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3 Reasons You Aren’t Getting Your Learners’ Respect

(Firstly: Sorry about the soggy bread analogy...)

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Are we failing at learner engagement?

I’m going to ask you a really frank question: “Does anyone in L&D know what the heck is going on right now?” We’re all busy talking about new technologies like VR, AR and AI, which are going to “transform” the organisational training landscape as we know it. Sorry, but I can’t help but feel this is a lot of hot air; a distraction used to keep our heads firmly in the sand and continue to avoid the real problems at hand – of which a lack of AI or VR are not.

I’m talking about real problems like connecting better with employees and creating legitimate value propositions, whilst enabling and empowering them to undertake more self-driven learning. Problems like short attention spans, lack of learning strategies and data analytics skills. Problems like declines in worker engagement, an evolution of a more transient workforce and a steady decline in employee mental health.

Big problems.

But rather than focus on these inherent issues which exist within learning and development, we choose to tether ourselves to these “band-aid” technologies. Our salvation. The ‘ooooh shinies’ of the world. The things that make us go “aahhh” and “wow”.

We’ve lost sight of what we’re trying to do here

Yeah, those super shiny technologies are sexy, sure. But unless we start resolving root cause issues, we’re never going to ever be able to really adopt them. Note that I said adopt, as opposed to implement. Sure, you can introduce them to your business. But will anyone actually care?

Probably not.

It’s like trying to build a house of cards, but some of your bottom row are actually soggy slices of bread. They’re not going to take the weight. They’re a poor foundation (inedibility aside) and they will only keep everything stable for a short period of time.

But right now, L&D is ignoring the bread and is just continuing to build up with new technologies, not realising that the problem runs much deeper than digital transformation and making the most of modern technologies.

And my fear is that if we continue this way, we’ll be all stood around in five years time scratching our heads, wondering: “Wtf has happened? We’re in the same place we were 5 years ago.” Course, we’ll have some snazzy new tech in our businesses, a good, ‘justified’ hole in our budgets and yet still stuck with completely disconnected learners. Why?

Sorry to continue with the weird soggy bread analogy, but let’s look at what’s caused it to get wet in the first place.

In the words of Jeff – you gotta touch their freakin’ hearts

We need to work harder at worming our way into our employees distracted, short attention-spanned, mobile-phone clutching hearts.

This is an old video, but I still wanted to share with you – because actually this guy’s message from 2013 is still poignant now. As a matter of fact, the fact that this kid was saying this five years ago further solidifies my point – nothing is changing! If you can spare me a minute of your life, watch this video.

Yeh, Jeff’s way with words aren’t exactly eloquent, but he’s dropping a heavy dose of truth in my opinion. The most pertinent thing he said?

“You wanna get them excited for this? You gotta come in here and make them excited. You want the kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin’ heart.

You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is tell them.”

Although he is talking about a classroom-based environment – he has a point. And we, as business owners, are all guilty of doing the same thing. Sending them to a system built with admins in mind (usually a LMS or clunky intranet), not highlighting value or purpose of the visit. And then shoving some compliance learning down everyone’s throats without taking the time to connect with them or make the entire experience good. We’re not getting them excited.

And they never came back again….

Why aren’t we prioritising the learner experience?

Of course technology has changed since Jeff had his rant in 2013 but a desire for connection and feeling part of something has never left our employees. But, we’ve just resorted to telling them they must learn and highlight key benefits (which usually always originate from our own organisational stance rather than answering what’s in it for me for them). We certainly aren’t showing them how valuable this could be for them. We’re failing at learner engagement.

Truthfully, we’ve forgotten our real purpose as L&D professionals – the constant improvement and evolution of the learner experience.

A poor learner experience means that no matter how much additional tech you add to the mix, they’re already disinterested. They’ve already formed their opinion of your learning and content from those initial interactions. The bread is wet, and now everything is going to fall apart.

It’s a kind of irretrievable situation (the bread-based house of cards, not L&D). The good news is I believe some of these issues CAN be rectified in L&D, if we are really honest with ourselves about what needs to change.

Three mindset shifts L&D needs to make

So, what needs to change? In my opinion, accept the following as true and stop seeing them as barriers to progression and instead look to them as opportunities:

  1. You have no real idea how your learners behave: Unless you are working hard to leverage data in your business, it’s likely your guess is as good as mine in terms of what your employees do on your LMS, or indeed how they learn overall. Most L&D departments are beginning to embrace the necessity for harnessing big data, but that means another skill set required for a function which already wears multiple hats including marketing, PR, L&D, HR and more. And with only 18% of L&D departments having data analytics skills, it’s not easy. But it needs to happen – data will tell you what’s working and what’s not. No more guessing please.
  2. Learners still don’t care and you still aren’t really doing anything to change that: I shant pull out Einstein’s quote about doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes as madness, but dude had a point. Ask yourself: “What have you done in the past two years to actually connect with your learners and get them interested in consuming content that’s relevant to them?” Likely the answer is very little. Yes, maybe you updated your technology or gave your elearning a facelift, but that isn’t going to shift solidified sentiments which exist within their minds. Remember – in the words of Jeff – you gotta touch their frickin’ hearts. And no amount of sparkling new tech is going to do that (on its own).
  3. You’re terrified of self-driven learning and UGC (user-generated content): Because if that exists, you’ve lost control and you’re out of a job, right? No. Don’t be afraid of this kind of essential change. L&D needs to shift its mindset to become more of the facilitators of the business. The ones who encourage sharing, learning and break down the barriers to peer-to-peer sharing and UGC. It’s the only way you’re going to connect with learners in this modern landscape of the internet of things.

Learners are people too, and sometimes I think it’s forgotten that we have to earn their respect. It’s not tacit, it’s not pre-existing. But if present, is a real game-changer.

If you can get their respect, I promise they will reward you with their time and attention. Engagement will rise. And you will be in a much more progressive environment which may well welcome the adoption of tech such as VR.

But until then, let’s get back to basics. Let’s earn their respect. And the rest will follow.

Ashley Sinclair is CMO at Thrive Learning and has over five years working in the Learning Technologies space. She is passionate about data-driven environments which provide key insights into audience behaviour and more.

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