Computer-Based Training modules (a.k.a., CBTs) are often boring. No matter how many animations or surprise games the designer adds, they’re still self-directed slide shows bereft of any direct human interaction. With instructor-led training, you can at least ask the instructor a question. Maybe spark a side conversation that holds your interest. You just can’t do that with a CBT. Training delivered piecemeal by a remote server is limited to “read the text on the screen,” “listen to the voiceover narration,” and “click next when the correct button finally accepts input.” Booooooring! The only way to make a CBT interesting is to incorporate interesting content; present ideas such that people are amused, excited, startled, or challenged. Grab their attention.
I craft CBTs for a living and hate this part of my job. I love training people; I hate boring them. If I’m required to interrupt someone’s day with something they’re not inclined to do out of personal interest, then I’m compelled to be swift, be clear, and to always try to be entertaining. I don’t try to deliver my content in a complex TikTok dance routine, but I strike to make my stuff at least be interesting enough to hold a student’s attention and maybe make the experience memorable.
I’ve seen a few third-party training providers take this approach. A new trend in outsourced security training content is use short, funny video vignettes rather than traditional slides. I’m quite fond of this approach and I’d like to see more of it. Unfortunately, too many training providers start out interesting and then – as their brand gets popular – shift to grinding out long, dry, impersonal, and generic slide decks that drone on like a novice vacuum salesman’s scripted pitch. They write to accommodate a lowest common denominator level so as to guarantee maximum message acceptance, not effective message delivery. I understand this approach; I just hate it. Generic, mass-market, flavourless content is exhausting to sit through. Hard to remember, too.
Kind of like mass-market coffee, if a way. That comparison came to mind because my wife texted while I was trying to come up with a topic for this week’s column. She pinged me to say she was stopping at Starbuck’s on her way home and asked if I’d like anything while she was there. Very sweet of her. I declined on account of the chain’s persistent cat urine problem and then it hit me: there’s my training hook.
Hmm. That’s an awkward transition. Let me explain it another way:
I was first introduced to Starbucks while building a Dot Com down in Houston back in 2000. During our first few months on the project, the whole IT group made a habit of walking across the street to a shopping mall and visiting its crown jewel – a Starbucks Coffee location – every morning and every afternoon. I learned to savour “team coffee break” time. It got me out of the office for 15 minutes, got me some exercise and fresh air, and got me a much better cup of coffee than I could make in my hotel room or the client site’s canteen.
Over time I became a Starbucks regular. Got the loyalty card, tried all the drinks, even treated the stores like pubs: I had my favourites where I’d meet people for drinks and conversation. I also had my favourite roasts: Big Hat, Yukon, Komodo, Italian … there was a time where I’d visit my local up to three days a week as a matter of habit on the way into work. I was a “regular.”
Then, in 2008, Starbucks introduced their new “Pike Place Roast,” a blend that was meant to invoke nostalgia for the brand’s early days whilst capitalizing on decades of research into what its consumers wanted. I tried it … and instantly despised it because it smelled and tasted like it had been brewed with cat urine instead of water.
I’m not trying to be mean to the brand or to the blend. I’m not saying that Starbucks uses actual urine in its brewing process. Rather, it’s a fluke of science. Per this 2014 article from home-barista.com: “There are at least two … compounds of sulphur with strong odours in coffee. One is 3-mercapto-3-methylbutyl formate. This is the formate ester of the primary odour compound in cat urine.  … Chemical analysis of roasted coffee beans indicates that it is present to perhaps 0.1 ppm. Another is 3-methybut-2-ene-1-thiol. There are only a few parts per billion (1e9) of this compound in coffee. I think that fortunate. I have used related compounds in the laboratory, they smelled strongly like a flock of skunks.”
It’s the 3-mercapto-3-methylbutyl formate that affects me … and, I learned, not just me. I had a long chat with a whip-smart Starbucks store manager one afternoon who not only validated my impression but also admitted that approximately 10% of all her customers reported experiencing the same thing: some of us can detect the esters in Pike Place Roast and that ruins the blend for us.
