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How technology can help achieve behavioural change

This post was written by Imogen Casebourne and first appeared on the Epic blog on 25th November 2013.

how technology can help achieve behaviouralOne thing I’m sometimes asked is whether e-learning can really achieve behavioural change? It’s an interesting question. A lot of statutory and mandatory e-learning seeks to achieve something along these lines, but there is always a suspicion that taking an hour e-learning course once a year may not be fully effective on its own if there is an ingrained culture of doing things a different way. Certainly e-learning can be a factor in achieving change, but perhaps it works best as part of an integrated campaign, and this is an area where mobile devices have the potential to really make a difference. Research has identified three steps involved in changing how we think or act:

  1. Awareness – knowing that there is a different way to do things
  2. Persuasion – appreciating the need to change – starting to think differently, and understanding the appropriate steps for achieving change
  3. Implementation – making the change

To give a homespun example, I might appreciate that it would be in my interests to lead a healthier life, and have understood that in order to do so, I should eat less cake and take more exercise, but making myself actually adhere to this programme is another thing entirely. This would be an implementation issue, not an awareness or persuasion issue. On the other hand, recent Government campaigns to encourage people to eat more fruit and vegetables may have addressed the awareness issue (most people know), but haven’t touched much on persuasion and implementation, as a recent study suggested that many people are now eating fewer fruit and vegetables than they were at the start of the campaign. So how can technology help? In terms of awareness campaigns, infographics can make a big difference by putting the data simply and visually, as can videos, posters and clever marketing campaigns. Persuasion is more difficult. Here we are talking about case studies, champions, targeted stories, and evidence. When a mining company wanted to persuade their staff of the need to make health and safety related changes to their working practice, they had little success with an instructor-led programme, and far more success when they brought in former miners to recount real experiences of near misses and lucky escapes caused by inappropriate procedures. In terms of implementation, it’s interesting to see the growth of habit changing apps targeted at consumers who are persuaded, but need help making the change they have chosen. There are apps out there aimed at people who want to cut down on drinking, eat less, or exercise more. They work by linking to calendars and sending out reminders, by employing game-like techniques such as goals and leader boards to make the activity itself more engaging and by linking people directly to support groups of others engaged in making the same change. This type of always on-hand mobile support should work well for people committed to a change who want help making the transition, although it would seem intrusive to anyone who wasn’t, persuaded.  From an organisational point of view, it’s essential to be effective in stage two, and make this type of performance support app strictly optional.