One year ago this month I left my old job behind and took my first steps in learning and development.
I decided to make a career change following the realisation that it wasn’t the subject matter which made my role enjoyable, but more so the regularity with which I was given the opportunity to learn new skills and put them into practice on the job without fear of reprisal, thanks to a great manager. I loved getting time out of the office to be taught new skills.
I always listened with intent at training sessions and it wasn’t long before I got thinking about how those around me were interpreting the lessons and how each of them, with their varying roles and responsibilities, would put the outcomes into practice. Given the fun I had learning at work, comparing approaches to learning, and putting that learning into action, applying for a role at a company like GoodPractice was a no-brainer.
I’ve now had a year to settle into the world of L&D and, with all this in mind, I thought I would write a quick blog for two reasons.
1. To formally inaugurate myself into the L&D community (I realise how pompous and self-promoting this sounds but, hey – it’s a blog).
2. Because if you’re reading this, you’re probably really into L&D, and I thought you might like to hear from someone operating within Learning & Development who has a fresh memory of loving simply being ‘away on a course’ and leaving their mandatory e-learning to the last minute, every year.
Here are the top three lessons I've learned from my first year in L&D:
To quote our Learning and Performance Solutions Director, James McLuckie, speaking on one of GoodPractice’s excellent podcasts:
“If we, as learning designers, do our job properly we shouldn’t really have to tell people what they’re learning or what their performance outcomes are. They should be inherent in the learning experience itself”.
A year ago I would have assumed that, much like distributing the agenda before a meeting, it makes sense to begin a lesson (be it in a classroom, e-learning, MOOC etc.) with an overview of the session’s goals. However, time and again over the past year I have learned that, unless your audience is completely unaware of why they are in the classroom or sitting at the computer in the first place, then spelling out what they are about to learn could do more harm than good. For every person who has gained useful context, there’s one who’s seething because their reason for taking time out of work isn’t on the board, and another who’s wondering how long all of that is going to take.
To get around this, GoodPractice (and others) have tried more inventive and creative ways of introducing outcomes. For example, we’ve experimented with using short animations summarising the possible consequences of a skills gap. We’ve also found that introducing the learning outcome in the form of a question for the learners (e.g. ‘What does leadership look like?’) makes them more receptive to the subsequent intervention.
It’s possible that we feel the need to state learning outcomes to learners having been so caught up in their importance during the design of the intervention. Clearly, understanding the learning outcome is of significantly more importance to the course designer than to the learner. Which brings us nicely to lesson number two…
I’ll now make a shameful admission. Before I arrived at GoodPractice, I thought e-learning was meant for two things:
a) Making mandatory training easy, automated and cheap
b) Making traditionally mundane but important topics more eye-catching – sugaring the pill
I don’t think I ever thought about whether the e-learning module I just completed would make a lasting impression; I was just grateful when it wasn’t a slide-by-slide tick-box exercise! Since joining GoodPractice I’ve learned that thoughtful design can make e-learning an affordable tool for delivering observable change, but I stress that ‘thoughtful design’ doesn’t just mean ‘not PowerPoint’.
For example – making the workplace safer by insisting employees read the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 isn’t going to work, but then again neither is a 3D, surround-sound, interactive computer game where the main character’s quest is to uncover passages from the legislation. This is because, when you first think about purchasing some e-learning, it’s unlikely the ideal result is ‘all staff should understand the legislation’ but ‘all staff should be able to recognise risks and take action’.
These goals would be better serviced by placing the learner in a simple, safe, virtual environment where they can practice the new behaviours. (All the better if the lesson can be delivered without leaving the learner feeling manipulated by too much exposition (see lesson 1)).
If you think e-learning might help enable change in your organisation, I’ve learned there is value in ignoring the quirks and trusting whoever shows most interest in your performance goals.
My experience over the past year has taught me that, outside of the conference hall, one is hard pressed to find an L&D professional who believes their tools or processes place them on, or significantly ahead of, ‘the curve’. The restrictions can be cultural, technical or, most commonly, financial in nature. I must also be honest here and say that although the perceived risk of parting with traditional methods is a less common barrier, it presents itself among L&D types with greater frequency than other cliques I have worked with.
My new experiences have shown me that unless all of your organisation’s learning is delivered with purely chalk and blackboard I would be willing to bet that you’re not as far behind ‘the best’ as you might think. If you're not sure, then completing Towards Maturity’s excellent benchmark is a great way to compare your position with similar organisations and the top deck.
Furthermore, it could be argued that, when it comes to L&D, being ‘ahead of the curve’ isn’t necessarily a good place to be. Many of the most recent tech-enabled learning solutions haven’t been shown to work or have been shown not to work so – bonus lesson – if you’re thinking about purchasing a potentially expensive e-learning solution, don’t be afraid to ask for the body of evidence supporting its design.
I welcome discussion around my reflections whether you are a seasoned professional or completely new to learning and development so please comment and share; tell me what you’ve learned in the past 12 months! You can also get in touch directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s to another year.