What Does Interval Reinforcement have to do with a Cruise Ship Disaster?

By now, many of you are aware of the Italian cruise ship disaster on the Costa Concordia a few months ago. Upon investigation it became apparent the ship’s crew didn’t follow standard operating procedures – with catastrophic consequences. Their lack of operationalizing knowledge on the job, at a critical moment in time, highlightsone of the biggest challenges facing corporate enterprise today: you can train people when they’re hired, but people quickly forget what they’ve learned. In fact, research indicates that most employees forget 90% what they’ve been taught during event based training sessions and even less is applied in the workplace. This is of particular concern when safety is the topic being covered, but not being retained and applied.

Businesses spend $170 billion a year on costs associated with occupational illnesses and injuries according to the American Industrial Hygiene Assoc. (AIHA) OSHA. Many of these injuries are caused by human error and most are preventable. It’s almost guaranteed that employees have been trained on the safety topic, however they don’t remember what they’ve learned or just aren’t properly applying the knowledge in their day to day activities.

A ton of research and work has been done around the issue of knowledge retention, and there are several key pieces of research that prove that interval reinforcement (also called spaced repetition) can significantly increase memory, and the practical application of knowledge. It can take retention from 10% to upwards of 90%.

Interval reinforcement is a technique where learning is presented on a continuous basis to the trainee in short bursts. It can be in the form of questions or bite-sized training modules and used to reinforce event-based (one-time) learning or introduce new concepts and ideas.

While it’s an extreme example, interval reinforcement could have helped in the very public, very tragic Costa Concordia disaster. Along with the many, many errors made by the captain, including deviating from the route and delaying preparations to abandon ship, it has come to light that many of the over 1,000 crew members were ill prepared to handle such a large evacuation. There was a clear lack of core safety knowledge, confidence and understanding of roles that directly led to the chaos that ensued.

Even though the majority of the ship’s multinational personnel held positions that did not require seaman’s qualifications (i.e. waiting tables, entertainment, cleaning) they received mandatory training in basic safety to handle situations just like this. How was it then, that many of the crew members appeared to know less about evacuation procedures than the passengers? The problem wasn’t lack of regulation or the fact that mandatory training wasn’t received. The issue was that the majority of crew members appeared not to have carried them out – most likely a result of whatever training they received not sticking and not being internalized.

What if there was a way that the knowledge required of crew members was continuously measured and reinforced by a web-based tool? What if questions and training were received in the language in which they spoke? Would it have helped if evacuation procedures that were not understood were presented over and over again until they were internalized? What if the ongoing training was personalized to the crew member’s exact role, learning style and ability to absorb content? What if it was delivered on their mobile device, computer or kiosk, took less than 30 seconds a day and moved them through more and more difficult questions?

I believe that it would have radically changed how the crew handled this crisis and the final outcome.

What if Costa management knew where the knowledge gaps in their organization were and could easily close those gaps person by person? What if they knew that the crew on this particular ship had a subpar understanding of the fundamentals of evacuation and life boat operation?

I believe that preventable measures could have been put into place.

In the end, most maritime disasters aren’t the result of a single mistake or stroke of bad luck, but a pile of errors that add up to a tragedy. In this case, the crew’s lack of understanding and ability to properly put their training into action was a considerable contributor.

Download our whitepaper that discusses the concept and application of Interval Reinforcement in more detail, and how it can help organizations in a variety of industries to:

  • Ensure that all employees have the right knowledge to do their jobs safely
  • Adopt a workplace “safety culture”
  • Measure knowledge and close gaps around safety practices

We're lucky to have so many bright minds authoring content that disrupts traditional thinking, challenges the status quo and provides a fresh perspective on how to drive company performance through learning. Don't forget to subscribe to our blog to get new insights delivered right to your inbox every week.

Looking for more information? We’d love to talk.