In uncertain times, L&D budgets have a tendency to get slashed. This doesn’t need to herald doom and gloom. It’s an ideal time for L&D to reposition yourselves as integral to the business, as consultative partners who help to support wider organisational strategy and goals, rather than as a training shop.
So how do you do this with a limited budget?
We always recommend looking for learning and performance problems to fix, or opportunities to capitalise on, and directly targeting them with projects. That way, you spend your budget where it will have the most positive impact for the business. It is easy to be seduced by new tech – resist! Instead….
- Make better use of what you already have
- Supplement / add to it to fill gaps
…in that order.
Within the organisation will be problems and opportunities of different magnitudes. These might range from a small niggle that requires a ‘work-around’ in order for people to get their jobs done, through to large problems that generate risk and cost the organisation money. We use a process with customers to identify and prioritise these problems and spot opportunities:
- We start by talking to them, their stakeholders and a range of people across the function or business. These are short, informal chats where we ask about where they think improvements can be made or ways of working improved. What should happen is that, as we collate these, a number of problems or opportunities appear, triangulated by the independent comments of different stakeholders.
- Next, we attempt to quantify the problems and opportunities. We aim to put monetary figures against them. This might include errors made and the cost to put them right, time costs, efficiency losses, sales opportunities lost, cost of non-compliance and so forth. We ask questions during the interviews to start to quantify the problems and opportunities.
- Then we prioritise the problems in order of magnitude and impact on the business. You should then spend your budget addressing the most impactful problems and capitalising on the most valuable opportunities. Each of these high-impact problems / opportunities should become a project with an appropriate budget attached to solving it based upon it’s magnitude.
This simple approach means you’ll be focused on outcomes, aligned to the business and making a real difference in what you do. It will also lead you away from costly traditional training approaches and towards practical solutions to real problems and opportunities.
by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
The UK’s recent referendum on whether we should stay in the EU produced a shock result that has led to political and economic turmoil on an unprecedented scale. The VUCA acronym (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) has never felt more apt in this country. This is not to say, however, that all is lost. The organisations that will survive and prosper are those who are well-prepared for change and who can focus on it positively.
The real key to successful change, of course, is people. In uncertain times, learning takes on new significance in terms of helping people to adapt to new roles or new ways of working and giving them the skills they need to be successful. Investing in the development of your people also shows them that they are valued. This positive message can relieve the stress of insecurity and help focus them on the organisational goals and the tasks in hand.
Getting learning right at these times can give organisations an enormous competitive advantage, enabling them to be agile and adapt to new situations quickly. So what does right look like?
- Learning which is helping people become more agile works best if it is agile itself. This is not the time for lengthy modules, but for bite-sized learning that is produced quickly, in order to respond to volatile conditions. Digital learning is ideal, as time out of the business is minimised and it is cheaper to deliver than F2F learning.
- The bite-sized learning must be closely aligned to organisation goals. Learning can play a key role in communicating these goals and galvanising people to work towards them.
- Give people the opportunity to collaborate with each other. You’ll weather the storm better if everyone pulls together as a team.
- Look to your leadership team, not only as visible sponsors of the learning, but also to strengthen their skills. Good leaders become even more important in times of change.
Clarity of job expectations, personal development, feedback, communication and relationships are all important drivers of employee engagement. All of these things can be enhanced or reinforced through learning. Engaged employees have been found to be up to 43%* more productive and 87%** less likely to leave their organisation. Greater productivity, agility, a positive, goal-driven attitude and being able to hold on to your best people is exactly what is needed when it all gets VUCAed up.
*Lockwood, Nancy R. “Leveraging Employee Engagement for Competitive Advantage: HR’s Strategic Role.” HRMagazine Mar. 2007: 1-11. SearchSpot. ABI/INFORM Global (PQ). McIntyre Library, Eau Claire. 22 Apr. 2007
**“Employee Commitment Remains Unchanged….”. Watson Wyatt Worldwide. 2002. Retrieved 2006-11-07.
- The internet
- The telephone
- The bagless vacuum cleaner
- The chocolate bar
- The light bulb
The British are a nation of inventors – we like to tinker and try new things. For such a small island we have contributed more than our fair share of world-changing inventions. I’ve heard our infamous British weather be credited with encouraging our creativity – it’s rarely warm enough to spend time lounging on the beach, so instead we Brits have to find something else to do. We tinker.
In order to invent great things we need a number of traits:
- Insight – we need to be able to see past the million compromises we blindly accept every day, to see a problem awaiting a solution.
- Inspiration – we need a spark of an idea; a potential way to solve the problem that is new or different.
