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Learning needs? What matters now!

One of the learning writers whose ideas resonate with me is Nick Shackleton-Jones. His ideas on organisational learning are centred on what people care about ( the Affective Context to give it its posh name).  I’ve also been steeped for the last year in the world of content marketing, since I joined the Content Marketing Academy last June (the best learning community I’ve ever been in). I see some similarities and crossovers I’d like to explore.

Affective context and organisational learning

According to Nick, if you’re in an organisation’s learning function, you have two types of thing to create: resources and experiences.

Vintage scales with a letter on themFor the topics people already care about, you create resources – job aids – that help them do those things better. For example, people may be frustrated by a system for booking meeting rooms. While you might raise the  issue of the user experience with whoever owns the system, your immediate task is to create a simple how-to that clarifies the confusing bits and tells the employee how to get round them. A short piece of text, on paper or online. Not a course or simulation or scenario. The big difference from the traditional learning paradigm is that you don’t arrive at these projects by a management initiative or a training needs analysis – you talk to users about their jobs and the things that make them difficult.  Writers such as Atul Gawande (The Checklist Manifesto) have demonstrated in clinical and airline contexts that checklists have more impact than training.

That’s for the things people care about. There will be a smaller number of issues that the organisation wants people to care about, whether it’s diversity, customer service,  reducing email or practical issues like taking care of pool cars. We only care about these things when we have an experience that makes us care – we witness discrimination, we get shoddy customer service, we miss an important email in a swollen Inbox, we set out in a pool car that has a flat tyre. The job of training here is to give people an experience – whether a simulation or an emotionally engaging story – that evokes or creates an emotional response, enough to seed a call to action, a realisation that this matters and you’re ready to do something. And of course you’ll also have created the resources to enable them to do it.

It sounds simple but it’s not how most organisations approach these things. They tend to proceed from an ‘organisational need’ defined high up the organisation, which is then addressed by providing a lot of information, assuming that argument and persuasion combined with evidence will change behaviour.  The result is information-heavy training courses which take a long time to complete and don’t provide anything to use at the moment of need.

Content marketing – they ask, you answer

Vintate photo of man recommending beerContent marketing is based on the assertion that in the digital age, most of the decision to buy something has been made before they buyer has any direct contact with a sales person. The buyer has explored and compared using Google. If they do approach you to buy something from you, by that time they’ve pretty much made up their minds you’re the one they want to buy from.

How do you as a seller get them to that point? You can only do it by providing useful information. That means practically useful, in the moment – not ‘interesting’ and definitely not ‘persuasive’ or sales oriented. In other words you see the potential customer as similar to the employee in Nick S-J’s organisation – someone who cares a lot about something they want to know right now. If they find in Google the video or blog post you put up, they become aware of you. They may then just go and do what they were going to do and forget about you. Or they may click on a related article in your site, thus getting to know you a bit better. However if they search often for answers  to immediate questions, and your articles keep coming up as the answers, they build trust in you, your credibility grows and when they are considering using paying for a service, they’re going to choose you.

So the approach of the learning professional and the content marketer is – up to a point – the same: you research what people feel they need, the things they find difficult, the products they want compared, the likely costs of different purchases. You provide answers – articles, videos, FAQs – that are quick to read (or watch) and implement. Just as the learning professional in this new world doesn’t begin from a top-down initiative, so the marketing professional doesn’t begin from the products or services themselves. In both cases you begin from what people want in the moment, what they care about.

What if they don’t care?

Content marketers focus on what their audience care about. If you’re a business, there will also be things you want them to care about that they don’t already care about. For these you’d probably rely more on traditional sales techniques – uncovering needs, pointing out what-ifs. You could do that ethically – helping them address issues they may not be aware of or want to look at, such as life insurance or a pension; or some do it unscrupulously, planting the seeds of insecurity or desire for stuff they don’t really need. Either way, the key here is storytelling and experience to engage the emotions. Statistics and rational arguments are less powerful.

