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Nigel Paine

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Creating the engaged learner


Nigel Paine gives his top tips for creating better learner engagment.

I spoke to a Colleague last week about work in general.  ‘Hey, not too bad, all things considered’ he said, ‘apart from all this rubbish that I blame you for!’

The ‘rubbish’ he was talking about was, in fact, the development plan that he had agreed  recently, and the programme of learning that he was to embark upon for the next six months. As far as he was concerned this was all ‘stuff that got in the way of work’.  Another compliance burden created by those at the soft end of the business.

The sentence that immediately flew into my head was the old great software and learning myth:  ‘if we build it, they will come’.  Just because it is there does not mean it will be used or valued.  And a frame of mind that imagines that learning is just what everyone wants, is as dangerous as believing that all development is a waste of money, and the more you invest in people, the faster they will leave your company.

The key to all of this is learner engagement. Just as no one really believes that customers fall off trees, neither do learners.  They require nurturing, support and flexibility and perhaps some branding that associates what you do with fun, or cool.  Never take anyone for granted.  At the other end of the spectrum, if you can offer just-in-time learning that focusses on the individual (just-for-me)  there is no better, more motivated and enthusiastic learner than the one with a problem to resolve or an issue to deal with.  So what are the ten top tips on building and sustaining learner engagement.

1.  Be reasonable about timeframes and deadlines. Allow for commitments elsewhere, holidays and even sickness.  And offer plenty of reminders when deadlines are approaching.

2.  If you are reminding someone about a deadline, do not threaten or bully the individual unless you want a mass digging in of heels.  Be subtle!  I once persuaded a senior exec to send a ‘personal’ email to all those who had not even begun the programme, let alone finished it.  It started:  ‘I have really enjoyed working on X,  the three highlights in terms of my practice I took away were……. Please share with me your three top take aways….It worked like a dream.

3.  Make it easy to get in, if it is online.  Three separate log-ons, unique passwords that were emailed weeks ago, and multiple sign-ins are a huge turn off.  A link in an email that takes you straight there is perfect for the job.  Let all the verification and authentication take place somewhere invisible and behind the scenes.  Ask yourself how many websites you pursue when you have to log-in with a special password and then reply to an email etc.  Make it easy if it is face to face.  ‘You have been booked onto course A5, that starts at … on… Click here if you want to book onto an alternative programme.  You can rebook in less than 30 seconds…’

4.  Share highlights.  A useful insight from the middle of a programme can act as an incentive to work your way through to at least that point.

5. The best ambassadors are the people who have already completed and have found the programme useful. Use their words  to ‘sell on’. Personalise this:  use their photograph, maybe their own voice talking about the programme or even a short video clip. This is so much more convincing than:  ‘of the people who have completed the programme, 85% found it ‘useful’ or ‘very useful’!

6.  Make it look good, make it look exciting.  Don’t offer dull screens or terrible designs, whether it is face to face or on line make it look really slick and professional.

7. Pick decent venues if you meeting face to face.  A grotty location will turn people off ever showing up again. A great location can do the opposite. If it is a webinar meeting, then try and brand it and use corporate colours, check it all works technically hours before you actually begin.  Get a few plants to ask the initial questions etc.

8.  Be as flexible as possible: Not everyone starts or finishes at the same point or has the same learning needs and experience.

9.  If it is online:  get all your line managers to hold a brief ‘what is in it for us’ discussion.  The fact that it is happening, makes a natural deadline for completion as well as reinforcing the key messages for a specific team.

10.  Supply regular statistics about sign-up and completion rates.  No one wants to be first, but no one particularly wants to be last. Intensify the pressure on the remaining 4% or 5%.  Sometime a personal visit or phone call can sort out issues faster than another haranguing email.

Above all, celebrate the success of a given programme in business terms. Not numbers completing or smile sheet results (which only learning professionals really care about) but business metrics. Try to outline the general benefits and combine that with one or two personal case studies of time and money saved, bigger sales achieved etc. Win people over.  Convince them of the wider benefits beyond the personal, and help them build learning into the everyday job rather than see it as something extra-special and out of the ordinary for which a huge effort has to be made.

Nigel Paine is a coach, mentor, writer, broadcaster and keynote speaker of international acclaim. He is currently working in Europe, Brazil,  the US and Australia on a variety of assignments, that hinge around making work more creative, innovative and aspirational and making workplaces more conversational, team-based and knowledge sharing. You can read his blog at or follow him on Twitter:

He will be presenting the keynote address at the World of Learning Conference 2009, taking place at the NEC, Birmingham on 30 September and 1 October 2009. For more information about the conference, visit or call +44 (0)20 8394 5171

"Celebrate the success of a given programme in business terms - not number completing or smile sheet results (which only learning professionals really care about) but business metrics."

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