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Learning and Change: When What You Need to Know Is in the Room

Irene Murphy, Organisational Development Consultant of LINE argues that learning and communications programmes need to deal with the human issues at an appropriate level of depth in order to get real results, whether they are face-to-face delivered or blended.

The brief, on the face of it, was clear. Here was a major financial institution, with serious issues around money laundering, needing a better way to do induction for its counter staff. LINE’s consultants were called in to look at the existing training provision and see where there was room for improvement. We found plenty of room for improvement straight away.

The first thing that struck us was a worrying mismatch between the learners and those delivering the training. Some of the people hired in to do the induction were ex-tour reps in their twenties; ten to twenty years younger than the people they were training. No terrible thing in itself, perhaps; but the really deleterious factor was the style of training this gave rise to: high-energy, fun (with a capital ‘F’); lots of ice-breakers and team activities.

The trouble was that the content of many of the messages was not fun at all. Banking is a high-risk business: men in balaclavas can turn up with sawn-off shotguns. The learners needed to know how they should deal with such an eventuality, should it arise. Instead of focusing on such (admittedly grim) scenarios however, the audience was getting caught up in the holiday-camp atmosphere generated by the trainers and starting also to laugh and joke and generally to mess about …. behaviour which was immediately stamped on by HR, who would take offending individuals out of the training room for a stiff talking to.

We felt the situation was out of control. The major piece of behaviour change we felt needed addressing was not that of the learners, but that of the trainers, who were wrong-footing their learners with their approach to the subject. We said as much in our report – along with some other recommendations for recasting the blend of learning media used.

We put the report in, and nothing happened for another four and a half months. Apparently the HR team who had given us the brief was absolutely gobsmacked by our response. It wasn’t that they disagreed with our findings: they didn’t. Our review had been hugely valuable, we were told. It was just that they didn’t know what to do with it. What we had produced was just so far away from what they expected – which, reading between the lines, was more or less a standard Training Needs Analysis (a list of things the inductees need to know and didn’t), accompanied by a proposal for cutting some days out of the programme by using e-learning. Moreover, the action recommended, and the level of decision-making at which it dealt, was felt to be above the ‘pay-grade’ of this particular HR team.

I tell this story because I think it is hugely indicative of the gulf of understanding we often face in bringing inquiry methodologies and theoretical underpinnings associated with change management to bear on the world of organisational learning. HR has learned to talk the language of behaviour and culture change, but doesn’t always appreciate the deeper underlying realities which addressing these issues can involve. Deeper realities which, as in the example above, are sometimes as plain as the nose on your face; but which in the wacky world of workplace learning we too often conspire to ignore.

Lest this article appear too negative, I also have another example to cite: a more positive story this time.

Recently we were called in by the director of sales strategy for a major cosmetics manufacturer. There was friction between his team and that of their largest retail partner, and the relationship was fast becoming toxic. We were asked to attend a team meeting (as communications experts) with a view to helping the two teams relearn their rules of engagement.

Was this a learning brief? Arguably, no – although you’ll notice I did manage to slip the relevant verb in to that last paragraph, so … arguably, yes!

A traditional consulting approach in this situation would be to facilitate the meeting, making sure they got through the agenda without any grandstanding and with a minimum of political point scoring, and then at some subsequent time to make recommendations for training courses that the individuals concerned might attend. Our approach, by contrast, was to work with the situation as it emerged in the room at the level of group process change, using creative, non-conventional methods to get people talking differently.

Ripping up the agenda, we worked directly with the two teams on the way they interacted. We got them to look at the types of metaphors they were using when they talked about their relationship (e.g. car crashes, divorce). We asked them to examine the assumptions underlying some of the statements they used, and to test whether those assumptions were in fact correct. We gave them ways of communicating strong points of view without causing offense. In short we made it possible for them to say the unsayable. And we didn’t have to wait for a Kirkpatrick analysis to tell us what sort of results we might get: the results, just like the problem, were right there in the room. The day was a great success.

And this is my important point. The change that you want to see needs to happen right there in the room. If you don’t work at this level, you risk ending up with people committing to action, or new behaviour, and this typically lasts about as long as New Year’s resolutions.

It’s as important a point to hang on to when you are designing blended learning programmes as when you are doing any kind of work with organisational groups: the human element has to be dealt with at an appropriate level of depth and complexity. Too often TNA just skates across the surface, and it would be a terrible shame if technology-supported learning were to support, and even embed, this tendency towards superficiality.

This point becomes increasingly important as technology takes up an increasing amount of slack in the relatively simple business of knowledge transfer, putting increased pressure on face-to-face interactions to do the heavy lifting with regards to behaviour change. Paradoxically, it seems, e-learning could be the cause of a real sea change in the way we use the ‘human moment’ within learning and communications programmes.

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