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Is Learning the Biggest Loser?

It’s no secret that weight loss and dieting are a multi-billion dollar industry. Magazine racks are a jumble of headlines screaming, “fit, tone, calories, detox”. Yet, most studies concede that around 85% of diets fail.

So what does this have to do with learning?

Quite a bit. In both weight loss and L&D, there is an end goal to change behaviour. There’s not much difference between motivating someone to hit the gym three times a week, and implementing a new workflow. The obstacles of willingness and motivation are the same. Most people resist change, particularly if they are already comfortable doing things a certain way.

Therefore, a successful learning programme has to take steps to address these stumbling blocks. Too often I see L&D solutions that are applied formulas: a robust needs assessment to generate performance outcomes, which then become learning objectives that some Instructional Designer can write tidy copy against. Tick box learning. Great in theory, but learners are not software that can be programmed.

If you have a spare hour, watch an episode of any of the hundreds of weight loss TV shows. There are carefully constructed methods used to encourage and incentivise candidates to adopt new healthy habits. These could be the promise of a reward or the wake-up call of a medical exam. Whatever the methodology, only a fraction of time is spent on the how-tos of calorie counting and balanced diet. The focus is on developing the why.

Yes, I can already hear learning professionals saying that we already build WIIFMinto our content, or that you use a 70-20-10 approach. Those are all beneficial, but are hardly transformational. These are platitudes that make us L&D folks feel like we have cuddled a bundle of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Consider the following personal example (details changed to protect the innocent): A company wants to adopt a culture of collaboration. They approach L&D. After a lot of performance consulting conversations and a detailed needs assessment, the solution implemented is a mandatory one-day learning event on how to collaborate and why it is important. There was a catered lunch.

Fast forward a few years and collaboration is stagnant. Sure, people loved the course. There were loads of job aids and coaching tools. People tweeted about it for days and the Level 1 evaluations were the highest ever. There was no ROI because a) there was nothing to address the ongoing motivation; and b) they had a body of staff who were hired based on their ability to be individual contributors and high achievers.

For large-scale learning programmes to truly deliver, I believe we need to think in terms of broader change management. In the case of the Collaboration Collapse above, these are a few things I would’ve done differently:

  • Hire some collaborators into leadership positions. You don’t see successful overweight fitness instructors for a reason.
  • Partner with (gasp) other departments such as HR, Marketing, and Communications, to keep the motivation factor. For example, agree with HR that evidence of collaboration is tied directly to performance bonus.
  • Eliminate temptation. Those employees who are not onboard with the program need to go.

As a learning professional, I could build all sorts of courses, microlearning, and job aids, on how to lose weight. Yet all of those solutions are no better than the noise screaming from the headlines on the magazine stand. I can design a multitude of evaluations that prove a learner can distinguish the nutritional differences between an orange and a chocolate biscuit. It still does not influence the daily decision to go for a jog versus binge on carbs.

I’m not suggesting that good instructional design practice be thrown away. Simply that learning needs to tackle the motivation factors and collaborate with other departments to achieve change. Otherwise, your courses could become the proverbial Thighmaster collecting dust at the back of your LMS closet.

 Like what you have read? I’d be grateful for a share, like, or comment. Really like what you have read? I am an L&D consultant and always happy to have a conversation, debate, or problem solve.