Learning at Large Ep6: How to make human-centered learning a reality

In this episode, Nick puts his theories into the context of an L&D leader, showing practical guidance on a bottom-up approach for delivering human-centered learning at scale, which types of learning experience will build better engagement, how to benchmark the effectiveness of your learning strategy, and finally, how to capture authentic stories on camera within your organization – and why. Today, I’m joined by my colleague Kirstie Greany, who is herself an expert in digital learning.

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About Nick

Nick Shackleton-Jones is the Director of Learning and Performance Innovation at PA Consulting Group, where he helps organizations improve employee performance and engagement. Prior to this, he was the director of Learning Innovation and Technology at BP and has also held senior roles in L&D at Siemens Communications and the BBC. Nick has just published a new book called How People Learn, which unpicks established theories of learning to propose a more effective way of managing performance improvements.

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Podcast Transcript

Simon: [01:25] Nick, to get started, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background in L&D? 

Nick: [1:28] Sure. So, I’m Nick Shackleton-Jones. I am Director of Learning and Performance Innovation, which means I kind of head up the Learning Innovation team at PA Consulting and, in practice, that means that we travel around the world quite often, helping organizations of various sizes to modernize and to identify opportunities for innovation in what they do. Before being at PA Consulting, I was at BP for five years, and before that, at the BBC for five years, and then Siemens. Way back at the beginning, I started out as a psychology lecturer. So that’s me. 

Simon: [2:02] Great, and concise whistle stop tour of your history there Nick, thank you. Can you outline an initiative you’ve been involved with that you’re most proud of? Something that delivered value to an entire organization at scale?

Nick: [02:15] Yeah, I could bore you to tears with those. I think two that I’ve been really proud of—during my time in oil and gas, first was a redesign of our induction program, and it’s a story I’ve told before. But I think it was a pivotal story for me. When I joined this particular organization, there were eight hours of elearning modules, and as a diligent elearning manager, I had to look at the utilization to determine our return on investment. Only 300 people had ever completed these mandatory… you know. And given that we had 6,000 people joining a year, it was appalling performance. But I think it’s fairly typical for a lot of kind of elearning, and we just sort of brush it under the carpet. But I said, look, we’ve got to stop this, because if this is people’s first impression of what digital learning is when they join the organization, it’s all downhill from there. 

[3:02] So, it was the first application of this—sort of, well I think it was kind of revolutionary thinking about learner-centered design. We developed a series of techniques. We talked to probably I think about 15 focus groups of new starters. And so, instead of doing what everybody else does with their induction programs—they just dump all of the corporate content into them—we talked to people and said what problems have you got, what are you really worried about, what do you care about when you join? And we built a backwards, bottom-up, user-centered design.  And the thing that we built, instead of digital resources for new starters, was so popular we got a million hits. And it was an unprecedented kind of outcome, and it wasn’t just it was much more entertaining. The most popular assets were things like checklists that were really helpful. 

“We talked to people and said what problems have you got, what are you really worried about, what do you care about when you join? And we built a backwards, bottom-up, user-centered design.” @shackletonjones on the Learning at Large podcast #podcast #learning

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And we know that they helped people to settle in and to build their confidence, because we talked to them about it. So, that was something I was tremendously proud of. The other piece of work that I mentioned, which has I think helped us a lot with the work that I do at PA Consulting—a lot of which is around leadership—is a complete redesign of the leadership strategy for this particular organization. We used a transitional model—again, that’s not innovative particularly. Ram Charan et al. published a book called Leadership Pipeline, which looked at transitions as being critical for people’s development. But actually going through every element of that strategy, building out a leadership development program which was transitional for first-ever leaders and senior leaders. But you know, leading with digital, because on day one as a leader, you need all of the things that can help you do that job effectively. So, you know, those are two big things I’m very proud of. There were others, of course.

Simon: [4:47] You say you talked to people to understand how it was working. How did you pull that together to get meaningful insights?

Nick: [04:54] There’s only one kind of proper answer to that question, and the answer to the question is another question: Who’s measuring performance? Is it you, or is it us? By you, I mean the business. So when a business says and challenges the learning team as they often do, what is the ROI? The next question is, well, who’s measuring performance? Because if the business is measuring performance then that’s where you’ll see your ROI—return on investment metrics. If we, the learning team, are supposed to measure performance, then that needs to be scoped as part of the program, because actually implementing a whole series of measures around performance is no small thing in its own right.

