In Real Life: Stop Overcomplicating Workplace Learning

Overcomplicating workplace learning—we do it a lot. And by “we,” I mean everyone in this profession. You’ve done it. I’ve done it—plenty.

One example jumped to mind from 2011. I built an eLearning module about a new company policy that really, really should have been a PDF job aid. Why did I build a 20-minute interactive course that took four weeks to develop? Because that’s what I did at the time. That’s where I placed my value. My peers thought the graphics and audio were fancy. But in real life, an employee could have learned just as much (maybe more) in considerably less time by reading my narration script for themselves.

When we do this, we make our jobs harder on ourselves. We also make the jobs of those we’re trying to support harder. When the course is our default tactic, it’s very easy to overthink a problem and force a complicated, predetermined solution. We’re not purposefully doing anything wrong. We’re trying our best to help people. We just develop our own special brand of L&D tunnel vision.

These are points that I make when I explore themes like microlearning and personalization. This is also the theme of a recent GoodPractice Podcast—we need to stop overcomplicating learning. The entire podcast is linked at the end of this column and is worth a listen (the podcast is 30 minutes long). I’m going to summarize the key points here, along with my own thoughts. Regulars Ross Dickie and Owen Ferguson, along with their guest Steph Clarke, explore the ways we make everything more difficult. Steph nails it when she says, “We have a tendency to sometimes overcomplicate and create these beautiful programs and experiences which take two years to put into place … we go all around the world … and by the time we eventually roll them out, the people we have designed them for probably don’t work there anymore.”

How do we make workplace learning simpler—for ourselves and the people we support?

Talk less about learning

I don’t help people learn; I help them solve problems. Learning is a part of that process. If we make the mistake of focusing on learning as the goal, we are more likely to add unnecessary complexity to our work. Similarly, we don’t need executives and stakeholders to prioritize learning to justify our place in the organization. Rather, the focus should be on the role our employees play in executing company strategy and our targeted ability to enable them. This value proposition better aligns with an organization’s existing priorities and gives L&D more flexibility to match solutions to business needs.

Simplify the basics

Owen makes a solid point during the podcast when he compares learning to dietary science. Food is super complicated, but most people still understand the basics of what’s good and bad for them. How? Very smart people provided a simple framework a long time ago that could be easily followed without a full understanding of the subject. If you want to know more, you can do research or speak with a dietician. But the basics are there for you to apply.

This is how we should convey the complexities of learning. For example, stakeholders shouldn’t need to read in-depth journal articles about learning science. However, we do need them to understand basic ideas like spaced repetition and retrieval practice so they can be integrated into our strategies without debate. Use simple, familiar terms when explaining these concepts so people can easily internalize the information and recognize the value. For example, I liken question-based learning to flash cards to establish quick familiarity.

Break the course mentality

A full-blown course is almost never the right solution. Owen shares the familiar story of providing a course on Microsoft Excel when all the employee really needs is a tutorial on one specific function. This is a perfect example of the difference between need-to-know and nice-to-know information. This distinction is at the heart of our overcomplication problem. It’s on us to ask challenging questions and help stakeholders recognize this distinction so we can get away from bloated, click-Next-to-continue courses and expand out toolkits to include more right-fit solutions. Is something need-to-know? Then a course—or at least something more structured—may be a good option. Nice-to-know? Job aid!

Do the least

Ross poses the question regarding employee expectations, especially when it comes to media: Do people require the same quality of content they consume every day when it comes to training? Steph replies with the need to focus on utility over form. Amen! Consider how many “unprofessional” YouTube videos and job aids have helped you solve problems. Will a resource get the job done, and does the employee recognize this value? Then there’s no reason to make something big, shiny, and expensive. One of the best pieces of guidance I ever received in this industry came from Clark Quinn when he told me, “Do the least amount of work possible to solve the problem.” Exactly!

Work within reality

This is another linchpin for simplifying workplace learning. Everything we do has to work within the reality of the people we’re trying to help. It doesn’t matter what industry or roles you support. People are busy; they have limited time and attention. They’re held accountable for specific things. Anything that gets in the way of this reality better have clear value or it will be quickly shoved aside. The bulk of our solutions should fit into the average employee’s day. If you support a logistics operation, you need to design for the warehouse floor. If you’re in retail, you need to keep associates front of house. Your training program may be masterfully crafted, but it won’t matter if people can’t fit it into their workday.

Apply a decision-making framework

Consistency is an important part of simplicity when it comes to our work. L&D has a tendency to make employees re-learn how to learn from program to program and topic to topic. For example, your company may release a new product tomorrow, and you provide instructor-led training with the subject matter expert. Then another product gets released in six months, but this time the training is provided through an interactive eLearning simulation with limited question/answer ability. Same problem, same desired behaviors. Completely different solutions.

A modern L&D team establishes consistent channels and processes for connecting people who need with people who know. This simplifies the employee experience and enables more rapid, measurable solutions. I created the modern learning ecosystem (MLE) framework to help guide L&D pros through a decision-making process using the full range of potential support tactics—from job aids to structured coursework. Whether it’s this framework or one of your own design, applying a consistent methodology to your solutioning will lessen complexity and keep your focus where it should be: on the problem and the people who need your help.

Keeping things uncomplicated

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Steve Jobs

“Learning is infinitely complex, and much simpler than we make it.”

—JD Dillon

People are complicated. Performance is complicated. Behavior is complicated. But L&D support should not be. If you’re looking for ways to simplify your efforts, listen to GoodPractice #103. Share it with your peers. It is a solid 30 minutes of insightful conversation, and every L&D pro should definitely listen to it. And maybe forward along this article, too! Avoid overcomplicating workplace learning!

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