Implementing top-down learning interventions

The new learning architectThroughout 2011 we will be publishing extracts from The New Learning Architect. We move on to the fifth part of chapter 5:

Having determined where the priorities lie for top-down learning interventions, attention inevitably turns to the forms that these interventions should take and the ways in which they can be most successfully delivered. All too often, l&d professionals (often on the insistence of their sponsors in the line) start with the assumption that some sort of formalised course is required, whether classroom, online or a blend. But as we have seen, there are four contexts in which top-down learning could occur. Who is to say that an action learning programme, a performance support system or a programme of coaching would not do the job better or more efficiently?

The chances that an intervention will be successful are influenced by the involvement of key stakeholders in the process of design, development and implementation, as Wick, Pollock, Jefferson and Flanagan report : “We continue to be surprised by the number of major programmes, in otherwise well-managed companies, that are developed entirely within the human resource or training organisation and go forward with little or no input from line leaders. Their perspective on the business is different from that of line leaders; they have less hands-on experience managing hard business metrics. If they consult only among themselves, they may design a programme with strong learning objectives but only weak links to key business measures.”

There is another strong reason for involving those who will be affected by the intervention and that is to gain their commitment. Learning is change. At the personal level, this is true because learning changes the brain – if it doesn’t, no learning has taken place. At an organisational level, it is true because learning changes the way we behave and consequently how the organisation performs. As we have already discussed, people don’t automatically resist change; in fact we voluntarily undertake substantial and disruptive changes in our own lives. As Peter de Jager  explains, “We don’t resist change, we resist being changed.” At very least, those being asked to change should be told why. Better still, they should participate in determining how.

Establishing the chain of evidence

The process is not complete, as we are constantly reminded, until we have evaluated the results. First of all it’s important that we know what the reactions of learners has been to our efforts – not because this is the key indicator of success, but because this feedback enables us to continuously improve what we deliver. We do need to know whether the intervention has resulted in the desired change in knowledge and skills and whether that change has manifested itself in the way that learners behave on the job. But most importantly, we need to know whether the organisation is receiving any tangible benefit from these changes. Kirkpatrick  calls this a ‘return on expectations (ROE)’. What did the organisation expect when they sanctioned this intervention? Have these expectations been met? It is not necessary to provide incontrovertible proof, based on controlled scientific studies. It is necessary, however, to be able to provide a chain of evidence: we know the intervention was well-received and that participants learned what we wanted them to learn; we know they applied this back on the job and we have seen an improvement in those areas of the business that we were looking to address. That’s as much proof as most managers will ever require.

On the other hand, evaluation studies don’t always capture the true value of learning interventions. As Stephen Downes  reminds us: “Measuring learning is still like measuring friendship. You can count friends, or you can count on friends, but not, it seems, both.”

Coming next, the sixth part of chapter 5: Conditions for success

Return to Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4

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About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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