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Phil Reddall

Capita KnowledgePool & The eLN

Vice Chair of the eLN & Strategic Learning Consultant

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Back to the Future: Maslow and Learning Technology


Over the last year or so I’ve read a few articles on motivation in learning, there are great ones out there that reference a number of theories… but one; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a classic) really stood out to me. Recently I was presented with the following statement by a client;

“We need to be more innovative, we need to use more technology in our learning!” When I asked why I was told “Because our learners aren’t motivated enough”

Recognise that question?

Although it wasn’t word for word this is how I responded:

 Let’s face it… all the innovation in the world is not much use without learner motivation. You can have the most innovative intervention your organisation has ever launched, but it will be nothing without the motivation of the learner to engage with it.

And that’s a serious point…

L&D has long been asked to identify its contribution to the business,  “What’s the ROI on this initiative” or “What difference is this going to make” those types of questions have had Learning Professionals scratching their heads for many an hour; arguably  it’s even more important in the current economic climate to demonstrate Return on Investment. But, how do we maximise our return? One way is to make sure we maximise the motivation of our learners to engage with the learning we provide.

As training professionals we use a number of ‘tricks’ to try and motivate our learners: relevance, interactivity, learning styles, varied delivery methods… to name a few. Many people have written about Learning and motivation, but what about Learning Technology?

What happens if we look at basic motivating factors, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, (we’ll first need to consider learning in general) and then apply that to Learning Technology?

The following are the five levels of need (from highest to lowest) in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, along with ways you could address each level for your learners. As Maslow stressed, the fundamental needs must be fulfilled before any other level can be reached because the first level involves basic ‘survival’ issues that need to be met.

Basic/Physiological Needs

One of Maslow’s key points was that people have basic needs that must be fulfilled before more complex motivators become a factor. For example if you don’t have the necessary food, clothing, water, shelter, and other crucial elements you need to survive, then you’re not likely to be too concerned about your appearance or how well thought of you are in your team at work.  Most of us can relate to the family camping trip where, showers become less frequent, mirrors are non-existent and where after a day in the rain the simplest meals taste better that can be explained by their ingredients.

In a training environment L&D professionals have long been addressing basic motivation needs by providing food and water throughout a session, allowing breaks, and providing a good lunch break with good quality food.  For right or wrong, many organisation collate level 1 feedback based on food and environment based questions. (The merits of this is best saved for another post)

They can also build training programmes and class content that adds value and that will help learners maintain their current jobs and ultimately move on to higher paying ones, which will increase the amount of money they have available to satisfy basic needs.

But how does that apply to the world of Learning Technology? What are the basics we need to get right before we can move on to more complex motivational factors?

For Learning Technology perhaps, as practitioners, we need to think about the basic ‘comfort’ factors in the context of the learner’s role. How easy is it to access the materials? What blockers are there to accessing the learning; technological, time-based, physical restrictions, comfort and affinity with technology, skills and capabilities…. And what about concentration levels?

Just as with the standard model we need to satisfy these basic needs before we can move on to the rest of the hierarchy. Consider LMS systems from 5-10 years ago; in the early days users might need to make 8-10 decisions and move through the same number of ‘levels’ before they reached their learning. Today, the best in class offers make sure learners reach what they need in 2-3 ‘clicks’, imitating the online retail world that is developing at breakneck speed - just one example of satisfying a basic need and removing the barrier to effective learning. Another example might be seen in the shift from ‘courses’ to ‘resources’ removing the potential barrier to motivation of a formal course in favor of easily accessible nuggets of knowledge that can be accessed quickly and efficiently when needed.

Safety or Security

Once the basics are covered then it’s time to focus on the next level; Safety/Security. To address this level of the hierarchy, you need to consider physical as well as psychological safety and security.

As a trainer you can do common sense things like make sure that the delivery environment doesn’t contain any safety hazards, such as cables from the projector that aren’t taped down, your course materials and resources that could cause a tripping hazard, or equipment that might fall and injure someone. You can also provide psychological security by explaining how the course will help learners by addressing the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. - helping to reinforce their position in the company, support them in achieving their objectives and helping them feel like a knowledgeable, skilled employee or individual who is valued.

For Learning Technology, safety and security can be translated into comfort and familiarity. In order to be effective, the design of Learning Technology driven interventions needs to have an element of familiarity and simplicity. This allows learners to feel comfortable with the delivery medium and focus on the learning activity. Without this ‘security’ the delivery mechanism can become a barrier to learning.