[05:33] But here’s the thing. The truth is, in reality, you don’t often get to have that conversation. So, there’s a way to kind of sidestep it or kind of hack it if you like, which is we use the Brinkerhoff, or a variation, case study methodology. What that means in practice is, at the start of a project, you talk to people about the problems that they’ve got in doing the jobs. You talk to stakeholders as well about some of the objectives of their program, and at the end of the program—along with the quantitative measures of utilization and so forth— and at the end you actually go back to those groups of people who are using the program and talk to them again about how it’s impacting their work. That will get you close to level three and level four measures, because they will tell you very specifically if you’re building performance support, about how they’re using what you delivered for them to help them to do the job.

Simon: [06:21] Thanks for the example there, Nick. So, how do you kind of approach an audience that are wired differently—they’ve got different values, different ethics?

Nick: [06:31] What I explain in the book is that if you know at the outset, because you took the time to talk to people, that they don’t care about this stuff, then you will be wasting your time in performance terms—just dumping information on people. The heart of the book is the idea that we encode stuff that we care about, and we will all have this experience where we just have to sit through a lecture or something incredibly boring. We don’t remember any of it. So, just subjecting people to loads of information about, new operating procedures, isn’t going to see a performance shift. 

“Just subjecting people to loads of information about new operating procedures isn’t going to see a performance shift. ” @shackletonjones on the Learning at Large podcast #podcast #learning @Learn_at_Large

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[07:06] In order to do that, we need to design an experience. The way to do that is to find out what people care about and then build on that. And I’m just going to give you one example because I think it was a really lovely example. When I visited refineries in the U.S., I saw that people had a picture of their family portrait on the desk, and they had signed it, and the signature said, “This is why I stay safe every day.” And I thought it was a lovely illustration of how you can shift behaviors if you find out what people do care about and design an experience which actually relates what you want to care about to something they already do. 

Simon: [7:41] That’s an interesting example there, because I was going to ask you around what constitutes a valid experience or modality for learning. What do you think kind of goes in and out of the mix of a good digital learning experience? 

Nick: [07:55] As you’ll know from the book, I differentiate between learning experiences and learning resources, and learning experiences can be face-to-face or they can be digital. And it’s actually quite—it’s more challenging, I think, to really build impactful digital experiences, but you can do it. And I’ve seen it on a range of ways.  So, a story can be the simplest form. You can hear a story that’s really powerful and which impacts you. One story that I heard—a digital story—was a captain of the U.S. Navy submarine, a captain of a particular submarine. And it was the highest performing submarine in the whole Navy. And he was asked why his submarine was so much better performing than all the others, and he said, “Well, it’s a funny story.” He said he actually trained on another submarine and said, “I was assigned as captain to this submarine I didn’t know anything about. And so, as a consequence, I couldn’t lead in the way that I normally would, which is kind of telling people what to do. I have resorted to this technique of constantly asking ‘What would you do if you were in my shoes?’ ‘What would you do if you were the leader?’” And it turned out that this technique led to people behaving as if they were leaders, and resulting in the highest performance for that particular submarine. So it’s a lovely story, and I remember it, so that can be impactful because it has that affective dimension to it.

[09:15] Another learning experience, a digital learning experience, that I personally designed—we took very senior leaders and we invited them to give a presentation at a future worlds conference at which Elon Musk was speaking. Now, they didn’t know that we’d fabricated the whole thing. It felt very real, but it was hugely impactful. You really put people on the spot. They looked as if they had thousands of people in an audience, and then they had to respond to difficult questions. And then, when they messed up—as they did because we planted errors in the PowerPoint presentation they didn’t pick up—they really learned something from that. So a good digital learning experience has to be one that you really feel.

Kirstie: [09:55] Thanks, Nick. That’s really good to have those examples again. So, just a question as a follow-up, really, around storytelling—if you start with a story like the captain of the submarine story you talked about then, where do you go from there to make it performance-changing? Because stories support memory, and they chime with us, and it’s almost—for me, it was at the start of the process. What comes next?

