Listening to learners could be transformative for L&D

By John Helmer February 22, 2016

Man holding sign saying 'Think Tank'‘We make huge assumptions about our audiences and we don’t do anywhere near enough validation of those assumptions. This is something that we really want to focus on now. It’s all about user experience and really getting some proper data … who are our audience? Who is it we’re trying to reach? What kind of people are they? What are their backgrounds? What are they like? What are they not like? How do they want to learn? Instead of looking at a model that might tell us what they think that is 30 years old, let’s actually speak to our learners and really try and understand them. I think that is, potentially, a huge transformation for learning.’

This impassioned plea for a change of attitude in L&D towards learners was just one of a number of insights that arose from our latest Think Tank dinner.

We could be at a pivotal moment for L&D. Though there has been chatter within the guru space for many years about informal learning and 70:20:10, a number of compelling drivers are making it imperative that practitioners now think beyond the confines of the course (if they are not doing so already). This is causing them to focus more deeply on how they connect with and engage learners – but also to change the way in which learning is structured and delivered.

We assembled an invited group of L&D leaders to discuss these issues in a three-part discussion held under Chatham House rules. Contributing to the debate were delegates from the worlds of Finance, Mining, Telecomms, IT and commodity trading.

You can read headlines of the discussion here.

But for those who want a deep dive into the first part of this fascinating discussion, read on.

Part 1: What are the drivers of change as we move towards less reliance on ‘the course’?

Key points

  • There is a ‘magpie’ tendency in the learning industries – with people going from one bright, shiny new model to another – however real change takes time, and can’t happen if we’re always chasing after the next big thing
  • The critical thing now is listening to the learner, involving them in the creation of learning, being more iterative, gathering their stories and putting them into the learning itself – and working to get their engagement with it once it is launched
  • Tightening budgets have perhaps led to more creativity. No-one can afford any longer to ‘lash money around’, so it is even more vital that the learning works.
  • ‘The learners are revolting’ – people in organisations have had enough of endless ‘tick-box’ compliance programmes and want to know that there is going to be real value in the learning they are offered
  • For all these reasons there is more pressure to create learning that really works, and the way to do that is not to be model-driven but to be more evidence-based, more bottom-up, and to listen to what the learner is saying
  • Different suppliers are coming into the space, especially from Digital, bringing a fresh perspective, and with less instructional baggage

Courses here to stay?

One point that emerged very strongly from our discussion was that ‘the course’, as an entity, is not disappearing from the scene anytime soon. Though it might lose the dominance it once had in workplace learning and become just one channel among many – or alter its form quite radically – the structure that the course provides to training is in many ways indispensible.

Firstly, as one delegate pointed out, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. A new starter joining an organisation, or an existing employee taking up a new role, will need a map of what is there to be learned. Knowledge often has to be presented in a logical sequence, with each piece of new knowledge building on the last – just as, at school, you have to learn addition, subtraction, multiplication and division before you can move on to geometry, algebra and calculus.

Courses are familiar to us as a way of learning from school – and even millennials (especially millennials, perhaps) need the structure they provide, for at least some of their learning.

Courses often lead to accreditation of some kind, that can provide essential, portable proofs of whether that person is qualified to do a particular job or task.

Then there is the difficult-to-quantify stuff that goes on around courses in organisations; stuff which is not often talked about, but which it could be dangerous to ignore.

Being sent on a course is often a sign of preferment, or approval. It can mark acceptance into a particular cohort or level of management. Courses can reinforce a sense of belonging; they can help to motivate, in and of themselves.

A type of ‘placebo effect’ might well operate between trainers and trainees in the same way as it is documented to do between doctors and patients; with the confidence that she can do the job being something that is gained by the trainee within that relationship, irrespective, almost, of what the course might contain.

These issues are discussed in a paper from 1992 cited by one of our delegates, entitled Ten Faces of Management Development (full-text access requires payment). The author, Stan Lees of Lancaster University, identifies ten reasons why organisations offer management training – only two of which have to do with competency.

‘We have to learn to think like marketers’

So the course is liable to be around for some while – although it might look very different, and might have a different name.

What has really changed with digital transformation has been the addition of many different ways in which learning can be delivered, not all of them requiring physical, face-to-face interaction. A course no longer has to be delivered via a single method, and more personalization can be involved – though the structure is still there, in terms of certain steps that might still have to be taken in a certain order.

Conceptually, as far as at least one of our delegates is concerned, there is not much discernible difference between a course and something that might be called a ‘learning pathway’, a ‘learning architecture’, a ‘learner journey’, or any one of number of new coinages.

Not everything has to be a course anymore, of course: there are many types of performance support that can be offered on-demand and at need, through the new channels that digital has made available. The course becomes one channel among many, however. And we have more of those channels now than ever before, just as marketers deal with an increasing array of media: radio was not killed by cinema, and cinema was not killed by the internet (new media don’t, in reality, replace the old: the tendency is rather for them to proliferate).

