Retail Podcast 402: Carol Leaman with Axonify Playing Games Leads to Better Employee Learning
Bob Phibbs interviewed Carol Leaman, CEO of Axonify. In this episode Bob and Carol talked about corporate learning through gamification.
Tell me something good about retail
Carol Leaman with Axonify Playing Games Leads to Better Employee Learning
Bob: All right, so Carol, I love Axonify. Today we have just announced that The Retail Doctor and Axonify are partnering together to make a difference in training. And I just wanted to go back and, tell me a little about how you got into retail because you have a lot of experience and then ultimately, how did Axonify come to be?
And you have like a minute and a half.
Carol: Okay. Well, actually, my very first job, like many people, was in retail and, so I got to experience firsthand a lot of the things that go on in a retail environment. Really, you know, have been deep into it since the founding of Axonify eight years ago.
And it started with our very first customer, who was a retailer. And we were able to dramatically change the way that they, trained, enabled, their associates that then supported the business.
Bob: Okay, that all sounds great. So tell me, I want to know, because you've, it kind of fell into it, right? It was this little app that wasn't even anything anyone thought of.
Right? And then you find out later, “Oh, we were on the cutting edge of neural learning.”
Carol: That’s right, it was very accidental. And, I'm not allowed to say publicly the name of that client, but a large retailer. And they were looking for a way to get a business result that came from the behavior of the employees. I was running another company, my last tech company, and was mentoring the founders of Axonify who had kind of accidentally conceived of this little app that an employee could get on, play a game, answer a few questions in topic areas that were relevant to the business. And it worked and it changed that business’ bottom line by tens of millions of dollars in 12 months. So that was the start. I ended up buying the company and took that initial use case without understanding or realizing that the way in which that training was occurring was actually grounded in cognitive science. So all that was accidental and very happy coincidence. And that's actually the reason why it worked so well to change behavior.
Bob: And ultimately that's what all training is. People think it's about a video or it's about something.
No, it's out to affect a behavior. Yeah. And when you understand that, that unless I master the behavior, you're not trained. Now you've also shared a story about a big client with a warehouse. I don't know if you're able to say them or not. So whoever they are, there was a large number, 100 million they were losing in some way. What was that?
Carol: So as is the case with many retailers, large organizations with warehouses, they are extremely dangerous environments to work in. And so a typical retailer will incur millions to tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars in OSHA reportable medical accidents every year that result from ladder safety incidents, back incidents, slips, trips and falls, forklift driving incidents, and they're very, very costly, they get a lot of negative publicity around them. And so, this particular retailer who has a strong culture of safety to begin with, was looking to augment their programs and really embed that in the mindset of everybody. So, they used us with a goal to reduce those incidents in year one by 5 percent, which was a very significant, huge amount of money, in the ER. So they did an initial test for six months, 5,000 people, eight locations, and the result wasn't 5 percent. It was 54 percent reduction of those OSHA reportable incidents. So obviously tenfold results.
Bob: Unbelievable. You should have written us a contract, but just give us a percentage of what we save you. Right?
Carol: You know what? We actually did go back and try to have that conversation, and the answer was no.
Bob: Nice try. You should have thought it before because no one would have thought of it though, right?
Carol: That's right.
Bob: So, the brilliance of that, and what I appreciate about the Axonify platform is you have retail. But you also do active shooter training or sexual harassment or oil and gas or all these different things that people, I think once you hear it and you say, “Oh, well, so you just have to train them,” but that's not really what you do because you're changing the behavior with something.
Carol: Yeah. That's it. We often call ourselves a behavior change company and behavior, people do what they know. That's the bottom line. They do what they know and when that knowledge becomes second nature to them, they do it without actually even thinking about it. And that is the key. That is mastery. So, the way in which you get people to remember things as quickly as humanly possible is actually grounded in how the brain works to remember. And so those are the cognitive principles we use to drive very rapid memory, then retention through the way the algorithm works. And the best part is we know exactly when somebody knows something forever.
Bob: Okay. So, this is, just stop right there. So how does it know that? So, I mean, it's not reading my pulse, right? It's not, what's it doing without giving away proprietary secrets?
Carol: Well, so, I'll just kind of tell you the basic thing. So, there was actually a neuroscience researcher over a hundred years ago who tested his own memory and retention over a period of years. And the way he did that was to memorize nonsensical letter and number combinations, and then attempt to recall them.
Bob: That sounds hard just to begin with.
Carol: Exactly. And so he did this over a period of years. And what he discovered was that the average human being when presented information three to five times in a 30 to 45 day period with appropriate spacing between each repetition, what you're trying to do is get to the point where the brain is just about to forget something and then re-present the information.
And then do it again. Right at the point at which the brain is about to forget, present it again. And if you can do that …
Bob: You just build the synapses bigger and bigger at the moment they’re fading.
