Back in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas paused one day during his theological studies to remark, “Whatever is received is received according to the nature of the recipient.” While the philosopher-priest did not intend to frame his observation in terms of human resources policy or job training, his comment is nonetheless contemporary when considering the problems in bringing new employees up to speed on corporate policy.
Fast-forward eight centuries and the Aquinian consideration of the “nature of the recipient” is the central focus of a Stamford company that has created a high-tech solution for helping workers retain information.
According to Aquinas Training founder and CEO Hugh Seaton, too many companies overload new employees with a massive presentation that cannot be absorbed in a single sitting and that almost never comes with a follow-through.
“After a training workshop or a webinar, 75 percent of all trainees forget most of what they learned,” he said. “Even if it was engaging, you might remember the engaging part but you forget the point. When you took those training classes, they probably gave you a folder that is still sitting right where you put it after the class.”
Seaton said that has created problems with some corporations that stage lavish showcases designed to introduce new products or strategies to employees. “People will have this big event and the CEO would come up and speak, and the next day nobody would do anything,” he said. “IBM used to call that ‘launch and leave’ and Nestle Waters used to call it ‘boom splat,’ because you’d have a big thing and then nothing. And I thought there had to be a technological way to fix this.”
Seaton is no stranger to persuasive messaging. “I’ve been in advertising for 18 years before doing this,” he said, pointing to career highlights that include running the Pepsi account in China for BBDO, serving as director of marketing communications at AOL and as manager of marketing communications at Sony Electronics. For Seaton, the challenge of internal messaging to employees appeared to defy traditional communications approaches — and few people, it seemed, had an easy answer.
“I spent 18 months talking with everyone from Thompson Reuters to Nestle to IBM,” he said. “There is a national organization called the Association of Talent Development that has a chapter that meets in Norwalk, so I got to meet a lot people there, too.”
In his conversations with corporate officers and tech gurus, Seaton recognized that the problem in worker training was not necessarily the content of the message but the manner in which it was relayed. The training class folder was woefully outdated but the diversity of digital delivery systems also created confusion.
“We decided that mobile notifications, and not text or email, was the way to go,” Seaton explained. “Not text, because people get annoyed when a company keeps pinging them with a text — that’s for my daughter and the weather report. Email gets lost because everyone’s had spam problems for 20 years. Mobile notifications are nice because if you miss them, you can go back to a notification center. But they are light enough because if I send you two, you’ll not get annoyed.”
Under Aquinas Training’s system, employees receive one or two mobile push notifications daily that highlight specific issues or duties. They include a headline that can be clicked to open content relating to the subject in the spotlight. Seaton acknowledged that different people soak up information at different volumes and those who are not in need of the reminders are not required to pursue their content.
“Just like a banner, maybe one-third of people will click on it,” he said. “The goal is to hit you with reminders that make things salient. This is straight out of advertising, the concept of keeping the ideas top of mind.”
Seaton does not envision the Aquinas Training product line will stay limited to mobile notifications. He is testing a software model that expands employee training through virtual reality and augmented reality, but he has no timeline on when those systems will be ready for introduction.
Although founded two years ago, Aquinas Training is still something of a work in progress. Seaton’s headquarters are his Stamford home and his six-person staff works remotely. “The team has all been given equity to work, so none of us are drawing salaries yet,” he said. “We’ve pulled in about $100,000 in angel funds and from friends and family.”
The company has also pulled in PayPal as its first major client, which is using Aquinas Training software for its global operations. Seaton said he has more A-list corporate clients that he will be able to announce in the near future.
For his company’s services, “The cost is $15,000 a year license plus usage fees that go up and down, depending on how many people you have,” he said. “Per user, it could be as little as $7 per user per month.”
There is one kink that Seaton is still trying to iron out: the assumption that the messaging problem is with the recipient and not the corporate chieftain sending out the information. “The quality of what’s being presented is a variable that we will do everything we can to control,” he said. “But sometimes it is just not going to work. For whatever the reasons, we are going to fail sometimes.”
As for the company’s saintly name, Seaton was not seeking extra help from above. “I wanted to use a real name and we came up with 300 of them,” he said. “This one really works — there’s a logic and philosophy to it. It implies knowledge and thought.”