How to create an engaging learning environment

Written by
Oliver Herold
The Oxford Group

19 Dec 2017

19 Dec 2017 • by Oliver Herold

How can you create an environment that demonstrates a thirst for learning while also delivering return on investment? Oliver Herold, CEO of The Oxford Group, provides some practical tips.

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, City & Guilds Group. You can see Chris Jones, CEO, in conversation with other business leaders at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018 discussing the topic of digital inclusion.

Your management training may incorporate sophisticated technology, provide the most detailed information, and be delivered by a captivating trainer, however, unless the broader organisational environment in which this training occurs is engaging and geared toward learning, your efforts – and budget – may be wasted. 

A number of organisations we work with struggle to create an environment that not only fosters a love and thirst for learning but one that can demonstrably provide a return on investment. I believe that three challenges need to be addressed to remedy this.

Foster an intrinsic desire to develop

Simply offering employees the opportunity (or worse, forcing them) to participate in L&D initiatives is not enough to ensure your objectives will be met. This approach may, in fact, be detrimental to morale, productivity and the bottom line.

Employees traditionally expect that L&D will be directed (or pushed to them) by HR. We are seeing a shift to where the focus for HR is on fostering an intrinsic desire to learn and develop, and the accountability for seeking out training is placed in the employee's hands. 

This doesn’t have to be complicated and can be initiated simply by talking to your employees about their strengths, ambitions and interests.

When was the last time you asked someone on your team what they've recently done well and what they learnt from it? Do you know what areas they would like training in? Did you share that knowledge with the team? 

There are two other useful ways to make sure the learning environment really connects with the individual and feels personal and relevant: 

  1. First, be transparent and acknowledge that some learning is about developing in areas they want to focus on, while other learning might be more about what they need to focus on. Both of these are positive and powerful reasons to engage.
  2. Secondly, keep focused on which specific aspects of the individual’s performance can change as a result of engaging and what’s in it for them. That also anchors the L&D activity very firmly in the individual’s real-world environment and makes it much more real for them.   

Bust the e-learning myth

For many organisations, creating an engaging and empowering learning culture means purchasing an LMS or some variation of an online learning portal. They assume that this will be a cheaper alternative to face-to-face training. These are major pieces of learning infrastructure and with rather variable end results, nine times out of ten they are not the most cost-effective option. Why?

Firstly, purchasing a large library of ready-made resources is often ineffective as these resources aren’t contextualised to your businesses.

Without incorporating the right organisational language, direct links to their role, and organisational context, it can be difficult for learners to translate the information and implement the desired behavioural changes. On the other hand, off-the-shelf libraries can be very useful in delivering training to large audiences (e.g. junior or new managers) or for technical and compliance training.

Secondly, you must motivate people to log into the LMS and undertake the training. It’s not as simple as ‘build it and they will come’. Without embedding self-directed (pull) learning within the organisation’s culture, you’ll be left with a very expensive document storage system. 

A bespoke e-learning programme, however, is a highly impactful and cost-effective solution tailored to your organisation, culture and needs.  The challenge is leveraging e-learning: (1) for development of behaviours and (2) blending it into a wider learning and development journey. 

Engage with line managers first

Line manager support is the single most important factor in achieving sustained behaviour change.

If employees feel that training and professional development is a priority, they will feel empowered to decide what training they need and act on these decisions without guilt.

Line managers must encourage their employees to change their mindset from “It’s an extra thing I have to do after the rest of my workload is taken care of” to “It’s part of my job.”

However, unless the line manager themselves is engaged with the training, this won’t happen. When reworking a global leadership programme for a large engineering firm, it quickly became clear to us that if they wanted the programme to be a learning experience, not just a one-off event, and for transfer to happen, line managers needed to be engaged. 

We addressed this by setting up a support structure for line managers, sending programme communications from executive/board-level sponsors to demonstrate authority and providing virtual learning sessions for line managers which thoroughly explained the programme and workshopped how they could support participants.

To cement learning, the programme was structured to include input from and touch points with business leaders and executives at each stage of the programme to provide real exposure opportunities and create engagement. 

Line managers also play a vital role in making sense of and practically applying the information applying participants’ learning back in the workplace. This particularly critical in the case of online courses.

When training is delivered in a face-to-face environment, people automatically bring their own examples and questions to help them translate the information. When it's ready-made e-learning, this doesn’t necessarily happen. 

The benefits of blended learning

Some e-learning platforms are sophisticated enough to deliver theoretical elements while guiding learners through a series of practical offline activities that require active reflection with their line manager.

In particular, ManagementPlus (designed for first line manager training) uses a work-based approach to ensure managers engage in key conversations about performance with participants so that participants can then demonstrate their ability to execute key management skills on the job.

An online portal and automated notifications organise the learning experience for both the participant and their manager: an experience that encompasses diagnosis, learning, application and reflection. This combination of e-learning plus virtual or face-to-face opportunities with managers to discuss, practice and clarify is a better way to embed learning and identify successes and failures. 

Furthermore, this blend of approaches creates a physical cohort of learners who can support each other and help maintain momentum and motivation for practising skills.

There are no ‘quick wins’ when it comes to creating an environment that encourages self-improvement and engages participants outside the classroom. However, empowering employees to take responsibility, understanding that e-learning is not a total solution and engaging line managers at the outset, will help ensure learning transfer happens and that you receive a healthy return for your L&D budget.


See City & Guilds Group at the Changeboard Future Talent Conference 2018

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