It is undoubtedly true that this new expanded digital toolkit offers challenges as well as opportunities for those charged with using it to produce tangible learning outcomes. With learners no longer sequestered in the training centre, and less and less separated off from the many distractions of the workplace, it proves harder and harder to get their attention. Where attention can’t be compelled, the learning itself has to be compelling – and learning professionals have to learn to think like marketers.

Listening to the learners

The new focus within L&D on listening to the learners – as evidenced by the cri de coeur with which this blog post opened – is perhaps a symptom of the need to take on marketing ways of thinking.

Defining and researching the target audience is a foundational activity in any marketing programme, after all. Marketers listen to their audience, know how to turn them on – know how to get their attention, engage them, tell them a story, take them on a journey. Marketers live or die by the bonds they can forge with a particular, well defined audience.

L&D surely has something to learn here. It is something L&D might think it has always done, under the rubric of learning needs analysis, but here’s that delegate again: ‘Have we really been listening? Have we really been looking at the data? Have we really been understanding these properly? I’m not sure we have … We think we have, but I’m not sure we have’.

This process of listening to learners can take interesting forms. Another delegate, a leadership expert, described a research exercise he took part in some years ago: ‘How have people learned to be leaders up to this point? That was the kind of question I was asking. Not, how are they going to be in the future, but how have they learned to get to this point? How have they learned to be successful in what they’re doing?

‘I’d just simply ask them, “What do you do well? And how have you come to do what it is that you do well? How have you come to know that?”’

The answers proved to very diverse. Some just didn’t know how they could do the thing in question, others would say things like, ‘because my mum drilled it into me’. But nobody talked about training; nobody mentioned a single course they had been on. Surely, that was information worth listening to?

The tendency is for L&D, or the business, to assume that when it comes to creating learning, they know best what should be in there, but listening to learners can throw up surprises. Teams often experience push-back from SMEs when it is suggested that learners are involved in helping to define what the learning will be, because it is felt that their influence could be disruptive. The truth can often disrupt preconceptions!

Meanwhile, Towards Maturity data shows ‘a massive between how learners are claiming that they prefer to learn and do learn, and how the L&D function believes that they learn’.

Getting agile

Learners can also have a bigger role to play in the creation of learning than simply being listened to.

One delegate described an agile methodology that took an iterative approach: ‘… getting people involved early on, so that actually you build it as you go, and the people that are going to use it are involved early on, and the people that are going to deliver it are involved early on, and the people that are going to embed it are involved early on. Actually, they help create it instead of us saying, “Tell us what you need. We’re the experts, we’ll go away and create something”’.

Another technique mentioned was the creation of personas – something that, again, comes straight out of the marketing playbook, being a technique widely used by User Experience (UX) designers.


So why is this happening now, this transformation of awareness? What are the forces driving the need to look beyond mandated courses and listen to what the learners are telling us?

A few strong drivers for L&D emerged from our discussion.

The learners are revolting. Delegates talked of ‘a groundswell of noise and almost revolt’ over the number of ‘tick-box’ compliance programmes they are subjected to: ‘we are at saturation point’ said one. People want to know that there is going to be real value in the learning they are given.

New, disruptive suppliers are coming into the marketspace from areas such as digital marketing and web design, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives.

At the same time there is ‘a new breed of L&D people’ on the buy-side, from non-learning backgrounds, disciplines like marketing and comms – again bringing a different perception. Some are millennials, and they don’t have the ‘baggage’ of learning theory.

Tightening budgets have forced L&D to be more creative in many cases, but also puts more pressure on the learning to deliver impact. It really has to work.

The magpie tendency

Change takes time, however, and a consistent direction of travel needs to be maintained. However, the ‘magpie’ tendency within the learning industries tends to militate against this happening – and even our ‘beyond the course’ heading could be attacked from this point of view, if it were taken as suggesting that the course itself is completely dead.

‘We are such magpies, aren’t we? It’s like, “Right, okay. What’s shiny? What’s new? Let’s latch on to that. So that must mean traditional course-based model is breaking down and we move into something else which is different. I’ll grab that and when that becomes slightly less interesting I’ll drop that or I’ll move onto … whatever.’

Holding onto the baby as we throw out the bath water was seen as essential by our group of delegates. At the same time, if ‘30-year old models’ and ‘learning theory baggage’ are not going to help us make the most of new learning channels – what will? Where are the models, the heuristics; the guiding principles to be found as we explore the territory beyond the course? These are questions we tackled in the next part of our discussion and look at the question: ‘What alternative ways of structuring learning are filling the vacuum?’

See the answers in Part 2.

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