Resetting the learning function to a virtual-first approach

Cindy F. Cape

Learning and development professionals continue to be tasked with designing for a reality that is no more. The past couple of years have been full of scrambles, pivots, fits and starts as we navigate a continually changing landscape.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we raced to convert classrooms to virtual formats. Since then, some of us started to build in-person experiences again, only to have to cancel or convert them at the last minute. This unpredictability causes eleventh-hour reworks for our teams, sends mixed messages to learners and costs organizations money. It’s taken a toll on our morale and can impact the quality of the experiences and programs we deliver.

So how do we free ourselves from this painful cycle?

We recommend embracing a “virtual-first” learning approach, supercharging the empathy in our proven learning toolkit with design thinking, and intentionally incorporating more human connection into learning through the direct involvement of learners’ managers.

“Just as some companies have adopted a “remote-first” employment model, learning teams need to move to a “virtual-first” approach to design to provide the level of predictability needed to produce high-quality work for learners and the business.”

This approach is similar to how web designers employ a “mobile-first” mentality when creating a site or an app, then expand the design so that it also works on a desktop. In the same way, curriculum designers need to design to maximize the accessibility of learning environments — illustrated in the figure below — to provide audience coverage, then expand those designs for less accessible environments as needed to accomplish the objectives. Don’t get us wrong: In-person is still great, just not always possible.

FIGURE 1: Accessibility of learning environments

Designing to maximize accessibility could look like:

  • Starting with high-quality virtual learning, so that, at minimum, learners are always receiving impactful instruction that is better or equivalent to what they could experience in person. Use collaboration tools like Miro, Mural, Class or others to maximize interactivity.
  • Deploying the right blend of self-service elements like on-demand e-learning, videos and documents to provide coverage across all audiences, accessibility and preferences.
  • Layering in any in-person elements when possible and desirable, but keeping in mind a ready alternative to go online if needed.
  • Reinforcing learning through human connection with managers on the job every day and in a targeted way pre- and post-formal learning programs.

Our tools still work

The foundational tools of our trade still hold, despite the unpredictability and uncertainty we and our target audiences are facing. The ADDIE model and its many permutations are valid, and direct us to start from a solid analysis of our objectives and audience. This includes a deep understanding of the participants’ parameters and preferences for learning. In human terms, this is an acknowledgment of our learners’ day-to-day realities: Their availability, priorities and ability to access can change drastically with an email from a kid’s school, an unexpected exposure or a positive test result. Treating this reality as a design parameter dictates a virtual-first approach to design.

Adult learning principles also hold true. So does the 70-20-10 rubric when taken not as a prescription, but as a reminder that formal programs are meant to be the smallest component of your learning strategy. The concept that learning is a journey and not an event, the wisdom of flipped classrooms and the need to explain not just what they’re learning but why they’re learning to adults — it all still holds.

These tools and principles continue to be valid because they facilitate designing to “what is,” and right now, that means giving people more agency over how, when and where they learn. With options like on-demand learning, just-in-time training, live, instructor-led programming and micro-sessions that account for busier schedules, we’re creating new pathways for people to learn in their preferred environments and style. In our experience, this virtual-first reality requires us to be at the top of our game, up to date on the latest tools and technologies, and more in touch than ever with learners’ needs. 

Embrace a ‘virtual first’ design approach

If you haven’t already, your first step is to build the business case for “virtual-first” learning now, which can prevent angst and rework the next time you’re tasked with creating in-person events to help get people back to the office or build connections. We recommend seeking explicit sign off from leadership to exclusively create virtual-first solutions for the foreseeable future, unless learning needs cannot be met any other way — think of a factory floor, or other instance where supervised, hands-on practice is imperative. Why should leaders support this proposal? A virtual-first design:

  • Proactively considers the needs of a workforce that will likely remain dispersed.
  • Prioritizes building content that is flexible and scalable over time.
  • Takes into account unforeseen issues that can drive live training to a virtual space.

This approach saves the business both time and money by avoiding the need to reconfigure or cancel events and venues. It creates a more inclusive learning experience that enables access for the widest possible audience. Lastly, it establishes important guardrails for the learning team, which, as we’ve seen, is not immune to the various factors fueling the Great Resignation.

