Digital first learning strategies, at scale: 6 top takeaways (Ep3)

What simple changes can improve user experience? What does a successful learning culture look like?  How can giving permission to learn prompt cultural and organizational development? In this episode of the Learning at Large podcast, Simon spoke to Sam Taylor – a learning leader for nearly 20 years. We’ve pulled out the 6 top takeaways from the conversation!

Sam Taylor digital learning strategies

About Sam

Sam has led large scale digital learning programs at Barclays, Tesco, and Hitatchi Rail, reaching audiences of up to half a million people. In one project alone, she saved the business two million pounds by thinking about and optimizing the time to learn. Sam believes in putting the learner first and has found ways to achieve that scale by shifting the conversation from training to development.

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

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Here are our 6 key takeaways from the episode

1. Save time by focusing on simple changes you can make to content that will actually improve the user’s experience.

“So, one of [my] projects…was looking at how could we make simple changes to that content to actually improve the experience. Just by doing things like skipping straight to the test, just by standardizing the way in which it was built, just by enforcing a maximum time duration for that module and being consistent about whether there was or wasn’t an assessment in it, we saved over two hours from our annual compliance calendar—which equated into something like two million pounds of savings from just the contact centers alone. So, it more than paid for actually redeveloping the modules.”

“That, from a very simple perspective, was just minor tweaks add up to something that has a massive financial impact—and also begins to improve that perception of what elearning is inside of an organization. And then, I suppose, more recently—sort of from a digital perspective—Tesco. That experience was around helping other L&D practitioners inside the business get on that digital learning journey—that it wasn’t about losing your job and actually how could you simply create digital learning resources.”

2. Driving forward means innovation – order-taking is not an option.

“Within Hitachi Rail, it was taking that step on the next level. We started in a business that had only 250 people by the time I left. Three and a half years later, we have nearly 13,000 people in it, because we had grown that much through acquisition and generally just scaling for the projects we were working on. That was an environment where, for the UK operation, there was no real L&D, so we built an L&D function from scratch. In that environment, it was looking at how do we not create your typical traditional L&D function? How do we actually drive a digital learning-first agenda and actually say we’re going to still have workshops, because they still add value, but they’re going to be minimal? So how do we actually then build and curate more of a resources—not courses—more of a micromanaged-type approach to people’s development to begin to build a learning culture, I suppose, as much as anything?”

“I think it’s around not being order takers. It’s around looking at where the performance needs are inside of the business. That’s where we should be starting; that’s where everybody talks about we should be starting. It’s about getting an idea of what are the main challenges for people in their roles that stop them from being able to perform. Often, it’s just sheer volume of information and processes that have potentially been thrown at them in course after course after course. I’m beginning to say, hang on a second, the brain can’t cope with that.”

3. Personalization in learning and development is fundamental to pulling learners into an experience.

“As an L&D function, how can we strip some of that back, how can we look for—do we need to tell you this, or actually is it a checklist? There’s some content that will probably always get created or you just curate it because it’s always there and it always exists. It’s things like management and leadership skills—how to have difficult conversations, how to be a great coach. There are tons of resources out there that actually don’t necessarily require you creating a brand new module from scratch, but you can pull those together to create something that will help that audience on the day-to-day basis. What is, I suppose, almost more information, and then what’s going to help build a learning experience? So, how can we put you in an experience? How can we encourage you to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well, and how can you apply that back in your role? That’s the silver bullet. How can we make sure that, and ensure that, you are motivated and engaged and/or feel equipped enough and confident enough to go back into your role and go, “Right! I can have a brilliant coaching conversation.”

“Other ways that we’ve tackled personalization before have been by using upfront diagnostics. So, if you have—let’s call it a typical course that has a number of component parts to it—you might ask a series of questions upfront about those components to almost assess where your knowledge level is or what your previous experience is. And as well as asking those questions around knowledge, also asking those questions around how confident are you in this? Because I think that can sometimes be quite useful from a personalization perspective. You might have somebody who is really, really confident but badly fails every single question. So, there’s a disconnect there. And you can also have the opposite—someone who’s not very confident, but actually you know you stuff and it’s a way of reassuring you that actually you’ve got all these questions right. So, you do know what you’re doing and begin to build up your confidence that way.” 

