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Alison Maitland

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Director of Research and Product

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Learner engagement: how to ensure your learning and development programmes are not a gamble


Some organisations view learning and development programmes as an expensive gamble. To remove the element of chance, we first need to lay foundations for employees to actively engage with learning.

What do you remember from your last business training session? If you’re drawing a blank (or can only recall the delicious chocolate biscuits that were on offer), then you are probably not alone. In fact, more often than not, learning and development (L&D) programmes struggle to have a lasting impact.

Time and time again, research has found that employees are simply not absorbing what they have learnt and as a result are not implementing it in to their daily working life. In fact, one study showed that 70% of participants in L&D programmes are back to their old behaviours just a year on from training.

Far from being a waste of resources, however, when done right, L&D programmes don’t just deliver significant value for an organisation but actually offer a competitive advantage. The key to a successful L&D programme is laying the right foundations.

A human view of development

Many L&D programmes approach training with military precision and a set of rigid learning outcomes, but this creates a square peg, round hole situation.

Learning is more than a box-ticking exercise and it requires a fundamental change in our thinking. The starting point for development is a core belief in that people are capable of growing and learning – people can change.

This is why the most successful L&D programmes are underpinned by a ‘humanistic’ viewpoint – where employees are treated as human beings and not just ‘learners’.  

Organisations should take a learner-focused approach to L&D instead of just focusing on subject matter. 

This approach is the bedrock of L&D. From a strategic perspective, for example, the idea that we are capable of change provides the strongest reason for businesses to invest in a development program in the first place.

It also offers guidance on the range of tools and tactics that should make up an L&D programme. The understanding that we are naturally social beings who thrive off interaction can lead organisations to provide learning opportunities centred on connecting with others, such as partner conversations or action learning groups.

People make sense of the world through experience and reflection

The second foundation block of a successful L&D strategy rests on the constructivist view. I know, that sounds a bit complex – but it actually just boils down to the belief that employees are not blank slates when they step into a new job.

Rather, it recognises that we carry our existing learnings and views with us, and that this shapes our learning experience.

In practice, this means that organisations should take a learner-focused approach to L&D instead of just focusing on subject matter. Rather than telling people about a certain skill or behaviour, learners must have the opportunity to experience these.

The concept of ‘scaffolded’ learning, where people are given just enough guidance to support their learning when they start but this is reduced over time, can be helpful. In a group context, this can also be used to stimulate new thinking, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours.

Supporting adults to learn

Whilst we tend to associate learning with childhood, it actually continues long after people have left the classroom. Yet many L&D programmes neglect the differences between the ways in which adult and children learn. This is often the nail in the coffin when it comes to keeping employee interest in learning.

Adults don’t just need to know why they are learning something and the practical applications of what they are learning, but also that they are responsible for their own decisions in relation to this. Don’t believe me? Try convincing a 40-year-old to study Pythagoras theorem today!

As humans, we have an innate fear of being vulnerable, and seeking clarity from peers on a topic of which we are unsure can be daunting at the best of times.

Having ‘facilitators’ who know when to ask the killer question that shifts behaviour, rather than ‘instructors’ can help give employees the feel that they are in control of their own development, rather than strong-armed in to it. 

Learning takes place in context

The final cornerstone that’s needed for a successful L&D programme is context. New skills, knowledge and behaviours must be transferred back in to the workplace and acted upon in order for learnings to become concrete.

Creating a ‘safe’ culture for learning is essential to this. As humans, we have an innate fear of being vulnerable, and seeking clarity from peers on a topic of which we are unsure can be daunting at the best of times.

Organisations need to create an environment where it is not just ok, but encouraged to ask for help. This can be done by practising an ‘anticipate, accept and adapt to failure’ culture, which encourages employees to step out of their comfort zone, take a risk and if it is not successful, analyse why and learn from it.

Learning and development programmes are an essential part of business success, but they can often feel like an expensive gamble.

Paying close attention to the four foundation stones of L&D can help to ensure that you get the most return on your investment. No one would build a house without first laying strong foundations, and L&D programmes shouldn’t be any different.  

Want to learn more on this topic? Read Five easy ways to increase learner engagement

Author Profile Picture
Alison Maitland

Director of Research and Product

Read more from Alison Maitland

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