How to build the right type of learning material for your team

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Working in Learning & Development means acting as the designer of the learning experience in your organization. You have to put together programs that helps your team grow.

Still, as L&Ds, we have much to learn about the designer part of our role. But just taking a look around will help us up our game. Let’s use the UX/ UI Designers as an inspiration.

The job of a UX/ UI Designer is to understand users, their needs, and the best way to get their job done. On the other hand, as learning designers we have to go beyond that:

  • Learn about our users. How long have they been with our organization? How do they spend their time? What platforms are they using in their workflow? What they value? What they don’t like?
  • Learn about their needs. What do they know? What they don’t know? What challenges do they encounter? What about their mindset?
  • Find out about the best way to give people the information and skills they need. More commonly found as: how do adults learn?

If you’re a UX/ UI Designer at Instagram, you want to help people find pictures of their friends, of their favorite dogs, cats, and dishes. If you’re doing the same job for Airbnb, your users’ needs change completely. Just like users’ needs change in between companies, employees’ needs do so as well. So we have to make sure we apply the right methods and tools depending on who we’re dealing with.

But just like the basic UX/ UI theory stays the same no matter where you work, the psychology of learning won’t change. So this is where we should start from in our own learning journey.

The theory behind great learning experiences

Learn about learning

Giving people back their autonomy

Remember those days when you were stuck in a classroom listening to a teacher and writing down every word they were saying? You had no choice when it came to topics, or how to approach your learning experience overall. It was boring and you had no fun. Moreover, right now you probably remember less than 5% of what those teachers were saying. If it’s not fun for a kid, it will be even less fun for an adult.

Not just less fun, but even less useful. Why? Well, let’s talk a bit about John, a fictional character. When John turned 18, he moved out of his parent’s house. He got a job and gained some financial freedom. He felt good, empowered. He started cleaning his own house, waking up early, and going to bed at a reasonable time. He became autonomous, and autonomy came with responsibilities.

Then John got hired by you. Suddenly, everyone was telling him what, how, and when to learn. It felt like grade school all over again. For some Johns, it might be frustrating and they will turn their back on you. Other Johns will go back to their child-self, where they let others be the decision-makers, but they were disengaged, passive learners.

Instead of acting like John’s teachers, you should act as his guide. Show him around, talk about how you do things, introduce him to colleagues, spark his curiosity, and give him back his autonomy. Give him the why, and let him choose the what, how, and when. That’s how you will get John to be engaged, responsible for his learning process and a better performer.

Why learning everything one night before the exam doesn’t work

Let’s go back down memory lane again. I’m sure you had some sleepless nights before an exam. You stood there, focused on your notes and sharpies trying to cram every bit of information to score a good grade. How much of that do you remember now? Less than 30%. Yowza! That’s crazy, right?

It’ even crazier when you think we’re still putting people through that. We ask them to attend 2-3 days of training about these huge topics and expect them to remember everything and perform better.

Have no fear, though, there’s an alternative.

Using spaced repetition.

Instead of asking people to learn everything in one day of training, you can add space between sessions. That alone will improve the learning experience and add more chances that the material will be recalled. In-between session people will get the chance to actually think about what they’ve heard. They will practice. Come back to you with real world experiences. In the end, all of this will increase long-term retention of what they are learning.

The goal – practice – feedback loop

Of course, just repeating the same information over and over again won’t help much either. It also comes down to the nature of the practice people will go through in their learning experience.

Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist specialized in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance, asked himself a question “How long after one becomes interested in music is it that one becomes world-class?”

To answer it he began the study of 500 pieces used in famous music recitals and he mapped the timeline of the 76 composers. What he discovered was that 73 out of 76 of them wrote the first world-class piece after 10 years of working, so he named those 10 years, “the 10 years of silence.”

He could have stopped there, but something else they had in common made him curious — “how” performers practiced. He found that those world-class artists saw learning as a painful process, in which they engaged with passion, but with the purpose and tactics developed specifically to level up their game.

