Learning without noticing: reaching the modern learner - Davies

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Learning without noticing: reaching the modern learner

Provide employees with opportunities to learn even when they don’t realise it

Back in 2017, Josh Bersin revealed his famous Bersin by Deloitte infographic “Meet the Modern Learner.” This clever illustration really drove home the seemingly never-ending battle that learning and development (L&D) teams face when it comes to engaging workers who are limited on both time and attention. Seven years later, not only does this still ring true, but if anything, things have ramped up considerably. 

Today, more than ever, our biggest barrier to learning is… (drumroll please) …Time.

  • The average worker now spends a whopping 25% of their day just reading and responding to emails.
  • The average mobile phone user checks their phone 150 times a day.
  • Knowledge workers spend nearly 20% of their time searching for information and data. Vital tasks, but time-draining.
  • Only 20 minutes a week on average goes to actual learning for work. That’s roughly 1% of workers’ time.
  • So, if we know time limitations are the prime obstacle, how can we effectively reach busy learners? 

It starts by providing employees with opportunities to learn even when they don’t realise it. We can do this by infusing learning throughout their regular workday. For L&D pros, this comes down to three key tactics that we will share in this blog. 

Initiative 1: Think holistically 

Rather than creating a formal, centralised destination or tech stack for learning, L&D needs to embed learning throughout the organisation. Sure, that may sound simplistic, but when done right, it can result in a hugely impactful shift in how you deliver and support learning. 

By deeply understanding what employees are actually doing day-to-day, their environment, and the tools they use, you can seamlessly integrate learning opportunities into their workflow (so that it does not become a distraction, but it becomes an enabler of productivity). 

As such, getting an accurate picture of your audience (like a savvy Product Manager understands their users), as well as fundamentally grasping how individuals currently work, will ensure you are much more tuned into what employees require.  

Mature L&D organisations that have robust learning initiative development and close business partnerships are taking a fresh approach. They’re borrowing skills and capabilities from other functions: marketing, finance, analytics, and technology. 

 For instance, leveraging marketing’s ethnographic research techniques and customer experience (CX) expertise to deeply understand how the drivers of individual productivity.  

This cross-functional borrowing allows L&D teams to thoroughly grasp what enables employees to perform at their best. It’s about gaining insights from across the business to embed learning in a way that aligns with employee workflows and priorities. 

Initiative 2:  Emphasise experiential learning

Here, we’re using the term “experiential” to mean learning through experience and then reinforcing the lessons through reflection or action. Insights from a 2005 University of San Diego Study support the discussion about how humans learn ‘without noticing’. 

 The study made a truly clear distinction between declarative learning (rote/memorisation – the classic ‘knowledge ‘push’ employed by many organisations), and habit-based learning (defined as a gradual change in behaviour arrived at unconsciously through trial and error. 

In fact, entirely separate areas of the brain are responsible for these two types of learning. The Medial Temporal Lobe is associated with the formation of new conscious memories (declarative intentional learning), while the Basal Ganglia are a group of nuclei that are responsible for habitual responses to repeated stimuli (habit-based learning). The study showed that habit learning is well-developed in humans and that it works truly independently of consciousness. 

With this in mind, experiential learning has the potential to deliver far greater outcomes than formal learning programmes alone. After all, some of the most impactful experiences people describe are often related to exposure to projects and teams that they may not usually be part of.  

Initiative 3: Design for human behaviour

Building on Initiative Two’s focus on experiential learning – we should also tap into the power of habits to drive long-term change. It’s time for L&D to engage with the science of embedding desirable new traits in behaviours. Ultimately, a habit is just a behaviour repeated enough to become automatic. In learning terms, that means our audience has not only absorbed new information but have internalised it fully so that it becomes their new status quo. 

James Clear’s excellent book Atomic Habits has a useful (and near-universally applicable) set of questions to ask to support behaviour change learning programmes. 

  1. How can we make it obvious? (Cue) 
  2. How can we make it attractive? (Craving) 
  3. How can we make it easy? (Response) 
  4. How can we make it satisfying? (Reward) 
Applying the framework: Onboarding example 

Take the example of an onboarding programme, a particularly important L&D initiative where we want learners to quickly become confident and competent at their new workplace. We also want them to swiftly engage with company culture, values, and their team. 

So, taking question 1 – we need to consider how we make it obvious. What cues can we integrate into onboarding? This focuses on the environment to drive engagement – often combining intentional cues (like dedicating set times and locations) and bold visual cues to grab attention.  

This means making it one of the first things they see so that it significantly stands out from other visual cues in their world.  

A practical cue could be pre-populating new hires’ calendars (and their managers’ calendars) with onboarding time slots, providing a walkthrough of what will happen and when even before Day 1.  

Visual cues could include an onboarding brand identity so programme elements are instantly recognisable.  We could go one step further and identify a whole special ‘context’ to deliver the onboarding – a dedicated place (physical or virtual) where the key elements with the most important messages happen. 

We can then build on questions 2-4, making the experience attractive, easy, and satisfying.

Meet the author

Felicity Whyte

Growth and Innovation Consultant

People & Organisational Performance

I thrive on collaborating with and advocating for our global clients, helping them to drive human performance through thoughtfully designed learning solutions.

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