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Focus, group! We need your help
Seeking input from your end users is better at the start of a project than at the end.
With any workplace learning project, there’s basically two groups who you - the learning designer - are trying to satisfy: (1) the project sponsor or subject matter expert who has a problem to solve, and (2) the end users or learners who need to do something different in order to solve that problem.
Sometimes, the needs of both groups are in alignment. The Sales Director wants to develop product training to increase sales, and the sales team are excited about having this support to help them earn more commission.
At other times though, the groups want completely different outcomes. The Sales Director’s goal is clear, but the sales team think the product is garbage and no one will ever buy it.
Inevitably you will find out whether these groups are in alignment or not. So do you want to find out at the start of your project, or at the end?
Here at Mind Tools towers, we’re increasingly using focus groups to bring that insight upfront.
There’s various ways to do this. The nerds on our in-house Insights team create protocols, perform qualitative analysis of transcripts using NVIVO and then produce a written report. But you can also run a focus group more informally, just by gathering a few representative members of your target audience and asking them some broad questions.
Start by gathering assumptions from your project sponsor or SME. They commissioned your project for a reason, so find out what they think the problem is.
Use those assumptions to develop questions for your focus group. Two or three questions is fine, and you should use these to test your sponsor’s assumptions.
Allow for serendipity. Sprinkle in one or two broad questions (‘What’s it like to work here?’) that allow participants to take the conversation into areas that are front of mind for them.
Depth is better than breadth. Don’t worry if you don’t get to every question (but prioritize those you really care about).
Controversy prompts discussion. To go back to our sales example, you could say: ‘This product is incredible. To what extent do you agree?’
Gather a diverse range of focus group participants (ideally five or six), and gather demographic data like seniority, tenure, department, etc.
Start the focus group by highlighting the importance of confidentiality, honesty and respect for others.
During the focus group, ask participants to write a short response to each question (anonymously). Then, use those responses to spark discussion. This helps gather honest responses from everyone, without one or two vocal participants steering the discussion towards their perspectives.
After the focus group, gather your insights and factor them into your learning design. If you find out that the needs and concerns of your end users or learners are not in alignment with the thinking of your project sponsor, it’s time to discuss an alternative approach!
Want help scoping your project or running a focus group with learners? Get in touch by contacting: email@example.com (or hit reply if you’re reading this in your inbox!)
🎧 On the podcast
Of course, if you do take the time to speak to people from across your organization, you do then have to take their views seriously. This was a point made on this week’s Mind Tools L&D Podcast by author and consultant Patrice Gordon, when discussing attempts to improve equity, diversity and inclusion:
‘When I do these sessions, I talk about organizations that are “ask holes”. And this is where organizations ask lots of questions of their people - usually the under-represented - so putting additional burden on those individuals to share their views on ‘How can we make this a better place to work?’, without actually doing anything about it.’
Obviously nobody wants to be an ask hole, so check out the full conversation below. Patrice was a great guest, with plenty of practical advice on using reverse mentoring to improve our organizations:
📖 Deep dive
‘Cognitive Load Theory’ or CLT is a popular concept in instructional design for explaining how we learn (Sweller, 1988), and is typically split into three different types. I think of it like this:
Instrinsic load - How complicated is the material? Calculating 2+2 is instrinsically easier than calculating 374+451. But it also depends on the expertise of the learner. Basic chemistry might have high intrinsic load for a novice, but low intrinsic load for a chemist.
Extraneous load - Does the presentation of information make it difficult to learn? A long textual description of a process that would be better explained as a diagram is an example of extraneous load. The role of learning designers is to make decisions that reduce extraneous load, thereby freeing up mental resources for…
Germane load - How much cognitive effort am I able (and willing) to expend to learn this? The most controversial aspect of the model: if you have ever found it so difficult to learn something that you’ve given up, then this would be an example of insufficent cognitive resources for the germane cognitive load. Good instructional design optimizes the presentation of information to maximize germane cognitive load.
If you’re struggling with those descriptions, I can only apologize. Hit me up in the comments with your own takes 😉
One of the issues with CLT is that there’s debate over the extent to which it exists, and it’s difficult to measure - or validate - each type in isolation. A 2014 paper by Debue and Van De Leemput discusses measures including subjective rating scales, asking volunteers to complete two tasks at a time, heart rate variability, neuroimaging, and eye-tracking.
Why am I discussing this? Because it’s useful when we’re designing learning experiences to think about the impact of our decisions on a learner’s cognitive load.
I recently reviewed a course that asked the learner to remember three distinct processes: each with low instrinsic load, but taken together representing a high extraneous load and a requirement for greater germane load (remembering three things is more difficult than remembering one).
On closer inspection, I realized that the three processes were actually all variations on one process. To optimize learning, it would have been better represented as a single process where the type of input affected the outcome (slightly higher intrinsic load, but lower extraneous load and only one thing - or ‘schemata’ - to remember).
Anyhoo, for a more in-depth look at all of this, check out the Debue and Van De Leemput paper.
Debue, N., & Van De Leemput, C. (2014). What does germane load mean? An empirical contribution to the cognitive load theory. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 1099.
👹 Missing links
I loved this LinkedIn post from Matt Pfleger, Organizational Development Consultant at UMass Memorial Health. I’ve worked with Matt a couple of times on their Standards of Respect program, and in this post he describes how a ‘Ulysses Pact’ can help us break habits and change our behavior. A fun one for literature and psychology nerds.
In my article for Training Journal, I outline an approach to learning that is based on spaced repetition, retrieval practice and frequent nudging. It’s not my idea: political ads, advertisers and public policy messaging already adopt these. But check out the article to see how to apply these techniques to your workplace learning.
You could be forgiven for not reading the 94-page technical report that OpenAI issued with the release of GPT-4, but do yourself a favour and scroll to page 55. It outlines some tests that the Alignment Research Center (ARC) ran on our new AI companion: including one where the bot hired a worker on TaskRabbit to pass a CAPTCHA and, when challenged, pretended to be a visually impaired human.
We don’t deserve nice things… thanks to David D’Souza for sharing this.
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