The one question every learning designer should ask
What if we did absolutely nothing?
This week, I had the privilege of attending the ATD 2023 International Conference & EXPO in San Diego, where 9,000+ delegates from around the world were discussing workplace learning.
If you’ve never been to ATD, it’s worth checking out. The event is huge, with a stacked schedule of concurrent sessions and plenty of fringe events where you can network and connect with old friends.
The Expo, where I spent most of my time, is also the ideal location to get a broad insight into the challenges and concerns of the industry as a whole. Unlike European events, where many delegates will avoid eye contact with vendors for fear of being sold something, the American attendee is more likely to march up to your booth and demand to be pitched.
This approach meant I spent a lot of time talking about our approach to custom content development, and referring to the job aid we were giving away to help bring this to life.
And one aspect of this approach really seemed to resonate with delegates: doing absolutely nothing.
As workplace learning professionals, our role is to solve problems. We either notice something is wrong, we see an opportunity, or we are asked to get involved in an issue. And, because it’s our job, our main motivation is to find or develop a solution.
But there are three possible outcomes to any intervention:
Things get better
Things stay the same
Things get worse
Because we have a bias towards action, and an assumption that our actions will help, we forget the advice of journalist Tim Harford: doing nothing is a sound strategy. And not just when it comes to workplace learning! The more a retail investor trades, the more likely they are to lag behind the market. When doctors go on strike, the death rate falls.
And so, whenever you work with a Mind Tools Learning Designer, at some point during the scoping phase of a project you will be asked: ‘What if you did nothing?’
I love this question. My L&D Dispatch co-author Ross Dickie loves this question. Every person we’ve ever worked with has loved this question, because it’s such a fundamental challenge to our instinct to act.
Often, it’s a way to refine our problem statement. If we can say what would happen in the absence of action, we can better understand the need to do something.
But it also acts as a check on ourselves: can we really predict the outcome of our intervention? Are we sure that doing something is better than doing nothing? There are costs involved in creating custom content or buying a platform, and there are opportunity costs that we often don’t think about when doing X means that we are not doing Y.
This isn’t to downplay the importance of solving problems. I get frustrated when L&D speakers and bloggers impy that nothing L&D teams can do will make a difference to the performance of their colleagues.
But it is a great question to ask to make sure we’re tackling the right problems with the right tools - and not making things worse.
At Mind Tools, we start a lot of projects with a three-day scoping phase before we decide whether to do something - or do nothing. If you’d like one of us to help you with this approach, contact email@example.com or reply to this newsletter if you’re reading it in your inbox.
🤯 If you’ll indulge me…
I’ve known Dr Will Thalheimer since 2019. He’s been on our podcast three times, and I’ve returned the favor by appearing on his show, the Truth in Learning podcast. So I was a little surprised when he came up to me at ATD and said: ‘So, Ross, what do Mind Tools do?’
The problem is not with Will. After podcasting about L&D for seven years, speaking at industry events, and writing this newsletter, I have come to a dramatic realization: I suck at telling people what Mind Tools offer.
So, if you’ll indulge me this once, here’s a short summary:
🙎 MindTools.com - For individuals, we offer in-the-moment resources to help you perform, manage and lead at work. You can call it performance support, microlearning, or job aids. For example, I use it when I’m involved in recruitment to brush up on interview skills, or use our resources on strategy to help lead the team. Costs about the same as a lunch.
🧑🏾🤝🧑🏻 Enterprise and Small Business Toolkits - As above but, instead of getting access just for yourself, you can provide access to your entire organization. Costs vary based on number of licenses.
💻 Off-the-shelf courses - While MindTools.com and our Toolkits offer informal learning, our off-the-shelf courses offer more formal instruction on leadership, management and compliance topics. Ideally suited to career transition points, like when you first become a manager, and can be built into larger programs. Costs vary based on number of licenses.
💪 Custom content development - My team! And what Ross D and I talk about most. We have four ‘Learning Designer of the Year’ trophies for the work we’ve done, based on our ability to define problems, assign metrics, and develop custom content that actually works. ie: Makes a measurable change to the performance of your teams. We quote on a per-project basis.
✍️ Learning Performance Benchmark - Good news! This one’s free, although we do offer a premium subscription for teams. The LPB is an annual survey that you can use to assess the performance of your L&D function. Benchmarking helps you reflect on what you’ve achieved, gives you ideas for the future, and helps you track how your team are performing over time.
🤓 Analyst Services - Our research team built the LPB (above) and frequently collaborate with our Custom team to run surveys, focus groups, interviews and observations. They can help with learning analysis and measurement, and we love these fellow nerds.
Again, contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to discuss any of the above. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program…
🎧 On the podcast
No matter how effective your workplace learning is, it won’t make a difference if no one uses it. So on this week’s Mind Tools L&D Podcast, Digital Learning Design Specialist Steph Constantinides from Heathrow Airport joins Gemma, Claire and Charlotte to share her advice.
She covers how marketing techniques and a network of champions helped Heathrow leverage the Mind Tools toolkit to recover from the challenges of the pandemic.
While her story is specific to our content library, Steph’s advice is applicable to any organization that uses digital learning to empower colleagues.
You can hear the full episode here:
📖 Deep dive
If you’re playing the ‘Ross-Garner-talking-about-anything’ drinking game, then sup up! This week, I want to talk about nudging again.
In a 2020 post from Scott Young of the Behavioral Insights Team (the original 'Nudge Unit'), Scott highlights this typical outcome of workplace learning:
‘Employees leave the room (or the call) energized. And then, nothing happens. They return to their offices, meetings and colleagues — and they fall right back into familiar patterns.’
Scott points out that typical workplace training doesn't work terribly well because it's conducted in large groups, dominated by a teacher, and evaluated immediately based on whether participants liked it. These are hardly new claims, but Scott does a great job outlining alternative approaches.
For example: spaced introduction of concepts, regular testing to promote recall, learning through peer assignments, and applying learning to specific business challenges.
Young, S. (2020). ‘Applying a Behavioral Science Lens to Employee Training’. Medium.
👹 Missing links
A highlight of my trip to San Diego was the opportunity to meet Jaclyn Anku from payroll platform Gusto, who worked with our partners at Intellum to create the Gusto Academy. Jaclyn’s an inspiring speaker, and her Academy site is beautifully designed in a way that most LMSs are not. However, what really struck me was that, because she sits in marketing, not learning, the metrics she tracked were all about revenue - not ‘bums on seats’. That financial focus has had a clear impact on the design of the learning experience, so it’s worth checking out.
Here’s a fun game! Presented with four images, can you identify the one that is created by AI? This experiment was developed by the nerds at Google, based on the the artworks on Google Arts & Culture. I have played multiple times and am truly terrible at it, so don’t ask me to identify deepfakes.
I finally got a chance to meet JD Dillon in person this week, and we had a natter about his new book (The Modern Learning Ecosystem) and his Dillon-esque approach to marketing it. I’d really enjoyed his ‘pitch meeting’ video (see link), but apparently lots of folks didn’t get the reference. Well, sucks to be them. What I’ve always loved about JD is his willingness to be himself. Check it out!
If you’ve spent any time with me in the past seven years, you’ll know I love my 1 Second Everyday app. Well, here’s my 30-second summary of ATD, one second at a time. Enjoy!
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