Learning professionals can benefit from looking at these sorts of needs more as marketing campaigns than courses.  Drip-feeding powerful stories into people’s inboxes is a tactic more likely to succeed than sitting people down in front of elearning that repeatedly tells them ‘it is essential that you …’ and ‘it is vital not to …’

What if they really don’t care? Compliance training

There are a couple of big areas of organisational learning that aren’t addressed directly by this model and I’d like to explore them now. One is compliance. This is characterised in most organisations as:

  • driven by the risk of a fine from a regulator, who has mandated that everyone receive training
  • originating in some misdemeanour or accident that happened in this or another organisation, possibly many years ago
  • blanket training that everyone, or at least large numbers of employees have to receive – so not role-specific
  • requiring a pass-fail certification of some kind
  • often repeated annually
  • seen as a necessary evil by trainers and hated by employees.

Learning professionals scratch their heads and pour a lot of effort into making compliance topics ‘engaging’ and ‘relevant’.  Often they’re fighting a losing battle against higher levels of the organisation who say:

” You don’t get it do you? This isn’t about the quality of the training, it’s about getting everyone that certificate that says they’ve done it. So no, we’re not approving that budget for a simulation!”

How can we apply the principles of content marketing and affective context here?

  • The risk to the organisation is twofold – not getting everyone trained is a Bad Thing, but actually committing the demeanour in question, from fraud to a fire, is a Worse Thing. So create resources that make it easier for people to do those aspects of their jobs: checklists, how-to’s. These are low-budget interventions.
  • Do performance analysis – maybe a change in procedure could reduce the risk of a misdemeanour more effectively than training. The more you can talk to the people who do the job rather than management or systems people, the more effective you can be.
  • If people don’t care, stories and marketing are the way to create that spark of interest. The closer you can bring these to individuals’ roles the more likely they are to resonate, so some differentiation is necessary – not a welcome message to learning management but a necessary one.  I hope we’ve moved on from the days when the gardener at the bank HQ has to get money laundering training because he’s a bank employee.

Is looking it up always the best thing?

Performance support is said by its proponents to have advantages over learning in that:

  • it’s more consistent and standard across the organisation – ‘one version of the truth’
  • our capacity for retention is too small and forgetting is normal
  • knowledge moves too fast these days and unlearning is difficult – applying yesterday’s solutions instead of today’s is a problem
 I’m pretty much convinced, in most cases.

One afternoon last year Donald Clark walked me through the Wildfire authoring tool he’s been involved with. I thought it was remarkable how it creates fill-in-the-blanks text exercises from videos, reliably picking the most relevant terms to mask. But part of me was thinking ‘fill in the blanks? Really? That’s so old-school’.  In the early days of elearning I’d seen so many poor fill-in-the-blanks questions used because the designer couldn’t think of any meaningful or challenging questions. Eventually I blurted out something to that effect, which Donald countered thus:

Consider a doctor. Part of their training has to involve retaining huge amounts of information in memory, and not only using it to make clinical decisions but also building the confidence and trust of  patients. Their knowledge has to be both procedural and declarative – knowing their stuff and being able to talk credibly about it. There’s a limit to the amount you want your doctor to be reading off a screen when they’re talking to you. You could say the same for sales people.  And we all know how frustrating it is when you’re speaking to someone in a call centre and they put you on hold. They’re checking their on-screen reference.  We get the benefit of the fact they’re using reliable performance support but we lose the confidence that we would have in someone who clearly had knowledge and authority. Scenarios and simulations are a stepping-stone on the way to internalising knowledge in this way and for some situations it’s enough.

Donald’s fill-in-the-blanks texts are a stepping stone towards being able to talk accurately and convincingly about a topic without reference. In some situations that’s what’s necessary – declarative knowledge.  And that takes repetitive practice.

Coming back to Nick’s model, this type of need falls under ‘experiences’.  Even if the trainee doctor already cares whether they are able to talk convincingly or not, only an experience where they are put to the test under pressure – whether a simulation or a live role-play or a supervised patient intervention – will really bring it home and  create the motivation for learning.

Affective Context and Content Marketing

To summarise, here are some of the synergies and crossovers I see between Nick Shackleton-Jones’ Affective Context model for organisational learning and the practice of content marketing:

  • Both content marketing and the design of performance support resources should begin by researching the issues that matter to the audience. The things they feel a need for, rather than what someone else says they need
  • The majority  of what learning designers and content marketers produce is resources to be used in the moment, not memorised or quizzed or tested.
  • The minority of what both produce will be experiences to evoke an emotional response – caring – about the issues we want the audience to care about. Storytelling and simulation are the most powerful ways to do this.

Nick Shackleton-Jones:


The Content Marketing Academy:

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