Many coffee lovers will remember May 29 as the day that Starbucks shook the ground they were standing.

This was the day when Starbucks closed 1000 stores in Canada–8000 across North America–for in-store, anti-bias training to its almost 175,000 employees.

The four-hour shutdown cost Starbucks millions in lost revenue but, after an incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the store had to reinforce its promise “to make the world a little better.”
The brewing PR crisis was caused in April following the arrest of two black men who were refused washroom access at a Starbucks.

A serious issue for the coffee giant, Starbucks responded by shutting its doors for an afternoon of inclusivity training. But why did Starbucks choose to close so many locations for training instead of hosting offsite or after-hours training programs?

Maybe Starbucks closed its stores to make a statement, or maybe it was a strategy to boost its return on investment (ROI).

On the surface, Starbucks gets a better ROI by making a statement and reaffirming its positive brand image. But, when the Philadelphia incident burned its inviting reputation, and customers threatened to boycott Starbucks, the store took action, again positioning itself as the leading hot spot for coffee lovers.

Again, why was on-site training the only option?


Simply put, employees retain more when trained in a similar context to their work environment. This means that Starbucks employees were more likely to recall the on-site training, and mirror that training while on the job.

Why? Contextual stimuli, like the visual and informational cues inside a Starbucks restaurant, considerably impacts learning outcomes. This is called “context-dependent memory” and it allows us to remember information better when it’s learned in the same environment.

The power of context isn’t a new concept.

Research published by Godden & Baddeley, 1975, shows that the power of context improves retention, and for business, ROI. The study asked participants–members of a university diving club–to remember lists of words on land, and underwater. The fascinating results show that divers were able to recall words better in the environment they were initially learned: underwater lists were better recalled underwater and lists of words learned on land were better remembered on land.

This is a great example of how the power of context significantly improves retention and ROI.
For Starbucks, this means that employees will better recall the inclusivity training when they are on the job. Particularly important is the improved recall when employees are able to immediately apply training on the job. This is a serious improvement for return on investment.

Contextual-dependent memory involves more than just the “place” where content is learned.

There are three conditions that maximize the effects of contextual learning for employees:
– Environment (Godden & Baddeley, 1975)
– Mood or feelings at the time (Lewis & Critchley, 2003)
– What the individual was doing (Dijkstra, Kaschak, & Zwaan, 2007)

This is why role playing can be very powerful. You can increase retention by emulating the emotions and actions of a real experience in a familiar location, such as managing a customer dispute.

So, what is the key takeaway?

Hold your training onsite when possible and recreate the experience that employees will encounter on the job. Do this and you’ll see an increase in the training recall of your employees, who will also be more equipped to apply it to daily tasks.

Not able to stage your training on-site? To get the most out of training, recreate the work environment, or tap into the imagination of your employees by creating a mental picture of the situation. In fact, recent research indicates that mental imagery, of being on-site during learning, can benefit on-site recall (Masicampo & Sahakyan, 2014).

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