Nick: [10:16] I absolutely agree with your analysis, Kirstie. I think you start with the experience that might even be a story, and that will point you in the direction of some resources which you can then pull. So, it’s this kind of push-pull dynamic. I think stories and storytelling, you know, it gives businesses the sort of heebie jeebies because I think any of those sort of soft and fluffy things feel like they might be a risk in terms of investment. The issue is, though, that what they’re really dealing with is this Drucker thing: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and they keep screwing up because they don’t understand that an organization is a little bit like an iceberg. There’s all the training and the operational standard operating procedures. But I spend a lot of my career talking to people actually doing jobs, and I can tell you, that’s not what they’re using to do the job—even in highly regulated industry. It’s actually all the interpersonal stuff, all the cultural stuff, and that’s made up of stories. When you join an organization, people will tell you stories, which will set the tone for the way that you behave for years thereafter. 

“It’s all the interpersonal stuff, all the cultural stuff, and that’s made up of stories. When you join an organization, people will tell you stories, which will set the tone for the way that you behave for years thereafter.” @shackletonjones on the Learning at Large podcast

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[11:21] In terms of new starters, they want to know what the culture is like in an organization. So, something that you can do that’s really cool is capture senior people talking about what the culture is like, what their lives are like, what they do at the weekends, what it was like for them when they joined—and I personally did that for all of the exec at BP. And it’s transformational when you hear the CEO talk about how they missed—you know, they almost got fired because they made a mistake, but they learned from it and so on. They humanize people in a way that other formats don’t. 

[11:57] Another example that I think was really powerful was we had to train leaders in the biofuels business, and these aren’t people sitting in offices. These are people out in sugar cane fields. And so, the approach there was to come up with some critical stories about leadership, like how somebody handles a confrontation or how somebody does coaching. And we had almost like a forum theater where people went out into the fields. People put down their machetes, and then these stories played out and people were invited to kind of participate and say what their opinion was, how things should have been different.

[12:31] So stories can be used in a number of ways, but you have to start to treat them systematically—not just like something that you just assume happens in the sidelines.

Kirstie: If you were going to step into an organization tomorrow, Nick, as a Chief Learning Officer—well, probably a Chief Performance Officer we should hope it should be named. Where would you start?

Nick: [12:50] I would look at transitions. I think that’s where most learning happens. So, I would look first at who are the key audiences within the organization, who are making the biggest impact on our performance, and then how do we better structure their transition into those roles so that they perform faster and to a higher level.

Kirstie: [13:11]: Okay, fantastic. So it’s almost like an 80-20 view, but thinking about the people-centered 80-20. How much do you think the role of something like a Chief Learning Officer in a larger organization is about culture—you know, how much responsibility do you think they have to change that?

Nick: [13:29] That’s a super question again. I think currently not very much. In the future, I think they could have huge impact. So H.R. often complained about not really having a seat at the table, and that is because I sometimes say that, you know, H.R. is primarily about policing. These are the laws, and here’s how we’re going to enforce them. The problem is, we sort of sunk into compliance space, which is more about policing, and away days—which is really a two-day event, go to a hotel, eat some lunch, get a chance to meet people have a chat. 

[14:04] And I think that we need to move into two spaces. The CLO needs to have a really clear picture of what you can do to impact performance, which is primarily about performance support. We are the only part of the organization that can really effectively design and deliver the tools that will help people to do the job. Resources—this is why say resources not courses. So, you know, really build the resources that are going to help everybody perform effectively, and we haven’t done that. I’m sure people imagine we have, but we really haven’t. And so that’s all ahead of us. 

“The CLO needs to have a really clear picture of what you can do to impact performance, which is primarily about performance” @shackletonjones on the Learning at Large podcast #learning #podcast @Learn_at_Large

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[14:34] The second area we can impact—you mentioned culture, Kirstie—is employee experience. I spend a lot of time getting frustrated with the fact that nobody seems to have thought about the experience that you have as an employee, but somebody who actually takes the time to design events which give you a sense of belonging, which give you a shared set of what’s valued—but also digital systems which make your life easier can have such a huge impact on employee experience. And I think that is where L&D plays—or should play—in those two spaces, uplifting performance and improving employee experience. And often, there’s a lot of overlap.

