How insight-driven learning drives better business results 

By John Helmer March 30, 2016

Light bulb and dollar coin characters holding hands.An organisation wanted to improve the presentation skills of its executives. Trouble was, the executives in question didn’t see that there was anything to improve.

Middle-aged, empowered males for the most part, they reacted incredibly negatively to any suggestion that they might need training in this area – or in any other area, for that matter. Offers of training fell on deaf ears, or worse, were interpreted as a primal challenge to their personal authority. Meanwhile, poor communication and miscommunication from these executives were holding the organisation back.

So how do you train people who have such a strong psychological investment in their own unimprovability?

The answer, in this case, was a learning campaign that avoided anything the executives might recognise as ‘learning’. Rather than producing another course, the team created a glossy magazine-style publication to get the content across, positioning it as exclusive, inside information just for this cadre – but definitely non-mandatory and to be accessed at will.

Reception has been enthusiastic and the company now has the tools to tackle this important skills gap effectively.

Insight-driven learning

The example we have just given shows insight-driven learning in action.

Insight-driven learning is an approach that sees the learner as the most important individual in the creation of learning, and tapping into deep insights from the learner community as the key to achieving the sort of business benefits organisations look to get from learning programmes – such as improved productivity, costs savings, and so on.

So how does this approach differ from what went before?

“Historically,” says Carole Bower, Head of Learning Solutions at Lumesse Learning, “our industry has been focused on business need: what problem are we trying to solve, and what is it that we need people to do differently in order to reach that end goal?”. However, although the learner would usually come into consideration at some point during the design process, there was rarely a strong focus on deep insights into what might make a particular group of learners tick, and what therefore might make the learning work for them.

Fulfilling the business goal should certainly be the prime driver for any piece of learning design, but in Carole’s view, failing to reach out to learners as part of the process is “missing a trick”.

At the beginning of a programme you can very easily make wrong assumptions by not engaging with learners: “You’re probably tapping into different groups of advisers – L&D people, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), people within the business line – to work out what learners need to do in order to meet business goals. But if you don’t join the dots with the learner, to put it bluntly, it probably won’t work”.

It’s also important to recognise that, as in our example, learner insights should be used not only to define what your learning actions and outcomes are, but also how you can best reach and engage that audience. Insights gained through working with groups of learners might tell you, for instance, that a course won’t work – you need to create a video, or an interactive pdf (L-Book) instead. Or that digital technology won’t work on its own and you need some human intervention. Or that there are diversity considerations that simply haven’t been raised.

How learners are changing

The drive to make learning more insight-driven is all the more timely given the way in which employee behaviours are changing around learning. We are seeing the rise of the self-directed learner. According to Towards Maturity’s most recent Benchmark Report:

  • 88% like to be able to learn at their own pace
  • 87% know what learning they need to do their job
  • 76% want to be able to do their job better/faster
  • 42% learn at weekends or evenings

The modern workplace is an information-rich environment where staff are bombarded with demands on their time and attention. L&D must compete with all these other sources to get its message home. Today’s learning professional is engaged in a war of attention and has to think more like a marketer trying to snag the attention and interest of consumers.

How does it work?

A good way to understand how insight-driven learning changes the process of programme design is to dwell a bit further on this marketing analogy by considering how advertising campaigns get made. In the initial stages, ad agencies draw heavily on sources of research – both qualitative and quantitative – using surveys and focus groups to get right to the heart of how their target consumers think and feel. They look at motivations and emotional triggers, which they use to generate creative messages they know will engage their intended audience and have the right kind of impact on attitudes and behaviours to make people buy.

Substitute the word ‘learn’ for ‘buy’, and you start to get a good idea of how insight-driven learning works.

This is not to say that rapid development is out of the window, or that learning programme design has to involve a lengthy research phase. Our own customers often find they have more insights than perhaps they realise, which we can draw out within a normal design process. Often it’s simply a matter of asking the right questions. And gathering insights is an ongoing, constant – sometimes iterative – process. The more we work with a particular client, the more programmes we have launched and learned from together, the greater becomes our mutual understanding of their different learner groups.

Graphic of a diagrammatic brain to illustrate insight-driven learning

What is an insight?

Many have called over the years for L&D to become more evidence-based in its judgements – less reliant on outdated instructional theories and more resistant to ‘snake-oil’ salesmen parroting the latest pseudo-academic models and buzzphrases.

To be insight-driven is to be perhaps something more than purely evidence-based, since insights go somewhat beyond data. However, meaningful insights are always firmly rooted in empirical observation. An insight involves data-gathering, analysis and judgement – filtered according to an expertise born of long experience – and perhaps there is also a flash of intuition in there as well.

But what are the types of insights that feed into designing effective learning programmes?

Four types of insights that drive learning campaigns

Steve George, Learning Solutions Consultant at Lumesse Learning, has highlighted four of the primary categories of insights (below) that feed into successful learning programme design. These insights from different sources will often interact in interesting ways.

Diagram showing 4 types of insights

For instance, listening to the learner’s voice will sometimes highlight a disparity between the actual learner’s needs and the content that it is planned to be delivered. In order to bridge this gap it might be necessary to probe the business need – the ultimate ‘why’ behind the programme – in order to focus on what will satisfy the needs of both groups and create a win-win. This idea of finding a win-win is important because, as Steve says, “Without both those needs being satisfied, neither the organisation nor the learner will achieve their aims.”

By listening to and engaging with the project team effectively, an external developer will gain valuable insight into the company culture that provides context for the learning, as well as how to work effectively as a learning partner with the organisation. At the same time, the internal team will gain insights from the external development team, both from specialist skills and knowledge that they bring to the table and also via the fourth category of insights. This category covers insights from the external environment as represented by the learning technology industry and many other relevant sources – from academic journals, to the news, and much in the middle.

Hard-working L&D departments don’t always have much opportunity to survey what is going on in this wider world, or don’t have as much experience to draw on from working and delivering within other organisations and sectors in the past.

Learning analytics

Another important source of insights that can feed into programme design are those gleaned from analytics and, increasingly in the future, big data. This is a burgeoning area, and one we are exploring with our clients to help them build a more evidence-based and insight-driven learning practice.

No longer restricted to measuring take-up, completions and test scores through the limited metrics delivered by SCORM, L&D can now tell all sorts of things about how learners interact with digital content – and can benefit from the ability this provides to tweak and iterate. Indeed, the process of gathering insights and learning about your learners’ needs can no longer be confined to an initial design phase of the learning programme. Instead it becomes an ongoing feedback loop built into the programme delivery itself – with your insight-driven learning programme generating more insights as it is rolled out to the learners – to guide and hone your delivery of high-quality learning opportunities.

This article original appeared in The Curve Magazine.

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