This wasn’t a major problem for me in the beginning since I still had my favourite drip blends and the espresso drinks were all made with Starbucks’ own “Espresso Roast” blend. A few years later, Starbucks shifted to using Pike Place for all the espresso drinks … exclusively. No, I did not want a cat pee Americano, thanks. Then, one by one, all of my favourite blends left the rota. Oh, you could still buy bags of beans … for some roasts … but you couldn’t get them brewed unless I waited 15 minutes for a manual drip pour … assuming the staff had time to accommodate me. Then the good roasts were withdrawn from service. First Big Hat disappeared, then Yukon, and so on until there was nothing left but litter box lattes. I left.
Nowadays, I might have Starbucks maybe four times a year. I think I still have thirty quid idling on a gift card left over from years back and I have no real interest is using it. Why bother? The effort just isn’t worth it for to go get something that’s at best unenjoyable and at worst downright foul, even if it is free. I don’t subscribe to the notion that “free makes everything taste better.”
So, what does this have to do with training? Other than the obvious fact that you often need a strong coffee to brace you for a few hours of clicking “next slide” until the droning stops? I ended paragraph three by asserting that generic, mass-market, flavourless content is exhausting. I meant that for coffee every bit as much as I meant it for training. Starbucks lost me as a repeat customer not out of any bad customer service experience, but because they chose to change their offerings to eliminate the content options that I enjoyed. Once I couldn’t get my preferred roasts, I had no reason to patronize their establishments. The locations were still quite nice, and the staff were often superb; there just wasn’t anything there that I wanted to consume … especially if I had to pay for the experience. I don’t like cat pee in any capacity. The new menu just isn’t for me.
I view a lot of training providers exactly the same way: Starbucks meticulously optimized their menu to appeal to the 90% or so of its ester-resistant customers specifically to grow their revenue by appealing to more people in more locations. Lots of hip, edgy, and unconventional training providers do this too as they try to grow. They optimize their training content to appeal to the larger companies that prefer more traditional, bland, humourless, and compliance-focused training because they want to grow their revenue. Sure, they’re going to lose some business in the process, but a small loss that’s offset by a large gain isn’t really a loss, is it? It’s sound strategy.
After all, a FORTUNE 500 mega-corp is a much better long-term customer than a flashy start-up. Why? Because one they start a mandatory programme it tends to run forever! That’s fantastic from a revenue projection perspective. Large, predictable profits with much less effort to maintain the relationship. That’s a lot less energy than getting a hip-and-trendy Dot Com to renew year-to-year as it burns through all its Series A funding and chews through support staff like a wood chipper. Again, I get it. Commercial training providers are businesses, and smart businesses go where the predictable profits are. It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.
I get it; I just don’t care for it. To be clear, that’s my personal opinion. It doesn’t mean I won’t use mass-market training content if that’s what a client or employer prefers for their local culture. Some office cultures aren’t compatible with hip, edgy, or unconventional approaches and that’s okay. Heck, that’s why neutral flavoured content is so popular: it’s less likely to offend. That’s useful, especially in a multinational organisation with dozens or hundreds of perspectives to consider.
The thing is, traditional dry, humourless, lowest-common-denominator CBTs still reek of old cat urine to me. I don’t think it’s from trace esters since I’ve never seen an olfactory settings option in PowerPoint; rather, I suspect it’s because an association I made while young at friends’ homes. The sort of places where no one cared enough to clean up after their pet. A place you’d associate with neglect; simply existing, not improving. Disinterested in being challenged, bereft of ambition. That impression of indifference puts me off.
I suspect that’s why I associate that impression of dull disinterest with the scent of dried cat urine. Bland and generic content makes me suspect the trainer developer or provider just doesn’t care … and that realisation jars me out of whatever narrative their content is trying to deliver. It doesn’t work on me. But, that fine; it works for a lot of other folks and it makes money.
If I had my way, I’d prefer that we offer both options in the enterprise: default to the dry, mass-market, safe option for safety’s sake. Then make a spicier, bolder option for people who want more joie de vivre in their content. Y’all can have you Pike Place. Enjoy it! I don’t begrudge you your choice or look down on you for it in any way. Just please don’t begrudge me my preference for something you find might not enjoy yourself.
Speaking of … at least consider trying the spicy stuff sometime. It’s okay if you don’t like. You might, though, find it more fulfilling.
 Emphasis added.
Pop Culture Allusion: DeWitt Bodeen and Alan Ormsby, Cat People (1982 film) (not to everyone’s taste and NSFW).