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May 18

David Sharp

The DNA of digital learning: it's not magic


First of all, let me say that in (literally) leaning on Andy Lancaster's book in the title image of this blog, I'm not trying to impersonate him or to misappropriate his message. Quite simply, Driving Performance Through Learning (Kogan Page) is an extremely valuable and insightful guide to what's really going on in work-related learning at a strategic level, and if you haven't read it already, I can't recommend it strongly enough. I liked it enough to buy 20 copies to give to our team, and to pass on to some valued contacts.

It may be a great book, but it's not magic. If you don't know Andy yourself (I don't), he's Head of Learning at CIPD, where he has access to a hugely experienced team of learning and development specialists and to the latest data available about the discipline of work-related learning. It takes him to the 12th line of page one to explain how much work went into creating and producing what has clearly been a labour of love for him. Experience; research; planning; effort; all yes. (Not forgetting editing, typesetting, production skills from the publishers.) But not magic.

To make the point a bit more graphically, we asked the very talented magician Neil Henry to see if he could incorporate a copy of Andy's book into a magic trick.

See the trick Neil made for us here. (If you'd like to see the magic he's done with a host of famous celebs, on Britain's Got Talent, or when he proposed to his wife by regurgitating a string of spagehetti hoops that spelled "marry me", there is a whole YouTube channel dedicated to his work here.)

Andy has years of experience and a wealth of knowledge at his fingertips. Neil's been practising his craft for years, rehearsing over and over again until a trick is perfected. None of this has happened overnight. There'll have been lessons along the way – some of them hard, some of them expensive, all of them invaluable.

Digital learning is no different. There's an awful lot to understand – to master – which can't simply be achieved overnight. Or indeed over the course of a recent pandemic. It's much more than replacing training courses with Zoom meetings and webinars. Or 'converting' classroom materials into eLearning, which we often get asked to do.

Andy's book is a useful point of reference, because it explains so succinctly how work-related learning has changed, how learning should ideally take place 'in the flow of work', and hence why there must be so much more to digital learning than meets the eye. Driving Performance Through Learning isn't about digital learning per se, but the data-driven approach it advocates can only be effectively implemented through the intelligent application of learning technologies.

Let's start with self-directed learning, one of the main drivers for change. Put simply, this just means that the way we like to learn is different now. Rather than trying to absorb huge chunks of information and remember them later, people now rely on technology to give them the information they need, when they need it. That might involve Googling an answer, or your sat-nav telling you where to head next. You're in control of the journey, and the technology is there to assist you.

But – very importantly – the technology needs to be intuitive. If you have to spend hours learning how to use it, then instead of it helping, it becomes part of the problem. We all know only too well that the capacity we have to focus on doing something is limited, all the more so when we're trying to learn something new. Digital learning applied badly increases cognitive load – in the words of learning expert Dr Itiel Dror it makes you use up valuable 'brain calories' finding your way around the system that should be reserved for learning instead.

Ideally, learning delivery will draw on the fact that we are social creatures. Typically that means making content easy for one person to share with another, to rate it or recommend it, or to see what other people are learning so you can acquire that knowledge too. It might mean leaderboards, praise panels, or badges to encourage individuals or teams to compete against each other. But what comes with that is the need for technology to control those social behaviours at the same time as enabling them. How motivational are leaderboards for those who don't want to compete? How rewarding are badges to those who haven't attained them yet? How helpful are learner forums that allow answers to assessments to be shared between colleagues?

Content should be curated from carefully selected sources, to ensure it is authoritative. At the same time, it should ideally be customisable and directly relevant in order to ensure it aligns with an organisation's own standards. Most importantly, curation should involve not just the original selection, but also the maintenance of content. What good is content that is two years out of date? Whose job will it be to keep on top of the knowledge in the curriculum?

Most importantly of all, learning interventions should drive individual and organisational performance. That means tracking the impact of learning. Which requires granular data. And that means not just the traditional metrics that everyone is used to seeing, such as scores, completions, passes and fails. But rather, data that can be meaningful, both in its own right, and when combined with other data. For example, really good digital learning might help you improve the delivery of content based on user interaction; it might foster employee engagement; or might help managers reduce the administration involved in enrolling learners by recommending actions based on user behaviours. When combined with accident and incident reports, it might help managers direct specific content at specific teams or individuals, which could then improve health and wellbeing across the organisation.

These and many other principles of 'learning in the flow of work' are referenced in Andy's book, whose purpose is to help the reader drive performance through learning. The book was published in November last year, just weeks before the launch of the SaaS learning application we'd been working on at International Workplace, called Workplace DNA. I'd been eager to see a copy as soon as it was published, and we were amazed and delighted to see the approach we'd been working on for the best part of five years largely reflected in the principles in Andy's book.

Workplace DNA is a news-driven digital update service designed to promote continuous learning at work. It carefully curated and credentialled expert content, presented in a series of 5-minute microlearning resources. It uses artificial intelligence to personalise, promote, deliver and track learning. We've put all our knowledge and expertise into curating the content and developing an ecosystem to make digital learning work effortlessly and intuitively, for learners, managers and for their employers.

It might look like it. But it's not magic. If you'd like to find out how it's done, get in touch.

David Sharp

CEO at International Workplace

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