4. Don’t be afraid to glean inspiration from similar existing courses.

“A lot of the time, we’ll go out and have a look at what are existing courses on a particular topic title typically covering. I think in terms of the curate versus create debate—when I build a blend for content, I would say probably a good 50 to 70 percent of that is stuff that I found somewhere else. Now, it might be online resources that you subscribe to, finding stuff you’ve already paid for that people aren’t always the most proactive in going out and actually accessing them, actually pulling some of those resources in to make it more clearly signposted for the learner.”

“I mean, I rarely buy typically off-the-shelf content. I’m not always a massive fan of the quality of it, and I still think there’s a lot of room for improvement in the whole learning experience. And sometimes, even in the way in which it’s built, there’s still a lot of stuff that isn’t actually designed to work on mobile phones. And sometimes, it’s around what’s the content that actually is really contextually driven? How do we pull out the stuff that’s going to be really meaningful—for me as an individual, it’s applying it in my world. So how can I pull out examples that feel like my world? And again, sometimes the problem with a lot of off-the-shelf content is that it still feels very corporate.”

5. When measuring the success of your training, quantity isn’t always everything. Use a measure of confidence and users’ feelings as part of your performance analytics.

“Ah, the evaluation. Some of the stuff we were doing was around running focus groups. How do we know that the way in which we all did—not the specifics of this content, but how do we know the way in which we’re delivering this material is of benefit to people in the business? That would be through focus groups or poll surveys, or something like that. Another thing that we were looking at doing was not doing sort of your typical level one happy sheet, but actually coming in maybe a month or three months later and again doing a bit of the survey around: How confident do you now feel? How do you use these skills? What has stopped you? As much as anything, to try and say, “Have you literally just closed down that module and forgotten all about it, or have you gone back to that concept and how to look at it?”

“So, I suppose, not necessarily anything historically that I’ve done that has been really really quantifiable in that sort of metric sentence, but then I’ve been lucky enough to be in an environment where I’ve never had to provide that. Sometimes, I’m sort of the opinion that I don’t even care if people have even gone and looked at the content. It’s more, can they do their job? That’s still—it’s the performance measure.”

6. Giving yourself permission to learn will promote cultural and organizational development.

“If you don’t have a permission to learn, if you don’t have the psychological safety and the trust to do things differently and potentially to fail, then you’re going to be resistant to doing the change, because you’re going to get sacked. It could be potentially the mentality that people will have. If I look this up, my PDA will be rubbish and I won’t get a bonus. It’s another thing that I’ve heard over the years. So, it’s those organizational factors that actually will influence the success of any learning program, which is why I’ve started to look more broadly at what’s going to tip the balance. Because pushing out a course isn’t always going to do it.” 

Sam’s book recommendations

Modern Workplace Learning, Jane Hart

Life in Perpetual Beta 2.0, Harold Jarche

More Than Blended Learning, Clive Shepard

Workplace Learning, Nigel Paine

“Often, it’s Google. And actually, the best source of all is either organizations such as the elearning network or Twitter. Half the time, I’ll go onto Twitter and I’ll ask my personal learning networks—it’s the connections that you have through LinkedIn and reading some of their posts. That has been what’s helped me the most over the past decade or so—those connections.”

Connect with Sam:

My Twitter handle is @samt_el.

Join the conversation!

You can join us on Twitter @Learn_at_Large to keep the conversation going using the hashtag #LearningatLarge, or email me at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. We’d love to hear from you so don’t hesitate to get in touch. And finally, don’t forget to subscribe to “Learning at Large” in your favorite podcast app and subscribe to our newsletter for updates on new episodes.

Interested in developing your own digital learning strategy? Find out more here…

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