Supercharge empathy for more effective learning solutions

Your second step is to more intentionally center your learning designs around the humans they serve. While ADDIE and similar models consider the learner throughout analysis and design, we recommend incorporating a design thinking mindset to gain a better understanding of the people involved. As others have noted, the five steps of design thinking integrate perfectly into learning design models like ADDIE.

IDEO defines empathy — which puts humans squarely at the heart of design — as a “deep understanding of the problems and realities of the people you are designing for,” as well as the problems you’re trying to solve. We view empathy not as a single analysis step, but as a mindset designers adopt throughout the development and delivery process to ensure they involve and represent the end user (learners) every step of the way.

Learning professionals traditionally use a mix of data collection approaches like surveys, interviews and focus groups to understand knowledge and skills gaps. Empathy equally embraces qualitative findings. It asks us to walk a mile in our learners’ shoes, and uncover what they care about and why, and how they’re personally impacted by a specific problem. Seeing the world through their eyes helps us iterate quickly, discard less effective ideas early on, and ultimately create more meaningful and impactful designs.

Increase human connection through manager involvement

Taking an empathetic look at the human experience during the pandemic drove home the idea that humans need connection to engage and thrive in their personal lives, in learning and at work. From  adult learning principles, we know that social interaction is a central tenet of effective learning design. However, as many of us learned during an initial pivot to virtual-first learning, there is a temptation to over-calibrate on technology and tools, often at the expense of the learner’s experience. One way to boost the impact of your solutions is to examine how you’re intentionally building in human interaction as part of the overall design.

The human element most critical to learners’ success is the support and guidance they receive from their managers, and this is especially true in a virtual world. Equipped with coaching skills, managers help employees extract the learning from their successes and failures on the job every day. As owners of employee development, effective managers set goals before and reinforce skills after their employees participate in formal learning programs. Learning design that does not consciously incorporate managers into the learning process is a missed opportunity to embed meaningful connection that boosts impact and outcomes. And, research shows there’s plenty of room to improve how we involve managers in formal learning programs and how we enable them to coach for performance and development on a daily basis. 

We know that communicating clear expectations and goals to learners boosts the impact of a learning experience. However, in our experience, the majority of employees don’t consult with their manager before participating in a learning program. Post-program, managers are the first line of defense to flatten the shockingly steep “forgetting curve,” where learners can lose the majority of their new knowledge in the days and weeks following training, tanking the return on investment.

The solution is to include manager involvement as a design requirement before and after all formal programs. Learning teams will also need to be prepared to support a mindshift for managers who may view learning as the exclusive province of the L&D department. 

Further, despite the fact that 90 percent of organizations expect managers to coach their direct reports, more than half say their managers lack the skills to do so, according to a SalesFuel survey conducted by the Association for Talent Development. Establishing managers as coaches requires an organizational culture change, a significant investment in skill-building and a commitment to holding managers accountable for developing their employees.

In a robust coaching culture, coaching is an integral part of the overall L&D strategy, and building coaching skills at every career level is a primary objective to enable, accelerate, and reinforce talent and performance results. In fact, coaching may be the pinnacle of empathetic learning because of how it meets and honors individuals exactly where they are. It’s also one of the single most effective leadership styles a manager can use, with a proven positive correlation to creating a climate that boosts employee productivity and engagement, according to Korn Ferry’s work on leadership styles and climate. The direct lift in climate enhances team results, justifying the expense of coaching skills training, which is equally effective in a dispersed workplace.

Keep learning teams engaged

Reacting to the chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic has been all-consuming, and it’s worth taking a step back with our teams to reset and re-engage. Taking a moment to reflect and reconnect with the values that got us into L&D in the first place can give us and our teams the fuel we need to continue to innovate and perfect our craft. We’ve seen firsthand the positive impact a clear vision and caring communication can have on learning teams during these uncertain times.

CLOs can deliver a timely and empowering “stay” message to their teams: We’re in the business of designing to “what is,” and that means a “virtual-first” learning design approach that meets our learners where they are and gets our teams out of the exhausting and demotivating redesign/cancellation cycle. Your skills and tools of the trade still hold, and we’re dialing up our empathy for our human learners and business leaders for better experiences and outcomes.

From us to all of you — you’ve done an amazing job over the past two crazy years, and we hope our ideas can help you and your teams do work that is meaningful for you, your learners and the business.

Resetting the learning function to a virtual-first approach

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