Designing learning for mega-impact: 7 top takeaways (Ep14)

How you can make a societal impact and not just an organizational impact with your learning strategy? What does change really look like? How do you position digital content in a more meaningful way? How can you do more with less? These are the important questions answered in this week’s episode of Learning at Large… Here are the top 7 takeaways from Simon’s conversation with Dr Iris Ware, CLO at the City of Detroit.
designing learning for mega impact iris ware

About Iris

Iris is responsible for the learning, development, succession planning, and general training for more than 9,000 City of Detroit employees. That extends across around 44 departments, where they train and support individuals from the police department, the tax collectors – every form of government that you can imagine!

Hear what Iris had to say on the Learning at Large Podcast

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Here are our 7 top takeaways from the episode

1. Focus on aligning learning with an organization’s pain points.

“Well, like most organizations, there’s a recognized need for training and development. People understand that it has to happen, and that it’s necessary as part of the organizational role. The issue is understanding how to apply that in an organization that’s full of turmoil, and you don’t have anything in place, and you never time for training, right, or any kind of learning and development. So, what we focused on was really aligning ourselves to the organization’s pain points, and I would advise any L&D focused department or area or even professional to solve the problems of the organization, help them drive the change that they’re looking for.” 

“So, now we have a town development function where we don’t really have to advertise what we do or seek out clients or seek out the work. People are coming to us because they’ve heard that we’ve helped them resolve issues, we’ve helped them address their pain points. Every organization I’ve worked in – that’s always been my focus. It’s always allowed me to be in a position, as a learning professional, that you typically wouldn’t see in some organizations.”

2. The right learning can mean the difference between “restructuring” completely and “redeploying,” saving time and raising employee value.

“I think the thing that I would celebrate most is the redeployment project that we assumed. So, as the City of Detroit exited bankruptcy, there was a drive, of course, to restructure the organization because you don’t want to return or use the same processes that led you into bankruptcy. So they restructured the IT Department, the finance department, and human resources – and there’s typically a tendency to remove people or replace the people who have been there the longest. And that would be a very tragic move. 

So, my focus is, when we talk about restructuring, I think you do restructure organizations. But there should be an effort to redeploy employees. We took them through resume writing, interviewing spiels, personal branding, and other courses so they could compete with positions that were new to the organization. Through that effort, we had I think it was maybe 94 percent placement, considering the natural attrition of employees who were able to take on new jobs in the city versus being laid off.

 When you have 200 people who can continue their employment or continue to work for the City until they reach retirement, and they can continue to take care of their families, and they can continue to learn and grow, it really just changes not just the organization – but a mega-impact occurs in that you are changing the culture of the city that you live in. You’re changing the experiences of people who are in the organization, and I think it sends a really strong message to all employees about their value.” 

3. Change isn’t just about ‘filling a gap’; it’s about looking at the effects changes will have on a larger structure.

So, I’m always in that quest to address an issue or solve a problem – I’m looking at the system and asking myself, “How will this impact others?” And then, in most cases, I’m looking for multipliers, because most areas of an organization are experiencing the same problem – or most organizations are experiencing the same problems.”

“My core studies in academia were around evaluation, because I don’t want to do anything that really doesn’t matter. I often ask my team members… when they complete a project and they say, “Oh, it was great,” I say, “So what?” What difference did it make? And if it did make a difference, or it doesn’t make a difference, then why are we doing it? We examine it all the time.”

But when you talk about micro impact of training in learning and development, we often look at the individual learning. We’ll say, “Okay, this person has an individual development plan, and we’d like to move in this direction to close a gap” – I’m totally against gaps, but that’s a different question – but we’ll try to close a gap to have a certain impact on the individual, to get them to perform a certain way, because it’s something that we need to have done as a department. So, the micro impact is how the training impacts the individual.” 

The macro impact is what impact does it have on that department or the organization, but what we fail to look at – and I think it’s really important, especially in the world that we live in today – is what impact does this learning and development have on the outside of the organization? Years ago, there was a lot of conversation and there was a big upheaval about organizations having social responsibility that was a term then. 10:22 With a downturn in the crisis, usually town development or training functions were eliminated, and the need to just survive kind of took over that idea and organizations didn’t focus on that so much.” 

4. Small changes can yield bigger impact – a “mega impact” for society.

“But I think we need to go back to mega impact. What happens when I educate a 40-year-old person in my department and they learn, for instance – and this might seem really far-fetched for you, but we have some employees who don’t have smartphones, or who don’t know how to use a computer. Which means they don’t have that technology at home, which means that they have school-aged children and the children are not connected to technology. So, what happens is we teach that 40-year-old to use a computer or Microsoft Office and they can now help their children, and their children are exposed or they see the importance of technology.”

