This is the first of three posts examining online engagement for learning and performance support resources, based on the presentation I gave at Learning Technologies. The rest will follow in the next few days.
The ideas discussed in this post have come about after several years of working with clients to help them get the most out of their online learning resources. These could be performance support tools, learning portals or online networks.
Over time, we’ve developed and refined a simple model that outlines the conditions that must exist for employees to engage in an online resource. For each condition we’ve also identified some key signals that can inform you whether or not the condition is being met.
It’s a model that’s been tested, researched and refined. We’re an evidence-driven organisation, so we carry out a great deal of quantitative and qualitative research to establish what works in an online world. The main reason I can write down any of this with confidence is that we’ve experimented heavily, made some mistakes and learned from them.
Before looking at our model in any detail, there’s a critical pre-condition to discuss without which no clever initiatives or tactics will work.
The site/product/course must have clear, perceptible value to your target employee base.
This is important. It’s not just whether the resource has an actual benefit to the employee if they use it, although that’s also imperative. It’s whether they believe it’s useful themselves in advance of their moment of need.
And the only people who can judge this are the employees themselves – not the project group involved in designing, developing or commissioning the online resource.
So, how do we establish this? The easiest and best way we know of establishing whether or not an online proposition has value is through discussion, user testing and beta feedback. But you need to be checking and testing with the right group.
It’s no good testing an idea or concept with your peers in HR or the project group. You’re too close. You must test with your target end users.
A basic mistake often made is giving the target employees a look at what’s being developed towards the end stages of process rather than near the beginning. By this point changes are difficult and costly to make. Not only that, but the people responsible for the development have invested emotionally in what they’ve toiled on – they’re far less likely to take the employees’ comments on board constructively.
Believe me, it’s far better to show someone a basic wireframe with some wonky fonts right at the start and uncover critically flawed assumptions about content or usability than to create a finely polished resource that’s not right for the employee.
One interesting thing we’ve found over the years is how people think about learning vs doing their job. We carried out an extensive study a while back and a key finding was that employees, managers in particular, thought of learning as something they needed to make time for. It was seen as something that existed outside of their normal job.
Now, you can disagree with the sentiment, but the perception is there.
This explains why we’ve found that online resources labelled as ‘on-the-job support‘, rather than ‘learning’ get used more often. So this perceived value is also about positioning, and getting that right is as much about understanding your target employees as it is about getting the content right.
Given these pre-conditions, which are by no means easy to achieve, our model sets out four stages to successful engagement.
In broad terms, we talk about ‘to site’ engagement and ‘on site’ engagement.
‘To site’ engagement is all about making sure the conditions exist that get your employees visiting the resource in the first place. Simply sticking a blue link on a buried page on an intranet isn’t going to work. Neither is simply putting something up on a Learning Management System.
‘On site’ engagement is all about making sure that when the employee gets to the site, they have a positive experience that is more likely to encourage them to visit again. Once again, the core here is to ensure you have something that the employee values. If it’s just something that will benefit your organisation, without solving a problem for the employee, or making life easier for them, it’s not going to work long term.
Both ‘to-site’ engagement and ‘on-site’ engagement have two conditions for success.
In order for the employee to come to the online resource, they first need to be aware of it and think the resource will be of use to them. And then they need to know how they actually get to it.
In order for the employee to have a positive experience on the site, they need to quickly find something relevant to their needs and when they complete the course/read the article/watch the video, they need to come away thinking that was a worthwhile use of their time.
We recently interviewed 40 managers in a range of different organisations; a few of our clients and many non-clients. We asked these managers what their main people management challenges were and where they went to for support with those challenges. Overwhelmingly, the managers cited their peers and managers as points of contact. Many mentioned the internet, and Google searches in particular.
Only a tiny fraction mentioned internal resources. But when they were shown what was already available to them, they almost always said those resources would have been useful at the time.
It’s pretty clear from our research and our experience that the problem doesn’t always lie with the online resources themselves, but the general levels of awareness and ease of access.
For that reason, in the next two posts I’ll concentrate on those first two conditions. These are: