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Engagement for its own sake is a trap
Why you should resist the allure of shiny numbers
Loyal Dispatch readers may have noticed there was no newsletter last Monday. I was on holiday, Ross G was at Learning Live, and we decided it was better to skip a week than to rush something out purely for the sake of it.
While this was undoubtedly the right decision, the thought of missing our artificial deadline sat uneasily with me.
It did so because the cardinal rule of growing a newsletter – or, for that matter, any online presence – is to post regularly and consistently.
Put differently, I was worried that not posting would harm our engagement.
After all, we didn’t start this newsletter with the goal of growing a massive subscriber base. We started it in the hope of creating something the L&D community would find genuinely useful, and with the intention of highlighting some of the work our team does here at Mind Tools.
Sure, you could argue that engagement (new subscribers, open rates, link clicks) is a signal that you, dear readers, are getting value from the Dispatch. But it’s a pretty noisy one.
Even if you open the newsletter every Monday, that doesn’t tell us whether you’ve actually read it, whether it’s sparked any useful ideas, or whether you’ve done anything differently off the back of it.
But gosh, it’s nice to see those numbers tick up, and up, and up. (Honestly, we can’t thank you both enough for reading - LOLZ!)
This is the appeal of measuring engagement. Like a viral post on social media, engagement tells you that you’re a badass, that what you’re doing is wonderful, and that you’re undoubtedly having an impact. And you barely have to lift a finger to measure it.
The danger comes when you start making decisions with the sole intention of moving these numbers, and forget what you were trying to achieve in the first place.
In the case of this newsletter, that might look like cobbling together a boring post, just so we have something new to publish on Monday. Or it could mean writing more articles about AI, which has historically been our most popular topic.
In an L&D context, it might mean tweaking the settings of an e-learning module to maximize completion, or gamifying an experience to make it so ‘fun’ that learners can’t pull themselves away.
While these actions might boost engagement in the short term, they don’t necessarily help us achieve our long-term objective, whether that’s to create a useful newsletter or to change behavior in an organization.
Clearly, there’s a balance to strike here. Just as this newsletter can only be useful if people actually read it, a learning intervention can only drive performance if people choose to engage with it. But don’t let the shiny numbers seduce you into believing that engagement is an end in itself.
Need help measuring the impact beyond ‘engagement’? Then email email@example.com or reply to this newsletter if you’re reading it in your inbox.
🎧 On the podcast
We talk about coaching a lot here at Mind Tools. We have extensive resources on the topic and we offer 1:1 coaching through our partnership with CareerPoint. Typically, though, we’ve seen coaching as primarily a dialogue.
Unusually, Andréa uses collage to help her clients explore ideas, while Marie uses doodling and other creative techniques.
It’s a fun discussion, made even more so by Gemma casually referencing the Cloud Appreciation Society website as if everyone would visit this regularly.
You can hear the full discussion here 👇🏾
📖 Deep dive
A common refrain is that Diversity and Inclusion training doesn't work, but new research from the team at MoreThanNow - who conducted a field experiment with Ericsson - suggests that the problem might not be the concept of training, but a lack of 'salience'.
In essence, the team argue that diversity is front-of-mind when training is rolled out, but quickly gets forgotten amid the many other priorities that managers face.
To test this idea, the team delivered 5-minute DEI (Diversity, Equality and Inclusion) training to managers just before they screened CVs/resumes. A second group of managers received no such training.
The managers who received the training, for whom diversity was more salient, were 'significantly more likely to hire people from underrepresented groups'.
A note of caution here. By 'significant', the team mean that there is a high probability that the managers who received the training behaved differently because of that training. The researchers haven't published the effect size yet. Or, in other words, the level of change demonstrated.
But the concept of 'salience' is an interesting one. Other ideas they share include asking managers to hire for more than one job at a time, and asking managers to consider diversity when prompted to nominate employees for promotion.
Chang, E., Chilazi, S., Elfer, J., Arslan, C., Kirgios, E., Hauser, O., & Bohnet, I. (2023, September 1). Incorporating DEI into Decision-Making. Harvard Business Review.
👹 Missing links
In May of this year, Austria's Labour Minister Martin Kocher proposed tackling inflation by setting up a national food price database. This would track the cost of certain foods across supermarkets so that consumers could make better choices, but would take several months to implement.
When game developer Mario Zechner saw this, he decided to take matters into his own hands and built a prototype in two hours using just publicly available data.
Our takeaway? Trying stuff out to see if it works can be way more effective than setting up large working groups to come up with a plan.
Long-term readers will know that both of your correspondents are big fans of Atlantic CEO Nicholas Thompson. In this podcast, Nick describes his magazine’s approach to content development and rejects the idea that journalists should focus on the kinds of content that gets lots of clicks. In his view, this is a race to the bottom, leading to junk content that disappoints visitors to your site.
His alternative suggestion is to produce high quality content that offers value to readers. Then, once written, use social media algorithms to maximize visitors.
If you’re responsible for collecting data on your digital learning platforms, a nice way to think about this might be to focus on repeat visits and time spent on a page, and less about one-off clicks.
Here on the Mind Tools Custom desk, we saw a sharp rise in digital learning projects during the pandemic. That didn’t surprise us. What took us by surprise rather is the number of face-to-face learning projects that we’re working on in 2023.
In this piece for People Management, our friend Michelle Parry-Slater describes why that might be and returns to a key insight from her book, The Learning and Development Handbook: We should be ‘advocates of the right solution, for the right problem, for the right people, at the right time, for the right reasons, delivered in the right way’.
Face-to-face has its place, and so to does online learning. These methods offer different benefits, and we should be considerate about how we use them.
👋 And finally…
Here’s a thing: Did you know that there’s such a thing as the Excel eSports World Championships? This is exactly what it sounds like: nerds all over the world compete to solve challenges in everyone’s favourite spreadsheet software.
This fun videos features an overview, interviews with some of the biggest names in the… ahem… sport… and an attempt by the presenters to tackle a basic challenge.
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