Overcoming real-world barriers to human-centric learning design

‘You can’t get it right for everyone, and we have our own training rooms that we should use. That’s what they are there for,’ said the branch manager.

‘That may be true, but we should give it our best shot and meet our learners where they like to learn whenever it is possible,’ said the learning and development lead, ‘Our new recruits are digital natives and, in their pre-employment survey, 72% have indicated they’d prefer to learn about this particular topic on their personal device, self-directed when it suits them within the given timeframe.’

Does this scenario sound familiar? It is one of the many ways in which innovation in L&D stalls, hampering effective learning design efforts that could yield higher returns on the average training dollar spent. We feel it’s time to uncover some of the typical barriers to human-centric learning design we have observed over the years:

01. Discovery phase

Where do you want to go and what is already in your hands to get there?

If we want learners to consistently apply what they have learnt in the workplace, everybody needs to be in the know. Managers/supervisors need to model and support said practices – and not just during the training phase.

Anything else turns learning into a tick-and-flick exercise, with little sustainable impact. For this reason, it is crucial to clearly articulate what the future state should look like in terms of the desired behaviour of the people who need to learn a skill or task AND the people who need to supervise them.

Another aspect that often gets neglected is consideration of an organisation’s existing learning culture, i.e. is there time and value given to formal face-to-face training, yet self-directed learning during working hours is frowned upon? Is your learning culture run by functional imperatives such as learning infrastructure that could be seen as a sunk cost if not used as frequently as before?

Vice versa, there may be existing learning materials that could be leveraged in a project or others that will be impacted by a new learning project’s development.

02. Definition phase

What actually IS the problem?

This is one of the hardest phases to get right, as different stakeholder groups may have different perceptions of the same issue to be solved. Sometimes, it takes more enquiry to get to the bottom of the matter and find out that the initial training intent would have scratched the symptoms, but not addressed the core performance problem underneath.

Learning, ideally, is a part of a bigger, integrated communications ecosystem, with congruent messaging cascading all the way into the team and individual business outcome KPIs. Hence, a learning project team must have a sufficient understanding of a learning piece’s scope, risks and dependencies.

03. Design phase

Finding the balance between ideal and practical

‘There are many ways to slice an apple; learners should have a choice on how they complete a work task,’ said the learning and development project officer after reviewing a learner guide draft.

‘Um, sure; however, in this instance, we are training construction workers in standard operating procedures and mandatory job site machinery safety checks, so there really cannot be any choice.’

L&D teams are experts in their field: education. They rely on effective collaboration with subject matter experts to co-create a practicable learning solution with tangible outcomes that can be applied on the job directly.

Often, these same L&D teams are under-resourced, meaning they can lack the capacity to staff sufficient stakeholder engagement. This scarcity of resources leads to difficulties in keeping up with the latest L&D technology trends in-house, meaning that barriers to human-centric learning design often comes through external providers.

04. Development phase

The right strokes for the right folks

The art of a well-received project with stakeholder support is to give everyone who needs it ‘skin in the game’. Not just at the beginning of a project and on delivery, but throughout development. Iterative testing and actively seeking input from test users will enhance the learning output so, at deployment, there should be no surprises.

Sometimes, we see a reluctance to explore or adopt new instructional design tools that may offer new and better ways of reaching the learner audiences than traditional authoring tools. Time and resourcing pressure in L&D, ironically, stand in the way of learning new tech when it comes out.

05. Delivery phase

Channelling and timing done right

The one question we always ask is, ‘what if…?’. And the first answer we often receive is, ‘oh, we never thought of offering it that way.’

There are many more communication channels in most organisations than are usually considered for L&D projects and which could be used to enhance and reinforce learning messages before, during and after a learning intervention.

Wherever possible, give your learners a choice about where they would like to access the content and keep refreshers close and relevant to job contexts that will require that access. For example, display short, sharp product handling information or brief customer service reminders on POS systems.

What are your organisation’s barriers to human-centric learning design?

Uncovering the answer to that question might take your learning further than you think.

This article originally appeared in Training & Development magazine, June 2021 Vol. 48 No. 2, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

The e-version of the magazine for AITD members can be found at Training & Development – June 2021 – Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD).