussion on point. In the final analysis, class size will be a very individualized decision. Taking all the factors into consideration, including the advice of legal counsel and your training partner, what size works best for your organization? That analysis will solve your Goldilocks dilemma.

Listen to the podcast, "Getting Your Training Class Size Just Right", an interview with author, Kyle Maldiner and host Lisa Dishman, another episode in the EPS' Real Solutions™ podcast series for human resource  professionals.