Ross Garner urges L&D professionals to learn from marketing and make their learning initiatives short, easy to access, promoted often and absolutely essential
The world of work is complicated. As an absolute baseline, employees and managers are expected to perform in their role and deliver value for their organisations. They’re expected to align their decision-making with their organisation’s diversity and sustainability values. They must ensure that they manage risk when working with third parties, maximise profit without breaching codes of conduct, and protect the organisation from harm – when a single phishy email can expose their entire network to criminals.
Most people would agree that these are worthwhile goals, and yet mistakes occur. Why? Because human beings are fallible. They are, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein write in Nudge: ‘…busy people trying to cope in a complex world in which they cannot afford to think deeply about every choice they have to make.’
For learning and development professionals, the task then is a difficult one: to help our colleagues make effective decisions while operating in a whirlwind of competing priorities.
The task then is a difficult one: to help our colleagues make effective decisions while operating in a whirlwind of competing priorities
Fortunately, we know how to do this: in politics, political advertising raises issue awareness, alters attitudes, and encourages people to vote. In marketing, complex models help advertisers understand the impact that each ‘touchpoint’ has had on the eventual decision to purchase. In public safety messaging, many UK readers will remember the ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ campaign to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
In each of these examples, repeated messaging has the effect of changing human behaviour. In workplace learning, however, our default approach is typically to run a one-off intervention like an e-learning course or workshop.
This, despite a century of evidence that spaced repetition is more effective for learning than ‘cramming’.
If campaigns are so effective, how then do we apply them to workplace learning?
1. Identify priorities for your organisation
A learning campaign, by its very nature, is going to increase the ‘noise’ that your colleagues are exposed to. Instead of a one-off learning event, you might now have six small campaign events that take place throughout the year.
To make sure campaigns have an impact, focus them only on things that matter. If poor results from a phishing test indicate that a risk exists, then regular and repeated practice at spotting suspicious emails will be more effective than a one-off e-learning course. But if your people are already effective at protecting your organisation from threats, then there’s probably other priorities you can focus on instead.
2. Define the change that you want to see
In the examples discussed earlier, there’s a clearly defined behaviour that those behind the campaign want to see: vote for me; buy this product; prevent the spread of disease.
In workplace learning, the desired behaviour is often ambiguous or poorly articulated. Organisations want to promote sustainability so create courses designed to ‘raise awareness’, but it’s not clear what they actually want their employees to do.
Campaigns work best when there is a clear call-to-action: not least because defining that action helps clarify your message.
3. Identify communication channels
What opportunities do you have to speak to your colleagues? Email is the obvious channel, but you can also use instant messaging tools like Teams or Slack; Enterprise-wide social networks like Yammer; team meetings or all-hands sessions; videos on SharePoint; or podcasts for non-computer-based workers.
The channels available to you will vary depending on your organisational context, but mapping these is key to defining how you will get your message out there and in what format.
Another important consideration here is how your colleagues engage with these channels. If your campaign is ‘just another email’, many will ignore it. Ask yourself: where do people ‘hang out’, whether online or offline? What are their concerns when they encounter your campaign assets? What do they care about that would lead to them responding positively to your campaign asset?
4. Create better learning – not more
Learning campaigns should reduce the burden on colleagues, not increase it.
Here’s how to try this: take an existing course or workshop with a defined business goal. Now imagine that, instead of running it as it is, you are going to take a campaign-based approach where colleagues will spend the exact same amount of time engaging with the material in total, but only for five minutes a month.
If you only have five minutes for next month’s session, what would you include to drive a measurable change in colleague behaviour?
Compared to one-off events, campaigns are better at driving behaviour change, encouraging learning and – crucially – gathering feedback on what works. Experiment with different campaign approaches in different contexts: measuring what works, then focusing efforts on the activities that are most effective.
So next time you’re scoping a learning intervention, try to apply campaign techniques and see what impact it has.