Making Learning Easy - why I do what I do...

I've probably said this a thousand times and more, I work in Corporate Learning, L&D, Training, Learning (etc. etc.) for one reason.


To make learning easy. But why?


Because learning should be easy.


And when you're at home and need to learn how to put a shelf up, or fix a mashing machine then it takes you five minutes of Googling to figure it out.


So why then does it need an entire industry, three tiers of approval, millions of pounds in tech to learn at work?


This is something I've spend a great deal of time thinking about. So here's my thoughts...


Self Interest


Straight out of the gates with the sceptics view here. And it genuinely hurts me to say this that there are some people involved in learning that this may apply to. So here goes. I'm going to say it.


It is in the (short to medium term) interest of L&D Professionals, Learning Consultants, Suppliers, Developers and Facilitators to make learning at work difficult. Here's why this could be the reason learning at work is a challenge.


Some of you out there right now have genuinely zero interest or knowledge in Corporate Learning. You might have a need for it but you're not interested. So you let the 'Learning Experts' focus on Learning and you can worry about leading, selling, planning, analytics or whatever it is that gets you excited about your job.


The Learning Experts are then 'needed'. And this it he crux of my point on self-interest in Learning.


By making it so that only special people* are able to support learning and that its a very complicated business** then Learning Consultants, Suppliers and so-on will all be very much in demand.


It would be easy to just blame the challenges learning faces at work on this kind of scepticism. But I genuinely don't accept this. Because over time the 'mystery' of learning would become clearer and everyone would realise they're spending a lot of unnecessary time and money on 'experts' that aren't doing anything special. Subsequently the perception and value of learning would be diminished and the entire industry would crumble.


Conclusion: There are some individuals and businesses who operate like this and I'm sure some of you have suffered them. But even in my most sceptical of mindsets I cannot genuinely accept anywhere near a majority of the Learning Industry is focused primarily on their own interests. So what else could be making learning more difficult at work?


*Special People


For the record you do need special people to work in, for and alongside Learning teams to make it a success. Why?


Because I've worked some awe inspiring facilitators I wouldn't let near the design process. And I've worked with and managed Instructional Designers & Developers who will go on to lead the field but I couldn't risk letting loose in a classroom.

And I've been fortunate enough to work with incredible leaders who are clueless about the true science of learning. And learning consultants who would destroy the internet if they tried to build E-Learning.


So yes you do need special people to work within Learning. But that's not all. You need leaders who are aware of, but not knee-deep in the ground level so they can make the right strategic decisions to make learning work.


And you need data specialists to interpret the terabytes of data produces by an LMS to make it meaningful.


And you need people on the front-line (consultants, facilitators and administrators) who excite everyone they meet about the true value of learning.


More than all of this you need people who stitch it all together. To make the learning experience meaningful, remove the 'noise' that comes with an effective learning offering, operation and business. You need people who put the audience first.


It's this last one that's too often missing in learning. Because so often the strategy (even if it is gold-standard) is thrown aside to hit 'volume'. Getting bums on seats and ticks in boxes. So the special people in learning aren't able to do the amazing things they can do because they're tied up with all of this.


Conclusion: Special people are needed to develop and deliver effective learning experiences. The challenge is to enable these special people to do what they do best, instead of getting tied down with things that could be automated. Because when they're focusing on output after output they get tired. And they're not performing at their best. They're also not in a position to listen to what the audience wants or needs. So while you have a team of special people they're not doing anything special, they're just trying to get through another day. Which makes it infinitely more challenging to make learning easy.


**A Complicated Business


If you're not a 'part' of the Learning Industry and you think working in learning is easy that's either because the learning teams/suppliers you've worked with are either doing a really shit job (because the business of learning is in no way easy) or they're doing an incredible job helping you learn effortlessly and making it look easy.


I've touched on many of these themes before so I'll just touch them briefly here. Learning Facilitation/Training Delivery is an art-form. The guys who run in-person or virtual training and do it well are masters. I've been lucky enough to work with a few. And do you know why your learning is structured the way it is? Ask an instructional designer/learning designer. They'll gladly share the science behind learning. And how that translates into an experience that gives you what you need while making it enjoyable along the way.