A level of standardisation, perhaps in the user interface or design approach as well as the look and feel of your interventions can all help to provide a balance with the innovation that is also needed to maintain motivation.


This level of Maslow’s theory deals with love, acceptance, friendship, and companionship. So how does that map across to learning in general?

At this level it’s about generating a feeling of social community or of belonging to a cohort. Many universities do this through the collegiate house system, giving first year students and immediate sense of belonging.  At a smaller scale we can do that in numerous ways in the workplace, including group exercises, Communities of Practice, networking sessions, ‘show and tell’ case studies, facilitating collaboration sessions and much more.

Importantly this is an area where Learning Technology can really shine. (Excuse the pun)

Learning Technology has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to really personalise learning and facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing. Blogs, wikis, social collaboration platforms for the enterprise, ranking resources based on usefulness/’likes’ and user generated content are just some of the examples of how technology can support these basic needs and reinforce the learning.

The recent emergence of the ‘Tin Can API’ has accelerated the ability of organisations to not only provide these features but also to track and record many more types of interaction. That data can then be used to leverage the final two needs, Esteem and Self-Actualisation.

Not only can these elements (and others like them) help increase motivation they can also support other pedagogic principals (such as recency) by preceding or following interventions to help reinforce learning.


When people are at this point of Maslow’s hierarchy they are focused on what others think of them, self-respect, achievement, and receiving recognition. It’s a fairly universal motivating factor, after all, most people want to be respected and appreciated by others.

At a simple level you can also build in little rewards during training in which participants recognise/celebrate the efforts of someone who accomplishes something, offers a solution, or otherwise does something worthy of group recognition.  At this level simply acknowledging the contribution can be enough to fulfill this need.

In a more complex learning environment, you can address this need by deferring to people’s expertise or knowledge (perhaps by allowing those who have proven their ability, the chance to be mentors for newer learners), by recognising accomplishments, and otherwise providing an environment where learners can feel the satisfaction of being recognised publicly.

With Learning Technology there are a multitude of opportunities to appeal to this type of need. From overt leaderboards (perhaps for a sales population with strong esteem needs) to ask the expert facilities, through to ‘most active’ contributor status on user generated contents or forums. Learning Technology provides us with great ways to speak to people’s self-esteem needs.


This final level of the hierarchy revolves around achievement.  It’s about the individual reaching their maximum potential and being comfortable/comforted by that. To this end, as L&D professionals, we need to identify with learners goals - what do they want to achieve from a given programme, course or session? Once we know we need to help them get there. This can be done through instruction, coaching, mentoring, and providing tools and resources to allow them to succeed. What is key in this level of the hierarchy is that the learner enters a virtuous circle of reinforcement where implementing what they have learned on the job helps cement their achievement.

Again Learning Technology can really help us here. Whether it is the on-screen demonstration of a learning journey with an individual’s progress mapped, or an academy structure that is represented within a particular colleague community that allows them to see the steps needed to become competent and move up the ‘ladder’ to the next role, self-actualisation is key once the basic building blocks are in place.

From existing business metrics through to bespoke 360 degree online reviews of transfer of knowledge to work, the virtuous circle can be enabled in many ways using Learning Technology

The key to successfully applying Maslow’s theory or any other motivation concepts is to remember that what motivates one person does not necessarily motivate another. In fact, what is considered a motivator by one learner might actually be viewed as a de-motivator by another.

It goes without saying that we need to consider all learners/audiences when designing and using strategies in our interventions.  And that we ensure we provide a wide spectrum of rewards, incentives, and opportunities so that we appeal to all levels of learning need. Just because it’s widely accepted best practice doesn’t make it any less valuable and it applies no less to technology-led solutions than it does to any other learning.

Current trends

So far 2013 has seen a marked increase in the centralisation of all of these elements into ‘learning zones’ that are a one stop shop for learners. If that trend is to continue and develop, then surely as practitioners we have a responsibility to ensure that we pay attention to Maslow, we need to look back to the past in order to plan for the future. After all, if we do, then engagement and motivation through innovation are surely one step closer?

6 Responses

  1. Maslow Problems

    There is a problem or issue with Maslow's grand idea, and to put it simply, the evidence doesn't appear to support the premise. The hierarchies do not actually translate to any acknowledged or formally recognized process of motivation which is supprted by decent evidence. The BBC only recently undertook an analysis of the Maslow pyramid, it makes interesting reading.

