Making Learning Stick
By Martin Ross, Senior Producer at The Edge
Our job in learning, as we see it, is no different from our job when we make films.
We do our best to think about the frame of mind of the employee who is about to consume what we create. What do they already think or feel about the topic at hand? What mood are they likely to be in? What circumstances have bought them to the moment when they will click Play (for a film) or Launch (for a course)?
This, incidentally, is why the business-to-employee work we do can be as much fun as making TV commercials. (We do those too.) By working with clients over a number of years (which we often do), we get to know the audience in detail: who they are, what they do all day, their personality, what the organisational mood music is right now, and so on.
Knowing the audience and their frame of mind means we can plan, design, and deliver a precise product. Our goal is that when the learner finishes watching the film or completes the course, they know, think, feel confident to follow the right actions, or feel empowered to think the right way. Not just right away, but weeks and months into the future.
The great thing about learning projects is that, as a rule, this “right thing” is clearly defined. Learning Objectives (definitely capital L, capital O) are all agreed and laid out. Learners need to be able to recall this and define that, understand the other, and apply it whenever and wherever. We love that.
Working with Subject Matter Experts
Learning projects tend to come with Subject Matter Experts. The more important the subject (and some subjects are really, really important – financial crime risk, health and safety, cybersecurity etc.), the more important the Subject Matter Expert is in the organisation in which they work; especially if they’re regulated and the regulator needs to see that learning in this subject is being done – and done well.
Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) become Subject Matter Experts by being experts through a single-minded focus on their subject for a number of years. To them, their life’s work is the subject. They’re passionate, knowledgeable, and committed to embedding the right behaviour amongst all their colleagues.
‘The Doing’ of the right thing is what counts
However, at times there seems to be a universal understanding amongst SMEs that, in order to do the right thing, learners need to know as much as they do. So when they explain how to cover a topic, they’ll start from first principles and build up a complete picture of the topic’s ins and outs before linking, eventually, to the responsibilities of the individual to do the right thing.
Respectfully, we beg to differ. To us, ‘the doing’ the right thing is what counts – not the knowing.
Take ‘Sanctions’ as an example. If you work in an international bank or professional services company, once in a blue moon (unless you’re in a specific high-risk role) there’s a chance that some transaction or piece of due diligence might throw up a match with a sanctioned country, sector, or individual. When that happens, you’re supposed to escalate the situation as a matter of urgency.
Why wouldn’t you pick up the phone if you get a sanctioned match on your due diligence or transaction? Probably because you weren’t looking out for it because you’re not aware of the trap you can fall into if you miss it. Or perhaps because you assume that raising the alarm is someone else’s job. Or because you worry that you’re going to get yelled at if you put your head above the parapet. There are lots of possible reasons.
Not knowing the difference between comprehensive, sectoral, and targeted sanctions probably isn’t one of them.
So what would make you pick up the phone? Are you more likely to do it if, some time ago, you’d been told a dramatic story about someone like you (who was involved in a situation like this) made a choice and lived with the consequences?
Most people would say so, as our own experience has shown.
Changing behaviour requires careful, thoughtful work
There’s an academic paper we like to quote called “Why is changing health-related behaviour so difficult?” (Kelly, MP, Barker M, 2016. Publ. Health 136, 109-116). Kelly and Barker said, “Giving people information does not make them change.” It’s “not that they don’t know that they and their families should be eating a healthy diet with more fruit and vegetables. What they say is that a host of other things in life get in the way.” Changing behaviour “requires careful, thoughtful work that leads to a deep understanding of the nature of what motivates people and the pressures that act upon them.”
Our heritage as storytellers gets us closer to that understanding than most.
In a lot of our learning projects, ignorance is not the problem. The problem is complacency, or diffusion of responsibility, or hostility to change, or an organisation’s cultural norms.
Delivering behaviour change involves addressing those broad macro-issues, as well as the narrow micro-behaviours that the Learning Objectives cover. What we try to do, gently, is persuade our SMEs to think about the minimum that people need to know to do the right thing.
Sometimes it blows their minds…
And then we think about the likely reasons that people wouldn’t do the right thing. What buttons we can press in them that might change the choices they make?
Spoiler alert: it’ll probably involve telling a story.