Carol: So it's kind of like muscle training. So the analogy I often use is for those familiar with ski hills and snow. If you slide down a ski hill, the first time you make a little groove in the snow, but by the third or fourth time that you slide down that ski hill in the same spot, the groove is much deeper.
And that's exactly what happens in your brain, which is why we, often as adults, remember our childhood phone number, our home address as children. It's something called the spacing and the repetition, and actually the second cognitive concept is called retrieval practice. So, it isn't just presenting information, it is actually forcing the individual to retrieve it from their own memory.
Bob: And then making sure the fresh copy is right there to help it.
Carol: Right, exactly. And if you can get an individual to retrieve knowledge accurately three to five times in a 30 to 45-day period with the appropriate spacing, you actually don't need to ask that person a question again about it forever and well, not forever. Greater than 90 percent of the time, they will remember long term.
Bob: That’s mad skills, it’s crazy.
Carol: It is crazy. Yeah.
Bob: Like mad scientists, like we figured it out. Here's the key.
Carol: So we know based on how somebody performs on Axonify and the spacing between which, whether they get it right, wrong, how long it took, all of that. We use all of those data points, apply machine learning to it, AI, and we can extract what the right method and timing and question difficulty and all of those things are person by person.
Bob: Instead of, so today we'll introduce the concept of Monday and then Wednesday when everybody works, we repeat it again. It's like, but we may not, that might be the best part, cause they might still be holding it or they really might have needed to hear it again on Tuesday.
And us as humans are trying to figure it out. Right?
Carol: So, when it gets away from is this idea that: a) one and done works, cause it doesn't; b) that people learn at the same pace - they don't; c) that people will in fact change their behavior if you tell them once to do something - they rarely do. So, all of those things are fallacies, and it is just not the case that one size fits all.
Learning, done once, effectively changes enough behavior in the population to matter to your business. So ongoing reinforcement, critical. Keeping it short, the brain is only wired to remember four to five key pieces of information in one new session.
Bob: Which is why we remember the phone number, remember the street address, because I can remember as a little kid, I was in first grade and the teacher was like, “Bobby, what is your phone number?” I didn't know it. I remember the embarrassment moment at that time. And then I think she might've told me.
Bob: So when I came home I was like, “Oh, I need to learn this.”
Right? So then I looked at the phone number and I remember as a kid, just practicing it in my head. Because I didn't want to have that experience again.
Carol: Yeah, exactly.
Bob: Maybe she was more brilliant, but what a nasty thing to do to a little kid.
Carol: Well, and that, that's actually another technique called deep encoding where you try to elicit an emotional response from the individual, around the content, because that also, in your brain, attaches the piece of information to a feeling, to a smell, to a visual that allows you to retrieve it more quickly when you have to know again.
Bob: All right, so now you've got me going in another side, so, so should I be using Axonify with like a vanilla candle? If I'm teaching something, I mean something like eating an orange. Yeah. It would seem like that'd be something to pioneer because what you're saying is it's about creating a new sensory anchor in the brain. So, we’re right now using visual and auditory, but to your points, I think smell is like the number one sense, isn't it, or taste?
Carol: It totally is.
Bob: We should do this. We should look at this and say, take an orange or whatever when you're going to do it, and see if that, if that skews the algorithm. And that'd be a fascinating podcast, but, but from what you're saying, it should.
Carol: So it depends if the emotional response that's elicited or the smell or whatever makes sense in the context of it sometimes.
So, another kind of example for you, and I often do this with people to convey the concept. So, I will say to somebody, I'm going to ask you a question that is something you know the answer to. And you're going to need to think about this. So, think about this as I'm eliciting information from you that I want you to retain long term.
So today's Monday, tell me what you had for dinner last Monday night. Now, what's going on is, your brain, I've asked you a question, your brain is following breadcrumbs back to where you were, who you were with. It was a Monday night, so …
Bob: My brain is going back to what I had last night, and then it's like there's too many files to open.
Bob: I'm looking at her glazed, for those of you are listening on the podcast.
Carol: But I guarantee you with enough time, you will remember. So, let's just say that last Monday night you had spaghetti.
Bob: Which I think I actually did.
Carol: Okay, so there you go. Spaghetti Monday night. Now if I ask you tomorrow, what did you have for dinner that Monday night?
Tomorrow, it'll take you a second, but you'll likely remember it was spaghetti cause today we got that out of you. You finally remembered it was spaghetti. Then I'll wait four days and ask you again. “What did you have for dinner that Monday night?” It'll take you longer than tomorrow, but faster than today to remember it was spaghetti.
And then if I ask you 30 days from now, “What did you have for dinner that Monday night,” chances are if you got it right the last three times, you will remember it was spaghetti. If I never asked you that, and 35 days from now, “What did you have for dinner on January the whatever,” you would not know unless that date - and this is where deep encoding can help - if that date was an anniversary, a birthday, or there was some other things that you had attached to that dinner and the date you might be able to remember that.