- Determination – we need the quiet patience to keep going at the problem; failing hundreds, even thousands of times before getting our solution to work.
As learning designers it is easy to pigeon-hole our skills. For many, electronic learning = the SCORM elearning course – this is their only answer to any learning or performance problem. The issue is, this is a solution to a very specific learning or performance problem and increasingly looks rather past its sell-by date. Compounding this our audience have increasingly high expectations of how we, as learning professionals, support them. Apps, games, social platforms, just-in-time support – people use these every day in their personal lives and increasingly expect them at work.
For many years we have been helping organisations and learning designers broaden their design thinking and skills and it has been my great privilege to tutor hundreds of learning designers. Much of what they already know is transferable to other forms of media and delivery, however often they don’t see this.
It is my belief that great design underpins any form of creation. For example; writing this article is a form of design – the problem I am trying to solve is how to transfer ideas from my head into yours. My delivery method isn’t new (a blog article) but hopefully some of my message will be.
My challenge to you as a learning professional, is to broaden your understanding of design and look at the transferable traits and skills you have. To have the courage and determination to think beyond the paradigm of the SCORM elearning course to find a real solution to a real problem.
At a party recently I had a flash of insight. A number of disparate ideas suddenly aligned in my head with an almost audible ‘clunk’, lubricated by prosecco and stimulating conversation.
I was talking to a couple of friends about the sports I’m into and what I enjoy about them: sailing, skiing and mountain biking. In all three of these I’m not competitive. I’m not bothered about going fast or far. I don’t want to be the best. What I do enjoy are the more ‘technical’ aspects of the sports; in sailing I like close-quartered boat handling. In skiing – popping off the side of pistes and threading through the trees. In mountain biking I like the technical trails – the jumps, bumps and berms. In short I like to stretch my abilities take calculated risks. When you do – interesting things happen. Possibilities increase.
This made me think about the kinds of learning design projects I most enjoy. These tend to be the ones where we are exploring and pushing boundaries, where we’re trying to solve a problem, looking for a smarter more efficient solution. By definition we are often doing things for the first time; pushing technologies to work in new ways, approaching a problem from a different angle, being innovative in some small way. There is risk here. In trying something new you will almost always fail before you succeed – it’s a natural part of the process.
Many organisations want their people to be more innovative – it gives their company the edge over the competition. Innovation is a ‘sexy’ concept and something many people aspire to. However, to be innovative you need to be a risk-taker – to try something and fail, to get up, dust yourself off and try again – and to not feel bad about it.
How is failure viewed in your organisation? Think back to the last failure you witnessed or was a part of (gulp); were there high-fives all round, was the failure celebrated for the valuable lessons-gained? Or were those responsible shamed or reprimanded. Or worse, was the failure hidden?
I believe failure should be categorised and reacted to
- Failing at something that you really should be able to do standing on your head – OK, yes, that’s bad. Pull your socks up!
- Failing at something you are trying for the first time – this is a natural part of the learning process. It may be uncomfortable but an important part nonetheless.
- Failing when trying to design something – this should be celebrated! You should thank the universe or this failure and glean every insight, every lesson that you can. You can bet you’ll remember them.
If you appreciate that failure is a vital part of the design process and welcome it, you will start to take risks. You will become more innovative and your designs will improve.
The limitations of human memory are an eternal conundrum for learning designers – how exactly do you create meaningful learning experiences for learners who have a shorter attention span than a goldfish? Or who are only able to retain 7 items in their short term memory1? Perhaps microlearning is the answer?
There are certainly a wide variety of definitions of microlearning. I went to a talk on the subject at a conference recently, where the learning interventions they were discussing were up to an hour long(!) – not quite my definition of micro.
So what does microlearning look like in our world? Microlearning is short, bite-sized chunks of learning tightly focussed on essential skills or knowledge. These might be in the form of videos, blogs, games quizzes or even simulations. More often than not, they’ll be delivered to a mobile phone. With 75% of adults in the UK owning a smartphone, the majority of learners have the ability to access learning in their pockets whenever and wherever they need it.
So what is it good for?…
- Performance support
Microlearning was made for performance support. We already know that we humans struggle to retain a lot of information – having concise help available at the point of need makes a lot of sense.
- Breaking larger learning objectives down into manageable chunks
The accusation of the learning being reactive, rather than proactive is often levelled at microlearning. In terms of longer-term behaviour change, microlearning can have a role to play. Just because the learning is organised into small chunks doesn’t mean that they cannot serve a larger learning objective. Resources can be tagged and organised into learning tracks which allow the learner to gradually build up skills. Learners can also skip content that they already know. Breaking the learning down in this way makes it more convenient for learners to access it on-the-go at their own convenience.
