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Boss advice for learning designers
Why a Bruce Springsteen concert is a masterclass in experience design
Whenever it’s my turn to write this newsletter, I like to imagine I’m writing to a friend.
Unlike many of my real friends, whose eyes glaze over every time I mention workplace learning, film photography, or artificial intelligence, my newsletter friend finds my thoughts and opinions universally fascinating.
Naturally, they’re also a massive fan of Bruce Springsteen, and would be humored by any attempt to connect a Springsteen concert to learning-experience design.
Which is exactly what I’m going to attempt today.
As my real friends are painfully aware, I’m slightly obsessed with Springsteen’s music. I’ve seen the E Street Band several times, across multiple European cities; most recently in Dublin earlier this month.
In the midst of lockdown, what I most yearned for wasn’t eating at a restaurant, going to the cinema, or attending a sports event. It was hearing thousands of voices sing ‘Born to Run’ in chorus.
Because of this, there was something cathartic about the show in Dublin. While life has been more or less normal for over a year now, Dublin felt like a long-awaited light at the end of the tunnel. Fittingly, the show came just days after the WHO declared Covid-19 was no longer a global health emergency.
For my money, Springsteen is still the best live act in the business: his concerts a masterclass in experience design.
So here, in no particular order, are three reflections from the show.
Why three, you ask? Well, because…
Good work has the confidence to stand center-stage
Compare Springsteen’s tours to those of other stadium-filling artists, and they feel remarkably spare. There are no fancy light shows, no confetti canons, no spectacular backdrops: just a band, a charismatic frontman, and some of the best rock ‘n’ roll songs ever written. Sure, those additional bells and whistles are entertaining. But they don’t really have anything to do with music.
In learning design, our context is obviously a little different. Learners don’t typically cheer at the end of a course (wouldn’t that be nice?), and our first challenge is often persuading the audience that an experience is worthy of their time. But I think we too often reach for ‘shiny objects’ to achieve this, rather than focusing on the content itself.
Ask yourself: if you stripped away the snazzy interactions, video, and gamification from your learning experience, would learners still care about it? If not, that might be a sign you haven’t spent enough time exploring their needs.
Your audience will respond if you give them what they pay for
Unlike some of his peers, who rarely perform material from earlier in their careers, Springsteen almost never omits ‘Born to Run’, ‘Badlands’ or ‘Dancing in the Dark’ from a set. Even though he must be at least a little tired of playing them, he knows that these are the songs people want to hear, and one of the reasons they bought a ticket in the first place.
In L&D, we don’t typically ask learners to pay for the experiences we design. But we do ask them to pay attention to those experiences. If we only play the songs we want to play and not the ones they want to hear, why should we expect them to listen?
A custom experience will always trump an off-the-shelf one
One of the reasons I’ve seen Springsteen so many times is that every show is different. Dedicated fans make signs to request songs at his concerts, and hold them up in the hope that their song will be selected. While two-thirds of the set list is the same from one night to the next, the other third is built ‘live’ from sign requests or pulled from Springsteen’s extensive back catalog.
At an E Street show, the audience and the band co-create the experience. You leave feeling like you participated in something unique: more than just one stop on a months-long tour.
In the same way, learners want to feel that a learning experience is tailored to their individual needs. As Ross G has noted in previous newsletters, one way to understand these needs is by conducting focus groups, and involving learners in the design process.
Want to create learning experiences that rock, but feel like you’re dancing in the dark? Then email email@example.com or reply to this newsletter if you’re reading it in your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
How well do you understand the relationships that exist in your organization? There are all sorts of ways: formal hierarchy, online interactions, geographic location. But, in this episode of The Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Innovisor CEO Jeppe Hansgaard argues that it’s better to take a survey-based approach.
‘The best thing you can actually do is to ask people: "Who is it that they trust? Who is it that they would point to?" We have done that with 200,000 people and it's not an issue. It's all a matter of how you do it, and then of course asking the right questions.’
The right question, in this case, is about who gives you energy rather than just who you interact with. By asking this question, you can identify the crucial 3% of employees who have an outsized role in holding an organization together.
Listen to the full episode here:
📖 Deep dive
This week’s deep dive comes from our Head of Research, Gent Ahmetaj. Gent’s the kind of guy who has ‘favorite’ research papers, and he shared a few of these in a LinkedIn post last week.
One that stood out to me was ‘An organizational learning framework: From intuition to institution’, published in The Academy of Management Review. In the paper, the authors put forward a framework for organizational learning, built around four key processes: intuiting, interpreting, integrating and institutionalizing.
In Gent’s words:
This is a mega paper! It lays out how organizational learning is a multi-level process starting with “intuiting” and “interpreting” at the individual level to “integrating” and “institutionalizing” at the group and organizational level. Overall, the aim is to show how organizations remain competitive over a long period of time when these four processes work very well.
Having been just shy of 7 years in the L&D industry, I feel this is the biggest blind-spot, among other things, that we see in practitioners – strategizing aimed primarily at the individual versus seeing organizational learning for what it really is, as a multi-level phenomenon.
Crossan, M. M., Lane, W. H., and White, E. R., (1999), ‘An organizational learning framework: From intuition to institution’, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 522 - 537
👹 Missing links
While I’m back to attending Springsteen concerts, one place I haven’t returned is the office. And I’m not alone. In this article, Tim Harford explores the phenomenon that some economists are referring to as ‘Long Social Distancing’, and the potential long-term consequences of a permanent shift to remote working for some sectors of the working population.
It’s been a few weeks since I last recommended The Ezra Klein Show, which means you’re long overdue. In this episode, Ezra interviews Alison Gopnik, a professor of philosophy and psychology at UC Berkley, about the way children think, the power of play, and how this is helping shape AI development.
In this edition of the wonderful Platformer newsletter, Casey Newton reports from Google I/O, where the company announced a slew of new AI features. Newton argues that, as different LLMs converge to become functionally more or less equivalent, the focus on AI will shift from a ‘science problem to a product design and marketing problem’. Google has some chops in those two areas.
If you’ll permit me one last Springsteen reference, the soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 features ‘Badlands’ from Darkness on the Edge of Town. This new lyric video was produced to mark the release. Enjoy!
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