Designing Learning That is Relevant to The Learner

  • Dan White
  • January 14th, 2021

Making learning relevant and important to the learner is one of the key factors in getting it to stick; generic or irrelevant training is almost never retained.

Dan White, the director of Ezra's Impact Lab, discusses the patterns the program sees in selection of competency goals and how closely those in coaching seek to address their areas of weakness.

Learners Choosing & Learning Relevance

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years diagnosing, designing and delivering leadership learning all over the world to all kinds of industries.  So, you’d think I’d know what leaders and their organisations want and need in order to become better at what they do.

What I’ve learned is that what individual leaders want and need, and what their organisations think they want and need, are often two very different things. And that gap – let’s call it the relevance gap – is sucking the effectiveness out of a lot of otherwise promising learning programs.

First, let’s look at why there is a relevance gap.

There are many instances where our clients want to exert some control over what our coaches and coachees talk about. The motivation for doing this is pretty clear: organisations want to make sure the coachees (their leaders) are learning things that are organisationally relevant and aligned with leadership culture.

But in exerting that control, we are creating learning opportunities that are fundamentally flawed.

There is an assumption that when you gather a group of people for a communication skills seminar, for example, everyone wants and needs the same knowledge. The fact is, everyone has a different skill level going in; some will be very much at the beginner level, while others may be accomplished communicators looking for advanced skills.

Forcing a boiler-plate program on people with different skill levels means the content will be irrelevant to some, maybe all of the participants.

If we’ve learned anything about learning, it is that autonomous, less-hierarchical models lead to better results. Learning that individuals source and select themselves is way more relevant and thus, more likely to stick to the learner well after the moment or learning.

Letting The Learning Choose

Free White Paper Letting The Learner Choose (2021)

Instructors typically make decisions on who learns what and how.

But what happens if we give learners more control? We examine the benefits of a more autonomous approach to learning.

How big is the learning relevance gap?

The data coming out of our systems surprises me constantly in terms of what organisations want their people to learn, and what people prioritise when they are given the freedom of choice.

In our model, we identify 33 distinct competencies that we track as people progress through their coaching with us.  Typically, our client organisations choose 8-12 competencies to form the focus of the coaching programme, and from these the individual will select three.

We know that what coaches and coachees ultimately end up talking about won’t always be limited to this narrow band of competencies. But all of the competencies offered are by and large relevant to both individual in organisation. But there are some important points of divergence.

Hits and Misses

In 2020, our client organisations overwhelmingly chose Resilience as the top competency to work on with coachees. However, it was largely rejected by the individual learner; Resilience only narrowly squeezed into the top 20 competencies selected by coachees.

Similarly Trust & Relationships ranked quite high (9th out of 33) with client organizations. But when presented to coachees, it came in at a lowly 28th.

If coachees are ambivalent about things like Resilience and Trust & Relationships, what are they keen to learn?

Overwhelmingly, coachees seem to gravitate towards a constellation of core competencies that form what we call Ezra’s greatest hits: Influence, Leading Change, Shaping the Strategy and Communication.

It’s not surprising that many coachees would identify these top four competencies.  They are all a critical part of a leader’s responsibility to initiate, implement and embed change.

Having said that, there is still a gap at play.

Those top four competencies are generally selected by more than 40 per cent of coachees, when they are included in a shortlist. That is good news because it means coachee and organisation are aligned in at least 40 per cent of engagement. But it also means that 60 per cent of the coachee group are focused on other competencies.

The problem of learning hits and misses becomes more pronounced when you break things down into coachee appetite for individual competencies. Take Influence for example.

Consistently, our data shows that this is the single most popular competency identified by coachees, with a 53-per-cent hit rate. However, that still means that Influence is a miss for 47 per cent of coachees. And the miss rate only gets bigger and more problematic as you move through the list of competencies.

Those numbers expose the hit and misses for the individual coachee; there are also concerns around hits and misses for the organisation. For example, while coachees were bullish on Influence, Leading Change, Shaping the Strategy and Communication, their line managers rated those four competencies at the very bottom of their list of priorities.

How technology could help close the relevance gap

When we deliver face to face learning, something I’ve done a lot, it’s not unusual for me to get the sense that not all of the content is relevant to all of the learners.

You’re up at the front of the seminar room, delivering a carefully prepared session, and you start to notice that while some people are highly engaged, others are languishing in different states of uninterest – from mildly distracted to “what am I going to make for dinner?”

This is a scenario created by the learning relevance gap. The good news is that there is a solution, although it’s going to require organisations to set different expectations around learning.

Virtual learning is the ultimate antidote to the learning relevance gap. It allows people to focus only on what they really need. Even before the pandemic forced us to embrace virtual interactions, there was growing evidence that more autonomous learning modalities, driven by virtual platforms, can tailor learning in a way that makes it stickier. People get to learn what they want, when they want.

For a long time, those of us designing and delivering learning have known that our role is less about presenting curriculum and more about “curating learning experiences.”

If we adopt that mindset, we can help individual learners understand the potential they have as leaders while also helping them grasp the expectations the organisation has of them?  With the right environment and opportunities, people will find the learning that is most relevant to them. As a result, what they’ve learned will stick for a much longer time.

In a world where virtual learning solutions are more abundantly available, we don’t need to accept learning hits and misses anymore. And that should make investments in learning much more cost effective.

Put learners back in control of their own development with Ezra’s world-class employee coaching, built to fit into today’s working life. We’ve redesigned leadership coaching for the modern age to help transform people through affordable, scalable and high-impact solutions, with equitable access through our world-class coaching app. Find out today how digital coaching could make a big difference to your organization.

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