“It really has to be your impact on society because we know that poverty is often generational, and the thing that typically breaks that is learning or education. In Detroit, that is a huge issue that we struggle with – unemployment and poverty. So, when we educate one employee in the City of Detroit, that micro impact has a macro impact, but ultimately I’m hoping we can drive it more so there’s a mega impact.”

5. Learning should address an organization’s problems and strategy, building from the ground up.

Well, where we started and what we do at least once a year is we go out to each of those departments and have seven to eight questions that we ask. The two main ones that we ask are, “What are the problems that you’re having?” and “What type of training do you need?” Because often, people think that they need training, and training is not the solution at all, but you can’t ignore that question.”

“We take those two questions and then tie them to solutions that align to the organization’s overall strategy. We do that for each department. For instance, when I started, the first thing I wanted to know was why are we here every day? Because what I find across all those 9,000 employees, every single one of them wants to know how they contribute to making things better. And they want to be able to do the things that they love or enjoy to do. So, in our communication and our interaction and engagement with these departments, we help them resolve their pain points – we help them do the things that they need to have done, and we do that within the scope of, “How does this align to the overall objectives of the mayor?” 

“We’re hoping to drill it down to a point, one day soon, so that every person will be able to say, “I understand how I contribute to the mayor’s vision.”

6. Human interaction doesn’t have to be at a face-to-face level.

“That’s the thing that most leaders and training functions are afraid of. You can put it in the system, you can get them processed, a fancy spreadsheet, a database – but unless you go out and actually talk to people, and connect with them, you won’t… Transformation happens through people. I don’t know who said it, maybe Maya Angelou, that people won’t care about what you’re saying or what you’re doing until they know that you care about them.” 

“I think the human element portion is not necessarily a physical touch point. When we talk about personalization, it’s not knowing my name or address and those types of things. I’m talking about engaging me in the process of the learning – that would make it more personal to me. So, I think technology and using a digital platform can actually increase that if it’s done in conjunction with the employee or the learner.”

“There’s still a lot of things we don’t have, and I’m asking myself now, is this something we really even need, with so many changes in technology? Or, do we want to push forward and look at – I saw a couple places where you talk about a learner experience platform, so the learner is driving the learning. I think that’s phenomenal. Ask me what it is, and then ask me to contribute to these assignments, because some of the learning that we might assign to an employee – when was the last time we revisited that to see if it was even worth completing?”

7. Position digital learning content in a meaningful way, rather than simply using a collection of words and phrases.

The thing that bugs me is everyone is creating digital learning, and they take content or information and pretty much post it and then call it “learning.” It just drives me insane, because what it equates to sometimes, in my opinion, is what I call “click a book.” Because they simply take a bunch of words and they dump it into Internet in a fancy tool or app and say, “This is phenomenal!” Just reading it magically is going to make something happen.”  

There’s a science and level of expertise to taking information and building it in a way that people can actually learn, and then transfer that learning in a meaningful way. I receive so many inboxes on LinkedIn and my email address, even personal, with these new gizmos, and there’s no instructional design or improvement performance strategy or any kind of typical design about learners or people, or ensuring, or any consideration about the neuroscience of learning embedded in that process. 18:30 And people pay a lot of money because they’ll put the term “certification” behind it and they’re no better off than they were before, or they look at that learning and say, “This is what learning looks like,” but it’s not valuable.” 

I can remember that being the case when PowerPoint – I hate to date myself – but when people started using PowerPoint, people thought that if you just throw it into PowerPoint it’s learning. We know that that’s not what happens. When you put a bunch of text on the screen, it’s not magical.”

Iris’ Book Recommendations

Leading Change, John Kotter

“It’s an oldie but a goodie – John Kotter’s Leading Change. It goes through the different components of the change process, but you can also use those different criteria and apply them, and create the scenarios to help drive change, because that’s the most difficult thing. You don’t have to do them in that order; it’s a model, but it doesn’t have to happen in that particular order. That book, I think, is the most important, as well as anything by Dave Aldrich; all his HR scorecard, all these things… managing HR from the inside-out, those types of courses. Roger Kaufman’s work around evaluation. Those are some of the resources that I think are the most important.” 

Connect with Iris

“I’m on LinkedIn, and I’m more than happy to share what I have and know. I have some information posted there, and I’ll post more.”

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We’d love to hear your thoughts on today’s podcast, so feel free to get in touch on Twitter @learningatlarge with any questions or queries. You can also email me at As always, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app and leave us a 5-star rating if you enjoyed it. Thank you for joining us, and see you next time.

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