Bob: Full moon was on the Hudson. I remember that. That was such a cool night. Right? So, there it is. You've painted, you've connected to memories, which is why the gamification for you is, see, I may be a little slow, listening podcast friends, but that's the journey I want you to be on, is to realize that it's not about the game. It's about what the game does to the brain.
Bob: It's not about the sticker and the leaderboard. I mean, that's fine. But you're approaching it the wrong way.
Carol: That's right. The gamification actually releases the brain from distraction.
So think about this. When you're gardening, when you're playing a sport, when you're engrossed in a TV program, or reading a book. Your brain is free of distraction. You're immersed in whatever the activity is that you're doing. And when people play games, the same thing happens so that when the learning explodes from the game, suddenly the brain gets hyper focused on that one key learning point and has a much greater opportunity, free of distraction, of digesting it and remembering it long term.
So, and in addition to just being fun and engaging -
Bob: There’s also a feeling of winning.
Bob: You guys are just amazingly brilliant.
Carol: Yes, so many benefits to training people this way. They enjoy it. You get them trained quickly. They remember what they need to, and they change their behavior for your business.
Bob: So, I would say, and then I would go to the next level and say, now it's up to you to make sure that they don't just understand that they've actually got to use it. Right. So there's, they've got to connect those dots. They're not just, Oh yeah, I watched that. It's like, I know the answer. That's not the point.
So is there anything that you would suggest how to take that on then? All those good feelings are there. So, I know my spaghetti was last Monday night. Okay. Right? So now you're trying to say, and now I want you to make spaghetti. Maybe that's where you're going.
Carol: Yeah. Right? Yes, exactly. So one of the things comes back to what we talked about earlier.
What we know is people do what they remember. So if you can make them remember …
Bob: I want to stop on that for one second. Remember that people do what they remember. That's a very different idea than people do what they're trained. Right. Not the point.
Bob: People do what they remember.
Carol: They do what they remember, and if they don't remember, we all, if we don't know something, what do we do? We Google it and, or we guess, or we don't do, we do one of those three things.
Bob: Yeah, default to whatever you've heard. So if I've ever worked in a retail store, I guess you say, can I help you find something? Because the brain says, I've heard this, this must be an answer. Then you go into the store, I'm remembering and, we’ve got to extinguish that. Cause that wasn't taught, the brain filled it in.
Carol: Exactly. That's right. People draw on whatever they have and what you want them to do is draw on accurate knowledge in the moment without actually thinking about it. And that's called non-declarative memory.
So it's, it's something like riding your bike, you get on a bike, and if you haven't been on a bike in 10 years, but you rode a bike as a child. You know how to ride a bike and you don't have to think, I've got to put my foot on this pedal. I've got to balance.
Bob: Do you remember the day, I'm just going to ask you, Carol. Do you remember the day that you could ride a bike on your own without training wheels? I do. Like a high point as a kid because it was freedom.
Carol: Exactly. Exactly.
Carol: that's right. That's exactly what you want as far as the knowledge that needs to be in the heads or at the fingertips of the individual in the moment.
The more that you can get them to just know the faster and more accurately they will do. And so one of the extensions of Axonify is something we call impact, where we now, where our customers allow us to do this. They speak, or sorry, they allow us to ingest into Axonify their business outcomes that they're looking to change behavior around.
So, for example, if OSHA reportables, they need to reduce. If they need more sales of a particular product that is on a promotion, if they need to improve their customer service scores, satisfaction scores, whatever is most important to your business, give us those actual results. And because of the millions of data points we're collecting about the interactions on a daily basis, we apply machine learning models to all of that data, and we can actually now extract.
Bob: Reverse engineer.
Carol: Right. We reverse engineer it and we can tell you exactly what content is working and what content is not working, and in fact get into predictive capability where we can say if you are experiencing high sales of a particular product 90 percent of that result is because 90 percent of your people know every feature about that product.
And the corollary is true.
Bob: Where it's not really the product necessarily. People don't feel comfortable. They're like, what did you say earlier? You said people do what they know.
Carol: Exactly. That's right. We've had retailers do a/b tests with their staff where they took half of them and trained them using Axonify on all kinds of new products that were being launched and they wanted sold and suggested to customers in the store. And then others were just subjected to the same old training. And then they looked at the sales results of those specific products over a 90 day period of time.
The associates using the spaced repetition, retrieval practice, kind of short format were selling within 90 days, 22 percent more of the products that were focused on in the training versus those that were not. And through that repetition, when a customer walked in the store, they immediately knew how to lead the customer through that buying path very quickly.
And we had enough data to be statistically sound in terms of making those correlations.
Bob: I love that. So how do they find out more about Axonify and all the wonderful work we're doing together?
Carol: Well, we are easy to find on the web, www.axonify.com or on Twitter or through all the social channels.
I'm cleaman@axonify if anybody wants to email me. Carol Leaman is my name and happy to answer questions.
Bob: Great. Well, you've been a great guest. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Carol: Thank you Bob.