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Steve Dineen


Founder & President

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Human connections: creating the habit for engaged learning

Technology is great, but real human relationships need to sit at the heart of learning design.

Contrary to long-standing perceptions, training courses represent only a small part of the overall way that people learn for the benefit of work. Learning today is driven by many different forms of content, and by ensuring these are always delivered in context and from a person of trust, we can add extra weight to their perceived value.  

We cannot spark engagement in learning without first creating meaningful human connections. 

Training courses are not all bad, of course, but they are frequently flawed. Why? Well, all too often they’re designed as a one-time intervention or series of interventions delivered outside the business and out of the context of work. It’s the equivalent of taking someone off the proverbial shop floor, feeding them content out of context, and then expecting them, as if by magic, to apply their learning in context three months later. It’s an approach that will have limited success, both for learning and business.

Instead, we need to change the model so that courses, and indeed all learning interventions, are purposefully designed for the business and delivered in the business. The work doesn’t stop there though, because to do so would neglect the biggest driver of learning: creating the habit for continuous learning as measured by engagement. Key to success here is designing programmes so that they engage people in learning for the benefit of work, and that starts with facilitating valuable human-to-human connections.  

Swapping control and command for connections

So what’s the significance of the human element here? In short, it’s everything, because we cannot spark engagement in learning without first creating meaningful human connections. Most engagement with learning happens because of the perceived value being offered by a known subject matter expert. It is these relationships and the subsequent value that learners take from them that intrinsically motivate people to keep coming back to learn time and time again.

To put it simply, people place higher value on content that comes from trusted experts. We know this because data consistently tells us that people are more likely to engage with content if it has been created by a subject matter expert and is delivered in context.

It’s a point that highlights a fundamental observation: people do not trust content in and of itself and they’re also less likely to trust content brought to them exclusively through AI or other technologies that omit the human element. It’s a trend that can be linked to the rise of ‘fake news’ and it explains why, more than ever, people seek information from trustworthy sources.

The way in which the learner receives content is also a key determining factor in whether they engage with it. Imagine this: would you be more inclined to engage with content that has been personally recommended to you by a person of trust, or that which has been delivered to you via an AI algorithm? It’s a no-brainer, you go with the content shared by the real person because you perceive it to be more valuable.

Evidence from different organisations tells us that when reinforced over time, these human-to-human connections are the primary driver in creating the habit for actively engaged learning as characterised by participation, conversations, sharing of tacit knowledge, and application. It is this continuous learning, measured by engagement, which is the biggest driver of business performance.

Achieve this, and the bottom-line impact for business will be transformational.

The definition of engagement

So we’ve established that human-to-human engagement is the ultimate driver for learning, but is engagement being defined in the right way? Yes, we need learners to ‘engage’ with content and the systems that deliver that content, but to talk about engagement in these terms is wrong, because this isn’t engagement. To engage is to have a relationship. Whether or not a learner engages with a piece of content or a learning platform is actually just a measure of their action, the action being the outcome of two or more people engaging with one another.

Let’s put this into context: Bob is struggling with a software programme. Last week his manager, Lucy, helped him solve a similar problem and so Bob views Lucy as a trusted subject matter expert. Bob is now stuck for a second time, so does he turn to chatbot support or ask Lucy again? He asks Lucy because he knows there is value to be had from doing that, and he can’t say the same for the alternative.

There’s plenty of other evidence to illustrate the importance of human connections in learning and it’s important to understand why these need to be built into learning design to support improved business performance. Let’s look at some supporting evidence:

1. The success of social learning

There’s a reason that social and collaborative learning at its heart is far more effective than course-centric learning. The former is driven by people seeking valuable knowledge from accessible and readily available subject matter experts. The learner experience is easy and consumer-like and, crucially, it enables them to gather the right information at the right touch points.

Most of all, this approach supports learning-led performance improvement that reinforces the habit for active learning and means people continue to engage. It’s the YouTube or Google equivalent of Bob walking over to Lucy’s desk when he’s stuck, and it resonates with people because it helps them to solve a problem.  

Employee sees leader actively engaged in and benefitting from learning, and they want in on the action.

2. ‘Follow the leader’ learning

Studies show that managers and leaders are key to creating the right environment for employee engagement so it would make sense that one of the biggest predictors for learning success is how engaged a manager is in their own learning. It’s a trend that is now being better understood and more focus is being lent to engaging managers in order to create a filter down effect to the wider workforce.

There are proven examples of this ‘follow the leader’ effect in L&D and it’s a simple but effective formula: employee sees leader actively engaged in and benefitting from learning, and they want in on the action.

The effect is then further reinforced by leaders actively sharing their knowledge and expertise with employees, often creating what is the ‘stickiest’ of all learning content. It’s a proven approach and it comes right back to the power of people to engage other people and create positive and habitual learning behaviours.

The key takeaway here is that real human relationships need to sit at the heart of learning design along with an understanding of the dynamics and opportunities that lie within these human connections. We know these relationships are essential to creating the habit for engaged learning and so we need to create platforms that nurture them via continuous dialogue and social expression, and by shrinking the distance between expert and learner.

Interested in this topic? Read Should we stop managing performance and start coaching?

Author Profile Picture
Steve Dineen

Founder & President

Read more from Steve Dineen

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