    Here's a revealing quote from this article:

    'But critics point to dozens of counter-examples. What about the famished poet? Or the person who withdraws from society to become a hermit? Or the mountaineer who disregards safety in his determination to reach the summit?

    Muddying things slightly, Maslow said that for some people, needs may appear in a different order or be absent altogether. Moreover, people felt a mix of needs from different levels at any one time, but they varied in degree.

    There is a further problem with Maslow's work. Margie Lachman, a psychologist who works in the same office as Maslow at his old university, Brandeis in Massachusetts, admits that her predecessor offered no empirical evidence for his theory. "He wanted to have the grand theory, the grand ideas – and he wanted someone else to put it to the hardcore scientific test," she says. "It never quite materialised."

    However, after Maslow's death in 1970, researchers did undertake a more detailed investigation, with attitude-based surveys and field studies testing out the Hierarchy of Needs.

    "When you analyse them, the five needs just don't drop out," says Hodgkinson. "The actual structure of motivation doesn't fit the theory. And that led to a lot of discussion and debate, and new theories evolved as a consequence."'

  2. The Maslow Mythology

    Maslow's Model is basically wrong and yet continues to be cited as evidence to support issues relating to motivation and behaviour. A moment's reflection highlights the point that people will risk everything for a principle (e.g. liberty) and rarely "regress" in the way suggested by the outdated hierarchy of needs.  For a fresh perspective, see

  3. Useful framework though

    Thought provoking piece, Phil.

    My problem with Maslow has always been the various caveats – "some needs are more important than others to some people", "some people satisfy various levels simultaneously".

    But as with many social science theories which are virtually impossible to prove definitively, that does not mean that it is not a useful framework upon which to build a system. It may well be useful to think about the needs of a specific target audience in terms of Maslow's hierarchy. Too wide an audience however and the wide divergence of responses comes into play, making analysis of needs so inaccurate as to be useless.  

    The danger, I think, is that it is so vague. Safety need – is that about the classroom ceiling not falling in or about believing that one is not going to be taken outside one's comfort zone? And what is "self-actualisation" anyway? Is it something (m)any of us are aware of?

    As a result, it would be easy to construct whatever you liked, justifying each component with some or other reference to Maslow's hierarchy. Thus the theory becomes what the user wants it to be and relying on it could be met with a resounding "So what?"



  4. Gary,


    Glad I motivated you enough to respond.

    As with all these things I'm greatful for responses … even when they don't agree with me. 

    I still believe that Maslow's theory is a thought provoking lense through which to view motivation of learners and Learning Technology. It wasn't intended to be an exhaustive analysis.

    It would be an interesting concept to look at another theory of similar complexity and see if changing over would affect the approach to Learning Technology.

    I'll see if I can find time to do that…

  5. JBilling

    Hi John,

    Wow it's been a few years…. Good to hear from you!

    Really valid and constructive point that you've made… I should have perhaps been clearer in calling out that any specific application of a theory to learning will, as a matter of course, have to take the specific needs of the audience into account.

    In my opinion that's the number one rule of learning design….

    To apply the logic I've set out here in a real situation there would be numerous audience specific considerations along with a host of elements totally unrelated to motivation that would effect the same parts of any solution. For example role based or technical infrastructure restrictions may remove the possibility of an 'ask the expert' solution meaning that people who are motivated by what others think of them, ie  'being seen to contribute' will need to be engaged in a different way.

    I'd hope we can all agree that there are some people that like to be seen to be making an impact (In honesty there must be a small amount of that in my decision to start this blog)

    If an organisation had identified that it's population had a high % of learners with that trait then appropriate weight should be given to elements of any solution that is delvered that enable that trait to be engaged with.

    Although not perfect (but then in business things are often imperfect) I do believe Maslow can be used as a good starting point to consider motivation of learners… certainly his theory is not exhaustive, but when we're trying to make sense of the complex corporate environments in which we work it can provide a valuable and simple sence check, perhaps beginning an organisations journey of understanding when it comes to the motivation of it's learners.

    So often the question of motifvation is not asked (I see it all the time) as organisations move at speed towards delivery of learning interventions.

    If a simple theory can be used to help individuals within organisations stop and think then in my mind that is a good thing.

  6. Missing the point


    Thanks for your comment but i think you've missed my point…

    I'm not commenting on the existence (or lack of existence) of regression or for that matter any other motivational point in theoretical isolation.

    Application of a theory (even one that has been questioned) can be helpful. Context then fills in the gaps.


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Phil Reddall

Vice Chair of the eLN & Strategic Learning Consultant

Read more from Phil Reddall

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