The engagement thing: making staff want to learn

Engagement in learning and development
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There is always one person in a training room who simply doesn’t want to be there. Often there is more than one. Experienced face-to-face trainers will be able to subtly encourage participation, but how do modern learning and development (L&D) professionals entice employees in the first place, and how do they ensure that e-learning fully engages employees? Nick Martindale reports.

For as long as organisations have offered their employees training, L&D professionals have found themselves having to overcome opposition. This could be from time-strapped individuals or people who just do not see the point.

“A lack of engagement with learning could apply to someone at any stage in their career, from graduates to senior leaders,” says Rachel Kay, managing director of Thales Training & Consultancy.

“Some people have an ‘I know it all’ mentality – perhaps they’ve been doing their job for 15 years or more and don’t feel like there’s anything new to be learned – while others may feel that taking time out could negatively affect their performance or how they’re perceived. Fear can affect an employee’s decision, too; they might feel they’ll be made to feel uncomfortable or that their inefficiencies might be highlighted.”

Richard Gregory is head of U+ – an internal talent team – at Rentokil Initial and used to work as a consultant at Accenture, where he designed a graduate training programme. Graduates can be particularly resistant to some types of training, he says, often thinking that they know how to do it already.

“One course called ‘business writing’ stands out in my mind,” he says. “Most graduates thought they were brilliant at it, but when I’d challenge the business leaders on the one piece of training that would make a real impact, it was that.”

Engagement challenge

The challenge for any L&D professional is to overcome hostility and devise ways to get employees to engage with training.

In the example above, it was simply a case of demonstrating why it was necessary, Gregory says: “The key is to make it relevant. By getting some executives there and showing them examples of why we were asking them to do this course, it had a big impact.”

He believes, though, that getting greater buy-in requires a fundamental change of approach: “When we create courses, we sit down and try and understand the problem, write some learning objectives and then we write a course and market that to people. But other industries do market research. What we try to do at Rentokil Initial is to advertise a wide variety of courses that we haven’t even built, and to get people to pick and choose the one that they want, and then build them.”

He adds that this philosophy can be extended right down an organisation, personalising courses for individual needs.

Connection to the day job

Demonstrating the relevance of training to an individual’s day job is essential, agrees Kay Lucker, senior consultant at talent management consultancy a&dc: “I’ve found that simply asking delegates to identify examples of how they can apply the learning in their role is useful. This enables individuals to truly identify how the training will work for them and keeps them engaged, during and following a workshop.”

Even in areas where employers need to demonstrate compliance, it may not be necessary for every member of staff to undertake training. Gregory gives the example of bribery and competition training, which is often rolled out company wide.

“We’re almost telling them they don’t know anything,” he says. “I like to assess someone, even if it’s just through a short quiz. If they get it right, then why sheep-dip them on a course on a subject in which they’ve already proved they’re an expert?”

Getting the type of training right

Offering the right blend of training can also help to overcome objections – both around the time commitment, but also in ensuring that the right kind of training is delivered for a particular individual.

“A good L&D professional will include a variety of activities that appeal to the four key learning styles: activist; pragmatist; reflector; and theorist,” Lucker says. “For example, an activist will perform better in an interactive, off-the-cuff format, while a theorist will respond better to a more structured, theoretical approach. To keep all four varieties engaged, any programme should combine multiple styles such as e-learning, face-to-face and simulation exercises that appeal to each.”

Online learning is likely to play an important role as part of a blended approach, says Hayley Adamson, service delivery director at learndirect: “It’s very much a self-serve proposition, so people can learn at their own pace and it doesn’t need to be based around their working time.”

An important consideration in online learning is to ensure that individuals have regular lines of communication with tutors – by phone or email – and for L&D professionals to support individuals in their learning journey.

“Making sure they have a learning plan that is geared towards their own skills and ability helps to break it down into bite-sized chunks,” Adamson says.

Systems make a difference

The use of a learning management system can also help here, enabling both L&D professionals and employees to keep track of where they are.

“[Participants] can see how much they have left to complete and it allows them to take a bit of a breather once they have completed one part of it,” Adamson explains. “But they know they will get that regular contact and are going to be kept on track, not only through themselves and the system that is supporting them, but through the tutor support as well.”

This use of online and mobile technology can play a part in helping to engage large numbers of employees spread across multiple locations, in sectors such as retail.

“You could offer learning on a mobile device that employees could use at individual shop level within the constraints of their working patterns,” Kay says. “Another option is quick breakfast briefings or learn-and-lunch sessions, which could be carried out in a communal staff area to reach several employees at one time and wouldn’t eat into people’s working time too much.”

Informal approach

Informal or social learning, where employees draw on the knowledge of experts and training resources within the business itself, can also help ensure people learn efficiently and see the direct relevance to their job. Nick Timpson, EMEA sales manager for IBM Kenexa Learn, says L&D professionals need to become “content curators, rather than content developers”.

“Rather than building all the formal content, they can identify experts throughout the organisation who have created training content. Then [L&D professionals] can improve that and ensure that content gets shared with the individuals who need it most,” he says, adding that where this involves more formal learning, it is likely to include newer delivery mechanisms such as YouTube videos or e-learning.

Accounting and audit firm Grant Thornton needed to instil a “mindset of growth” in its leaders as part of an organisational shift in strategy and branding. In order to drive engagement with this, director of talent and development Kylie Roberts chose not to overload staff with a timetable of formal courses, and deliberately picked the first cohort of people for its new leadership programme “who would be most dynamic; the early adopters”.

“We took away terms such as ‘courses’ and ‘training’, and did away with PowerPoint,” she says. “We wanted to give people time and space to think together, in teams.”

Keeping learning fresh

There are other ways, too, in which L&D professionals can ensure individuals benefit from the training and development they provide and give the best chance of that filtering through into productivity, efficiency and retention gains for the employer.

Lucker stresses the need for managers to follow up after learning interventions, to ensure that employees put the theory into practice: “The adage still stands true today: what gets checked gets done. If you want people to truly transform their behaviour, managers have to support them to apply their new skills.”

Kay, meanwhile, believes practitioners need to do more to promote the benefits of learning more generally: “Rather than simply pushing training onto staff, organisations that properly define and promote the benefits of learning and development can pull employees into owning their own development, ultimately resulting in a more engaged learner who is there because they chose to be.”

In this way, the learner dynamic can be completely transformed, she concludes: “It can give a feeling that they’re at the front of the ship – in control of their career – rather than at the back waiting for something to happen.”

How do you engage staff in learning? Does technology serve to enable learning engagement through greater flexibility, or can it hinder it by making the learning feel too obligatory and like staff are being “sheep dipped”? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on DiscussL&D, the Personnel Today LinkedIn group for L&D professionals.

2 Responses to The engagement thing: making staff want to learn

  1. Marcus Body 18 Mar 2014 at 10:53 am #

    The best training I’ve ever had in my career – by some margin – was on the IBM gap year scheme. And there’s a good reason – it improved by iteration. Each year’s group were trained by a small subset of their predecessors, and then at the end of the year, they improved the course again for the next group. It ensured the onboarding course was relevant, up-to-date, and delivered at an appropriate level.

  2. Patrick Taggart 22 Mar 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Some very practical tips here I would add a mindset game changer is introduced at induction training where new staff are told to think of training as WIFE what’s in it for everyone rather than the traditional mindset of what’s in it for me. This aids engagement levels as they understand they need to then apply the training with a view of generating improvements to self, team, organisation and customer.