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Learning From Monkey Business

In the immortal words of Prince, “Dig, if you will, a picture…”:

Company ABC is introducing a new CRM solution and migrating from Outlook to Slack. Bonus points: they have dismantled their entire L&D team. Not one piece of internally developed learning content, SME blessed, and wrapped in shiny SCORM foil, will sit on the LMS. There will be no classroom event and you can forget about that continental breakfast. Employees will receive a few communications about the change and the following Monday, arrive to a new desktop.

Some experiments are cruel. Case in point: Harlow’s Rhesus monkey case study. In case you missed it, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and given wire or cloth pseudo-mothers so psychologists could learn about attachment. Yay science! Not so good for the baby monkeys.

Few, if any, would be willing to take on the Company ABC experiment, which is sad. It is an interesting scenario to postulate upon, especially on a snowy afternoon like today.

If we delivered no support tools, infographics, or job aids, what would be the outcome on an audience? Would there be shrieking and poop throwing, or would teams learn to adapt, eventually settling back into banana eating and grooming?

This is what I think would happen:

Yes, there would be initial uncertainty; likely complaining and a loss of productivity for a spell. Eventually, there would be adaptation. Sales staff hungry to close deals would team up to figure out the CRM through trial and error. They would ferret out job aids and tools on the CRM product website, and join online forums to ask questions to other users. As for Slack, there is a short tutorial from the developers, plus a Slackbot to answer questions. As incredible as it sounds, users just might figure it out. Dare I say, they would *gasp* learn. And they would do it without our efforts.

One of the most common complaints I hear from L&D professionals is that learning is always consulted too late. By the time a project team thinks about training, the timeframe to design, develop, and deploy, is too short. Or is it? Nature abhors a vacuum and the more projects I oversee I have discovered that L&D people love to fill space. Without supervision, we happily performance consult, document performance outcomes, write learning objectives, draft storyboards, three rounds of SME feedback, Alpha and Beta testing, and do not forget Kirkpatrick levels 1-4. Cue the dopamine rush!

For those who follow my posts (thank you!) know I have been on this soapbox for a while. Interestingly enough, my last article, “Dear ADDIE, it’s not me, it’s you” actually generated some LinkedIn hate mail. I was in equal parts, both horrified and impressed. There were also a large number of people who are ready to move to more agile models, which was inspiring. (As for ADDIE, I quote Taylor Swift: “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together”).

It is not so much about challenging the status quo, but it is about thinking hard about what a learning experience is. Do we need to architect every bit of the 70:20:10? (And yes, I have my skeptical thoughts on 70:20:10, but I will be quiet) Applying a new lens, I now view learning initiatives like big adult colouring books. The temptation for us to fill in every single space is great…cue dopamine rush #2. Maybe we leave some blanks for learners to colour in.

Consider the course navigation page. We used to build these when eLearning was still new to our audiences. It supposedly reduced stress within the learning environment. That was ten years ago and some courses still have this page and they do our learners a disservice. First of all, if your design is not intuitive, that is to your shame. Secondly, spoon feeding navigation does not allow for the natural increase of digital literacy and competency that comes from exploration and doing (remember that 70%?).

Take a long look at your learning objectives and consider: what pieces of content design fall into the “obvious” category? Detailed job aids on technology platforms may ensure every eventual question is covered. They might also result in over-reliance on the tools instead of being learning to be self-sufficient at problem-solving within the application. It is the proverbial, give a man fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life.

Once you have filtered out this “obvious” content, what can you embed to increase or enhance other competencies on top of the set learning objectives? This is the “team a man to fish”, or what I like to call, the 2-for-1 special. A course about effective sales conversations could also increase mobile learning literacy. Likewise, a module about agile project management might also sharpen triangulation of data skills.

There is a lot of talk about whether we are seeing the death of the instructional designer. I think we are seeing the cannibalization of L&D. There are so many ways we need to evolve, but stall. It is not enough to simply be faster, we need to develop smarter. At the start of your next project, instead of performance consulting (which is valuable), ask one simple question: “What would happen if there was no learning?”. Work backwards, and ruthlessly, to build your framework. Streamline your design to give your learners opportunities to stretch.

Thinking back to Harlow’s poor experiment, maybe the baby rhesus monkey is actually, well, us. We are the wide-eyed, panicked stricken ones clinging to the cloth of ADDIE, or the artificial wire frame of learning styles (which are total BS). That position is una-peel-ing (my bad banana pun).