Tactics you can also use when designing a learning experience:

  • Set small, well-defined goals;
  • Design for focus;
  • Give people feedback as fast as possible or nurture self-awareness and peer-feedback.

Something else to remember when designing learning experiences? The employee lifecycle

As I was mentioning before, another thing you should understand is who’s your audience. Probably one of the most important things to consider is how long have people been with your company. You don’t want to focus on some high-level skills when an employee has no idea where to ask for a pen, right? Let’s see some differences in the needs of employees depending on their tenure:

  • To get to be fully onboarded, your new employees need to learn about your company, their team, their role, apps you use, processes in place. And they will most likely have a certain amount of time to do all that;
  • Those who’ve been with you for a longer time need to up their game in their field and acquire more specific skills. They need to know their performance levels, or when they’re ready to move to their next role;
  • Alumni, although rarely mentioned, are those employees who left your company. You might want those who did so voluntarily to come back to you at some point. So you might still want them to learn about where your company stands from time to time.

So yes, they are all your employees. But no, you don’t have to treat them all the same way. Their level of knowledge is different on so many levels, so their learning experiences should be different as well.

So no matter the size of your organization, if you work on premise or remote, or who’s your audience, start with these principles in mind:

  • What’s the best way people learn?
  • Who’s your audience and what do they need?

And then go deeper.

Learning experiences for all business sizes

Remember the UX/ UI Designer and the Instagram – Uber analogy? We’ve already established that the psychology of learning and the employee lifecycle stay the same. But the needs of our employees and the best ways of closing skill gaps differ across organizations.

Approaching learning in start-ups

Working in a start-up means your audience will be diverse. You will have two or three members in your Customer Service team, another five members in your sales team, a couple of developers, and maybe some marketing people. The structure of your organization depends on your industry, your product, or service. But you get the point. It’s hard to build a complex program for two people.

The cool part? Personalizing the learning experience will come way more natural. The not so cool part? Finding common ground between learning needs won’t be easy. But not impossible.

Use a learning stipend

In 2017 Buffer wrote an article about this new practice they had. Every month, they were giving all employees 20$ for learning & development. Everyone had the autonomy of using the budget as they pleased, on courses, conferences, books, or whatever worked for them.

Right now, learning stipends are common practice in the start-up world. They make people feel cared for and it sends a clear message “in here, everyone is constantly learning.”

Use a Learn’n’Roll set-up

Bookster, a Romanian-based start-up, implemented the Read’n’Roll Hour. Every Wednesday employees met to talk about a book. Someone had the task of preparing a presentation and making sure it was fun and engaging. So you kinda kept reading even when you weren’t. It was so cool!

Ever since I’ve heard of start-ups implementing short, recurrent learning meetings on all kinds of topics. Technology or marketing strategies their competitors are using, or just productivity hacks and skills they can use in their personal life.

Implement an All Hands meeting

Although not always considered a learning experience, I’m pretty sure this is exactly what an All Hands is. In this type of recurrent meeting, different teams prepare presentations about what they are up to, CEOs share goals and performance levels, and new hires get the chance to introduce themselves.

Sli.do wrote an article about this practice, emphasizing how much people can learn from one another about the company, ways of doing things, projects, and other teams.

Use mentors from outside your company

When you’re small, in-house resources are scarce. Especially at the beginning when each team is a one-man show. The most common problem is that they have no one else to learn from or share their work with. Right now there are mentorship platforms such as Mentorcruise where your employees can find mentors on all kinds of topics. Great way to use that learning stipend we were talking about, right?

Register your employees to open classes

If you have a couple of people interested in the same subjects but not as many as to set-up an in-house workshop, there’s another option. Helping people register for open classes. They won’t only learn new things, but they’ll also connect with different people, see other perspectives and ways of doing things.

So even when your resources are really scarce, supporting learning & development is far from impossible.

Approaching learning in medium and large size businesses

You’ve reached over 200 employees? Yuhuu! That’s cause for celebration. And a bit more work. You have to step up your game. Not knowing everyone by name makes it hard to keep in touch with everyone’s needs and wants. But it also makes it easier to leverage in-house resources, and get budgets for complex programs.