Because microlearning is, by definition small. It’s quick and cost-effective to produce. This enables the business to be very agile in learning delivery and to respond to rapidly changing business environments effectively.
Learners can be sent notifications to go back and repeat chunks of learning. As they’re short and focussed, learners know that this won’t take up much of their time, so may be more willing to access the learning in a spare moment.
Game mechanics can be incorporated very effectively into microlearning, particularly in terms of levelling up, gaining badges, encouraging daily use or competing against other learners. Just like those apps that kids love that tell them to feed their dragons every day to get coins to buy a really cool exclusive dragon, it’s possible to make those chunks fun and addictive.
In our experience, at the moment, microlearning is rarely the answer on its own. It tends to be most effective when used in a blend, as a reinforcement or performance support tool, with other more in-depth forms of learning. Every project is different though, and it’s important not to discount it as effective in its own right. Constant improvements in personal technology mean that increasingly sophisticated learning experiences can be delivered in this way, allowing the line between work and learning to further blur. We haven’t seen the pinnacle of microlearning yet.
1Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, 81-97.
by Tess Robinson, Director, LAS
I am trying to teach myself to paint with acrylics at the moment. I have a definite idea in my head of what my paintings should look like, but with no painting experience, they don’t exactly come out like that when translated to canvas. It’s very frustrating!
As with many things, I turned to You Tube for help and found the rather wonderful Will Kemp from Will Kemp Art School. His tips have really helped me improve, although I still have a very long way to go before we’ll be hanging any of my creations on the wall. Whilst going through the tutorials, it got me thinking about how some artistic techniques can be equally applied to designing learning in order to help us see creative solutions and formulate a ‘well-composed’ intervention.
Will advises that to improve your drawing – a key pre-requisite of painting – you should narrow your eyes and really look at areas of light and shade. You need to temporarily hold off judgement and try not to second guess what you think the thing should look like, as oppose to what it actually looks like. This a great metaphorical technique for the research phase of any digital learning project. In getting to know your audience and accurately assessing the business need, you really need to be able to put your own assumptions and prejudices to one side and really look at the shape of what is there.
This suspension of judgement is prevalent in other arts as well and is often seen as vital to the creative process. With David Bowie’s recent death, much has been written about creativity in music. In an interview with Livewire in 2002, Bowie said:
‘I try to put judgement on hold for as long as possible. Then, when I need to listen to something critically, I put myself in a place that has nothing to do with the industrialized process we’re going through, being in a studio and all that. I’ll pretend that I’m on a ship, say, and I’m looking out to sea and there’s a distant fog on the horizon. I will listen to the piece of music from that place and see what it does to me. I use those kind of tricks all the time. It amazes me sometimes that even intelligent people will analyze a situation or make a judgement after only recognizing the standard or traditional structure of a piece. They will then confront the whole thing with a standard reaction and a standard reaction will not allow for deviancies. It’s the kiss of death in creating something’.
I read that and thought, wow, we do that. When we design learning we often take time out for a walk, a quick bike ride or a spot of meditation. Removing ourselves from the task in hand, allows fresh ideas to bubble to the fore and helps us to gain other perspectives – not dissimilar to Bowie’s method.
In researching creativity in the arts further, to see if there was anything else we, as learning designers, could learn from it, I stumbled across this article on the Guardian website from 2012. They asked a number of artists from a range of disciplines how they find creative inspiration. The one that resonated most for me in terms of its application to learning design was from Sunand Prasad, a renowed architect. He said:
- Keep asking: “What is really going on here?” – like a detective.
- Immerse yourself in the worlds of the people who will use and encounter the building or place.
- Forget the building for a while. Focus totally on what people will be doing in the spaces and places you are designing – next year, in five years, in 20.
- Ask off-piste questions. What if this library were a garden? If this facade could speak, would it be cooing, swearing, silent, erudite?
- Gather inquisitive and reflective people around you. The rapid bouncing back and forth of an idea can generate compelling concepts at amazing speed.
- Once there’s an idea, turn it upside down and take it seriously for a moment – even if it seems silly.
- We all have a sense of the sublime – use it to test your propositions as rigorously as logic and functionality.
If you replace the building references with learning ones, everything above can be equally applied to learning design. It seems that artistic creativity and creativity in terms of learning design are not so far removed.
As for me and my painting, well, as Picasso said ‘I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it’. One day, I will have something wall-worthy!