And how did you embed that video? Or animation? Or game into the E-Learning? Ask an E-Learning developer. They can make even things like Compliance learning interesting!


Learning is a complicated business (when done well) because it means stitching all of these things together while also working with Subject Matter Experts (the people who are experts in the things people need to learn) and Stakeholders (of all levels of the business) to deliver meaningful opportunities for people to be better at what they do.


Conclusion: Learning is a complicated business. And it needs to be well configured with special people in the necessary roles. But too often 'L&D' or 'Training' is a catch-all for all business problems. So when they're tied up putting sticking plasters over the businesses other issues, is their any real surprise it's rare to experience great learning at work?


It's my view that this complexity and lack of focus on things that matter to businesses and learners (instead of just volume) that makes learning more difficult at work.


The point of learning


To me? Learning, in every form is about improving everything.


This means enabling people to be better at the 'technical' aspects of their jobs. Helping them develop the skills to become masters or to take the next step in their career. And to improve the productivity of a team, function or business. In every aspect.


Learning should be a source of business growth. In the same way plants use sunshine and nutrients to grow bigger and stronger a business should be using Learning and their people to become bigger and better.


And that can only happen when key decision makers understand that one pound spent on training doesn't just 'disappear' but generates increased revenue at a later date. It's an investment. Often Learning teams poorly track and report the return on investment or return on expectation because of the 'volume' focus I mentioned earlier. So decision makers are left blind as to the genuine value of learning.


And this is the fault of learning leadership. Because they haven't made the value of learning clear. They haven't articulated how every pound invested has grown. It's no easy task, for sure, but it needs to be done. And when decision makers see the benefits of learning, learning gets given the freedom to do what it does best.


Then there's the audience, learners. Do your employees see the point of sitting through a ten-minute video? A 15-minute E-Learning course. Or a two-day skills programme?


And I don't mean reading out learning objectives at the start. Or sending a 'welcome' email. I mean the real point. Have they been helped to understand how time investing their time in learning will make their job easier, improve their sales figures or career prospects?


Conclusion: Learning should be the core of everything. If it isn't there's some work that needs to be done. Because when leaders and learners understand the value of learning then learning investment rockets! And Learning experts can do what they do best. This means they can focus on making learning easy and effective. It means everyone will find ways to help break down the barriers to learning because it's a sure-fire investment.

I would argue this is one of the biggest contributors to learning at work being much more challenging to access than at home.


The type of learning


This is a hot-topic right now with COVID-19 creating a huge push to digitise and virtualise learning.


But this isn't anything new. Not really.


In the 2000s/2010s there was a push to move from Classroom to 'E-learning'. The trouble here is the way it was managed. In many cases it was piss-poor. Often driven by perceived efficiency and cost savings. The truth is E-Learning might only take 15 minutes for a learner to complete but it can take a great deal more time (and cost) to develop than instructor-led training. The long-term return is clear. I won't argue that.


What I will argue is the rush to turn a three-day instructor-led programme into an E-learning course in the same time it takes to create the three-day course does two things. It devalues learning AND means corners are cut to meet the timescales. Which means a poor learning experience, devalued learning and fundamentally an ongoing need to keep 'fixing' the E-learning.


Sometimes it works well because the subject matter is well suited, or the developers are amazing! And I can see that right now there are some amazing Virtual Learning Experiences being created by people who have been long-time advocates of it in an ever-more globalised workforce.


The trouble is it's too often driven by the need to be 'quick' and 'cheap'. The long-term impact on the value of learning is that people disengage, learning then need to 'do more' and there's even less clarity on the return on investment in learning. Which leads Learning to spend more time justifying it's own existence. It's a vicious cycle.


This creates a blind-sport too. Because while Instructor-Led Classroom, E-Learning and Virtual Learning are the mainstays of Corporate Learning. They're just the tip of the iceberg.


When I went on to Google to fix my washer I read a web-page with a load of bullet points. It took two minutes. When I had to fix my car I watched a five minute video. I didn't register for a three month engineering programme.


