3 Workplace Learning Myths Debunked, with Nick Shackleton-Jones

December 16, 2019

Written by Tamara Burgess

Nick and David


Chief Learning Officer at Looop and L&D podcast host, David James, sat with Nick Shackleton-Jones to talk about the state of workplace learning. 

Nick’s learning and development experience spans almost 20 years. He’s led senior functions at the BBC, BP and Siemens — all which is evident in his new book, How People Learn, as it challenges learning conventions within the L&D community.

As organisations become more aware of how much L&D contributes towards employee wellbeing, the need to understand how and why people learn only increases. During this conversation, Nick and David dispute the common myths of learning at work, what actually motivates an employee to learn and how companies need to adapt.

Read on for some of the insights Nick shared in that conversation, or tune in to episode 8 of The L&D Podcast for the whole conversation.

3 Workplace Learning Myths You Can Now Ignore 

Myth 1: “Our Training Programme Was a Success, 94% of Our Participants Told Us So!”

Reality: You can measure learning KPIs like attendance rates, course completion rates and participant feedback scores as much as you want, but you’ll still be none the wiser on how effective the training was. 

As Nick explains in his book, “Employees are frequently bombarded with information in training programmes which they subsequently forget.” This approach to “training” can be easily observed in most companies’ employee onboarding programmes. For instance, a company invites a new starter to a five-day induction programme that tells them everything — from the organisational hierarchy down to the CEO’s favourite hot drink. This might feel like a fun, insightful, couple of days to the new starter but it’s pretty unlikely that they will remember everything — and even if they did, that any of it would be relevant — and applicable — to their job.

Nick refers to information transfer to a learner in this manner as content dumping. More often than not, content dumping starts from an ideology of “we — the company — need you to know this.” But the employee doesn’t care because it’s irrelevant at that time.

“Learners who are subjected to a barrage of information that they perceive as irrelevant — for example, not on the test or not related to their job — will be more likely to forget it. For this very specific reason, learner centricity must be placed at the heart of every educational design process.” Relevancy is crucial. It’s about giving the employees the right information at the right time. 

Myth 2: “A Training Needs Analysis Will Help Us to Identify Which Training We Should Deliver.”

Reality: The Training Needs Analysis (TNA) seems to make sense theoretically, but it’s actually flawed by design. First, the answer is assumed from the question itself. That is — nobody needed training until you asked. Second, the results of a TNA might be valid but when the training is packaged with common anticipated themes that haven’t looked at individual performance and capability then the actual needs of the individual will be lost. 

Nick illustrates these points beautifully through the Marshmallow Needs Analysis:

“First order of the day is to do a marshmallow needs analysis. You go around, find out, ‘How many marshmallows do you need?’ People say, ‘I don’t know, nobody asked that before, I don’t know, maybe five, maybe fifty, what are the options?’” Before you know it you’ve got hundreds of employees who are in desperate need of 25 pink marshmallows. A TNA runs the risk of creating new problems instead of focussing on the ones that existed in the first place. 

Myth 3: “We Asked 300 Employees What Their Current Challenges Are and We’ve Identified Three Training Courses That Will Address All of Them.”

Reality: By aiming to address all of their challenges at once you end up compiling a mishmash of stuff that won’t apply to half of those in the room. This checks the box of “delivered training” for the company, rather than addressing individual challenges. 

Nick explains, “You develop a standardised program or solution which will either neatly fit into one day or 45 minutes depending on whether it’s face to face or it’s elearning and then it’s sent out.” Unfortunately, the original learning need is distorted to such an extent that it ends up being totally impractical.  

What Motivates an Employee (or Anyone) to Learn?

Spiderman reading in the workplace
Spiderman has problems to solve too.

Thankfully, the motivators of learning aren’t buried in the subconscious under lock and key. Nick says, “Our challenges drive our learning. It really is that simple.” 

He adds, “the corporate educational model is perverse” because it doesn’t focus on solutions primed to employees’ challenges. 

The starting point of a learning environment must be the individual and the things that matter most to them. For example, when Nick was working in oil and gas, he visited a refinery where employees had family pictures on their desks signed with “This is why I stay safe at work.” Nick says that connecting safety in the workplace back to something that matters to an employee — family — was a great way for employees to understand the importance of learning about safety at work. 

Find out more in episode 8 of The L&D Podcast. 

How to Deliver Learning at the Point of Need 

Employees will make or break a business. Businesses that invest in L&D can expect to reap the rewards of attracting and retaining top talent by delivering curated resources from the bottom up (relevant resources) — rather than a generic hand out of content from the top (generic elearning or courses). 

Get to Know Your Employees

This step is absolutely crucial. How can you help employees feel happy at work without knowing what they care about

To get started with this, Nick suggests performing “audience segmentation” that splits employees into different groups based upon their wants and needs. A typical grouping is transitional, such as new starters or new managers. It makes sense to start with this kind of segmentation because it’s not based upon assumptions — the employee either joined the company two days ago or they didn’t. 

After you’ve defined a few groups, you can gather more information by asking questions. Taking new starters as an example, you could ask them: 

  • What do you wish you knew before day one? 
  • What are the highlights of your experiences so far? Why?
  • Do you have enough, too much, or too little time to do your work?
  • What is your biggest concern about joining the company? 
  • Where do you see yourself in the company six months from now? 

By adopting the attitude “seek to understand before being understood” you’ll discover gaps within your learning delivery that you didn’t even realise existed. 

Build Relevant, Easy-to-access Resources 

Knowing that learning is driven by challenges, you should find out what people are trying to do and why — then build the infrastructure that helps them to solve. 

Your workplace learning resources should be relevant and easy to access. If they are irrelevant, nobody will think about using them. If they aren’t easy to access, nobody will bother using them. 

When an employee asks for a certain resource, you’ll know that it’s relevant. However, if you need employees to learn about something that none of them have asked for, then you’ll need to connect it to something they care about so that it becomes relevant. To do this, you can adopt the push-pull approach: “A simple example would be a kid who loves Minecraft. They will gather an encyclopedic volume of resources and they will pull all the information that’s relevant because they care. Your first challenge is to get them excited about the game [by pushing]. Once they’re in, then they’ll pull.”

Meanwhile, adopting principles of good user experience design will solve the “accessibility” part of the equation.

Struggling to Make Learning Work?

Accessible, relevant resources will help employees to solve challenges when they arise. Find out more about enabling employees to learn, when they need to learn, by reading this post or start a free trial with Looop.

Ask Nick Shackleton-Jones for advice on LinkedIn or Twitter, or buy his book here.

Find David James on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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