It doesn’t mean you need to give up everything you were doing before. However, you have to pay closer attention to the good and bad things that come with the new size of your organization.

Design complex learning programs

Complex programs fit well with groups of over 15 – 20 people. Those people have to learn the same things, so there’s a chance to bring them together. You can do so by hosting series of short workshops, encouraging self-development through reading, supporting individual coaching, shadowing, peer learning, or whatever learning methods you have in mind.

The more learning methods, the merrier. The more time people get to accumulate new skills, the better. Just like we’ve learned before when talking about spaced repetition.

Implement an in-house mentorship program

When teams start to grow and the level of expertise varies, you can design your own mentorship program. You will find that senior people are open to spending some of their time teaching the more junior ones. You just need to put the system in place. You can use mentors for new employees, old ones, or even alumni.

Just find the ones willing to share, and the ones willing to learn. Host some events to show them what it means to be a mentor, and what it means to be a mentee. And off you go!

Encourage in-house communities

If you’ve reached the point where people need to learn the same things or keep in touch with the same trends, you can even start encouraging small learning groups. You can have a community of new hires, marketing geeks, or tech aficionados. As long as there are more than 5 people, someone to coordinate regular meetings, and sponsors to encourage such an activity, you have the perfect environment to test in-house communities. Just look at how GitLab leveraged all kinds of group interaction. Isn’t this cool?

What works for everyone

There are, of course, some learning experiences that work for everyone, no matter your size, or audience. You just need to think out of the box:

  1. You can encourage employees to join professional communities on Meetup;
  2. Help people learn from each other through peer learning. Developers often do this through code review;
  3. Implement premortems and postmortems to keep learning from your failures or successes as Google does;
  4. Document your work so that people find what they’re looking for and learn in the flow of work;
  5. Facilitate access to e-learning platforms such as Skillshare, Codecademy, or CXL.

Tools you can use for your learning experience

Apart from our knowledge about adult learning, and learning methods, we can also leverage something else nowadays. Technology. We’ve already talked about some interesting tools, but there’s a bunch of them worth mentioning for different scenarios.

Workshop facilitation

One of the most common learning methods is, of course, the workshop, especially for mid-sized to large organizations. The format is dynamic enough to be used whenever you want in the employee journey, and for whatever topic. Any workshop, no matter if it’s technical or focused on soft skills, starts with an ice breaker. If you’re on the lookout for inspiration, here are some ideas. Moreover, if you’ve embraced online workshops, there are so many yummy tools you might want to check:

  1. Zoom. If you want to poll people or break them down into groups, this is the tool for you.
  2. Miro/ Mural. Any of these platforms can act as a whiteboard for your digital workshops;
  3. Kahoot helps with adding simple or complex quizzes to your workshop;
  4. Mentimeter. If you want to build an engaging learning experience by asking people questions during your workshop, this is the simplest tool out there.

Other cool platforms

Throughout your employee journey, there will be different moments when you will want to shift your attention outside your organization to diversify your learning portfolio.

  1. If you want to explore microlearning you can start with gohighbrow, Blinkist, or getabstract;
  2. As mentioned before, Mentorcruise makes it easy to find mentors for a small fee;
  3. When looking for workshop facilitators or e-learning designers you can trust Learnexus to make your job easier;
  4. When you get to the point where you want to start documenting processes, Notion is the friendly and cheap option.

Make technology your friend and it will give back 10x. Oh, and talking about giving back…

What do you get out of it?

When you invest in employee development, at some point you will want to get some kind of return. There are two places where you’ll find it:

  • In your P&L. When people learn they can drive down costs or drive up sales;
  • In your People Department. When your employees feel cared about your average employee tenure will be high. Moreover, your eNPS, which shows the level of engagement of your people, will be high as well.

Nowadays, designing a useful learning experience comes down to all these things. Understanding adult learning, marketing practices, how to leverage technology, and last but not least knowing how to measure your impact. It’s complex, fun, and you get to work in service of others. What other task could bring more joy? Now go put this knowledge to good use!

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