Why it is dangerous to assume you know how others learn best
I have been deeply engaged with empowering people to learn in business environments for much of the past 38 years. After an odd career trajectory that eventually led me to leave college to pursue a life as a professional dancer, I ended up quite accidentally self-educating myself during a bank temporary job assignment. The bank had purchased a brand new Wang (yes, I am that old) computer because they had extra budget and decided to use it or lose it.
When the new computer arrived, I asked the bank’s Vice President who was going to run it. She told me they bought it without having any staff who knew how to use it. I said, “give me a week” and I dove into the system’s manuals cover to cover every night and marched into her office a few days later proclaiming, “I know how to run it!”
She asked me to show her some basic system configurations, produce a word processing document, create a spreadsheet, and set up a simple database. I did. That day she gave me the job running their computer system division and my technology career was born.
Part of my job there? Training my department’s new hires and a huge staff of end users how to use this newfangled cutting-edge technology. Instantly I became a curriculum developer and trainer.
I tell this story here to illustrate that not everyone learns information or skills in school or through any sort of highly organized learning. Yet, when it comes to developing and deploying training in business environments, we far too often assume linear and structured education offerings are what customers want. Some do. Many do not. We often do a disservice to those who do not and perhaps at the same time annoy valued customers and chip away at what could be a more profitable bottom line.
In my book, The Art of Self-Education: How to Get a Quality Education for Personal and Professional Success Without Formal Schooling, I discuss a variety of learning styles. What I discovered as I was doing research for that book, and during subsequent years investigating the subject, is that we can categorize, codify and theorize about how people learn best as much as we want and we will never pinpoint with complete accuracy how one individual best learns new information or skills.
Learning models and theories are simply frameworks for expanding our understanding about how people learn best and deciding upon the optimum strategies for empowering that learning. These are starting points. To assume any one of them is ideal or superior to others is folly and will lead to mostly disappointed customers.
Add into this mix the corporate reality of constrained budgets and resources available to create and deploy customer training and it means guessing at a single customer training approach is a potentially expensive experiment that, if it fails, leaves you with unhappy customers unable to use your product and therefore not as likely to be enthusiastic about purchasing from you anew.
There is a better way.
That way is to assume nothing. Assume that you have not the faintest idea how your customers learn best. Assume that your best customer bringing in the most revenue does not learn in any of the ways you have presupposed. Assume that your entire training development and delivery enterprise is an ongoing, iterative adventure that presents a constantly evolving landscape that changes at escalating rates over time.
The trick is to proceed without any of those assumptions, yet be able to create and deliver training offerings that can be developed, modified, customized, ordered, packaged and deployed in a multitude of ways to meet your customers’ needs without being so burdensome to create and deliver that you end up putting too many eggs in the wrong training basket.
My suggestion is to try to strike a happy medium wherever possible. While I know many ADDIE adhering or rapid prototyping loving curriculum development professionals might balk at my contention, I believe traditional, linear, sequential, classroom-based (brick and mortar or virtual) training is not what most customers want. Importantly, this type of training is incredibly expensive to produce and deliver and it often becomes obsolete far too quickly.
So, what is a business supposed to do when it comes to their customer training solutions. I contend it is best if you approach all of it using an easy to moderate effort strategy, leaving the heavy lift of long, protracted curriculum development and deployment to others. Perhaps there is still a place for such curriculum, but the cost and length of creation are such that one or two miscalculations and you have wasted a lot of time and money.
Brainstorm as many simple to medium effort instructional deliverables as you can. Create lists. Mind map. Read about what others are doing. Poke around the web. Interview learning professionals.
Most importantly, interview your customers. Do not survey them. Do not ask them to fill out a form. Interview them. Call them up or have them log on to your web meeting application of choice and have a casual, one-on-one discussion with them about how they learn best, how their employees learn best, and what those at their company tell you about their learning experiences.
From these interviews you will find more gems of inspiration that will generate yet more ideas for what you can create to truly enable the best learning outcomes for your customers.
Then, start with the low-hanging fruit. Does a simple step-by-step web page suffice to teach your customer something? How about a video? Does the video need to be fancy with Hollywood-level editing and graphics, or does a quick, guerilla recording of a subject matter expert to the trick? Do your customers want to meet with someone who can answer their product questions? Maybe you can start a weekly online brown bag session where customers can ask anything they want as they learn in real time from an expert. Maybe a Frequently Asked Questions format is best. Did one of your customers write an article about your product explaining how to use it? Then why reinvent the wheel? Add that into your customer education arsenal. Do some customers want more learning structure? Maybe you can create learning paths that direct your customers in a sequential way through whatever learning offerings you have available. Do your customers like quizzes, tests, certifications? Keep the bar low by offering mini quizzes and an evolving certification rather than one only acquired after climbing some steep and time-consuming training mountain.
I think you get the idea. There is no end to what you can create or leverage, but try to always keep it on the easy to medium effort end of the spectrum so you can create a multitude of learning options with what is likely the limited money, time and resources as your disposal. Then cobble them together in a smorgasbord of options and let the customer pick and choose what works for them. Do not try to fit the square peg of their specific needs and learning styles into the round hole of the one or two ways you provide training. Flexibility and individualized customizability will be appreciated.
Put your customers in the driver’s seat of their own learning. You will reap the benefits with happy customers that know how to use your product and who will be much more likely to renew their product contract or buy new in the future.