Then the next time I had to repair something, I had a look at it first. Using what I'd learned from past experience to 'have a go' (I've just fixed my shower switch this way).


So why don't we make it just as easy for people to learn, grow and develop in a range of modes? Not just the usual.


Conclusion: We must recognise that learning doesn't just mean E-Learning, Virtual Learning or Instructor-Led Learning. This could include coaching, learning in the flow of work, mentoring, secondments, apprenticeships, job-aids, videos, podcasts, books and a host of other learning modes. Too often we offer just a minutia of the options to our learners. Why not let them choose the mode that's best for them? Instead of trying to tell them what's best? Why not let people access the LMS on their own (non-business) device?


In my experience one of the biggest reasons corporate learning is difficult, is that because there's no clear 'value' applied to learning and the learning function is complex and unwieldy with little focus on the learner/business, it's also risk averse.


What this means is that the 'Special People' do what they're comfortable with to manage the complex ways of working and 'volume' demand placed on them. Which means it's the same old learning modes being used. They don't have the capacity or freedom to make learning easy.


I should point out, however that some suppliers and L&D functions have gone worked through this and are genuine superstars. So it's not all bad news...


In summary...


It's my view (and experience) that Learning at work is often a challenge because it's hard to unpick the years of shifting strategies, technologies and methodologies. And when learning experts are busy on the 'volume' stuff, learners aren't engaged and decision makers don't understand the value this means getting the vision, momentum and investment to unpick all of this is an up-hill struggle.


To 'fix' this it requires action on all fronts. Which is where I spend a great deal of my time.


As I said at the start of this post, I do what I do to make learning easy. So why?


Because at my core, I want to give everyone the best opportunity to reach their potential. This means I want to curate, design and develop engaging learning, that's accessible anywhere at any time on any device. And it means learning that's simple to access and complete. It means learning that's effective.


So what do I do to make learning easy?


I start with a blank piece of paper. Get to know the audience for the learning and the subject matter. And build a vision for an awe-inspiring learning experience that will deliver results.


Then work out where the business, financial and operations challenges will restrict the concept. And take out the bits that aren't do-able. What I end up with is the best-case solution.


And this applies to learning design, delivery, operating approaches, technology and culture. I always work from the 'best outcome' and scale it back. Because when you start from 'what's do-able' you instantly restrict yourself. And you often forget the audience. So from the outset you're looking at a sub-par solution.


Then there's access to learning. Even if you make it easy to learn because your solutions are perfect it's pointless if there are barriers to accessing it.


So my approach is to, again, start with a blank piece of paper. Understand the learner and business needs. And create a vision and strategy for delivering perfection. On the way to achieving this vision the initiatives might need to be altered due to financial, operational and technology limitations. But even then I still achieve the best possible outcome. Because I'm thinking big at the start.


So when I say I make learning easy, that's how I do it. Align everything to the learner (or customer) and build it for them. Not for me. And sooner or later the appetite for learning will grow. The culture will blossom and before you know it learners are demanding more, business flourishing and more learning requests than you could shake a stick at!


What makes me so certain I can do this?


Because I know what I'm doing, that's why ;). But seriously. It's because I've got experience in delivering these changes multiple times in (truly) global operations. I'm a learning tech nerd, so I'm always building my experience of learning technologies. I'm a learning designer & e-learning developer, because I love it. I'm a facilitator and coach. I'm a problem solver, strategist and all-round Learning advocate.


When I say I make learning easy it's because I'm able to work with businesses, teams and individuals to discover the bottlenecks and pinch-points that make learning a chore, take too much time or cost too much money. Then I find a way to make it better.


And you might think this is hard, especially in big organisations. And it is. But when you peel back the layers and get to know the people and the business you realise everyone wants to be their best. And once I've demonstrated how making learning easy will make that a possibility the simple facts are hard to argue against. So the time, money and emotional investment flows to make it happen.


About the Author

Andy Appleby is a Learning Expert who has worked at all levels of organisational learning across Learning, Telecoms, Energy, Insurance, Finance & FMCG sectors as an internal specialist, external consultant, contractor and supplier since 2004. And everything he does is to make learning easy.


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