Kirstie: [15:18] Yeah, it’s interesting you mentioned employee experiences, because I think, weirdly, sometimes it’s kind of seen as something separate from learning, whereas we know from lots of studies that learning in organizations is what makes it a very appealing place to work for people. But also people who are involved in their own learning initiatives—of course, they’re more engaged usually with the outcome of that, but they actually become more engaged as employees. There’s quite a few studies around that.

Simon: [15:41] I know you talked about Google as being kind of a valid place to get resources from. I’m just interested to ask, is it viable that people lean on third party content in their global corporations? Is that a risk, to let people find information that may not be accurate or supportive?

Nick: [15:59] Yeah, it’s a big risk. And again, it’s a risk, but it’s an opportunity for L&D. It’s astonishing to me that L&D isn’t capitalizing on that opportunity, because people have learned to Google their way through life. I certainly do. I just figure things out as I go. And then, you have these people in the organization and they will continue that behavior, Googling their way through life. Sometimes, that is fine and you can benefit as a business from the fact that you can look up how to get stuff done. But the whole point is, as an organization, you are distinct. You have your own way of doing things, and you want people to use those same practices to actually work on the jobs that they’re doing in the right way. 

Simon: [16:42] Thank you. So, if you were going to look ahead and invent a piece of technology that met your vision for human-centered learning and your theories, what would that technology do?

Nick: [16:58] I’ve known for probably a decade what technology is, and it’s coming whether we want it or not. And the real question is whether or not we’re part of it or whether or not we’re victims of it. The disruptive technology that lies ahead of us is not microlearning; it is performance guidance systems. Driving has been transformed by a device which, when you sit the car, gives you simple instructions because it knows where you are on what to do next. And Uber is not disruptive. The GPS system which enabled Uber to have anybody who can drive—that is the disruptive device. So, imagine you can do SAT NAV or GPS for any job. You can have people join your organization and there’s a device—it might be the mobile phone—which tells them the best thing to do in every situation. 

“The disruptive technology that lies ahead of us is not microlearning; it is performance guidance systems” @shackletonjones on the Learning at Large podcast #learning #podcast @Learn_at_Large

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[17:48] That’s the next step on from digital resources. And all it means is adding contextual information. So, if you know what a leader is doing from one minute to the next, you can have every leader perform at a very high level simply by giving them the sorts of nudges that the GPS does in your car. So that performance guidance system is the next big technology. and if we don’t start creating it in L&D, somebody will start selling it to our organizations and we’ll wonder why we’ve been cut out of the equation. It will be because our organizations want performance uplift, and we’re not delivering it.

Simon: [18:22] Is there a risk in people not thinking for themselves anymore, and being kind of led to an extent where they’re not questioning what’s right or wrong?

Nick: [18:30] Absolutely. It’s not just a risk; it’s an inevitability. But let me look at the flip side of that. The beauty of that as an organization is you don’t need high levels of capability with performance guidance systems. You can have people with very low levels of capability very rapidly performing at a very high standard. That’s what we’ve done with taxi driving. And that’s what we’re going to do with almost every other job. And there’s enormous business benefit in being able to do that. You almost instantly outpace the competition because you don’t have the same resourcing costs that they do.

Simon: [19:03] Okay, Nick—just to wrap up then. For people tuning in, if you could recommend a book or a resource to them to kind of help them in their roles, what would you recommend? And I’ll come to your own book in a minute, but you can say that if you want.

Nick: [19:20] Yeah, I feel a duty bound to say it now that you’ve mentioned it. So, I published a book called How People Learn, and that’s got kind of a philosophical bit at the start—you know, what is learning and why does it matter. And then, it’s got the practical stuff—uses centered design toward the end, and lots of stories along the way. But I’ll move swiftly on. One of the books that I found really super helpful for me was a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Atul Gawande is a surgeon, and he found that in operating environments, in surgical environments, a simple checklist could be more effective in uplifting performance than two weeks’ worth of training. And so his research and his thinking, which he expresses beautifully—and Checklist Manifesto, I think, is great. Other books—I think Clayton Christensen talks about and has written about Jobs to be Done and the jobs to be done approach. He’s kind of really rethinking from more of a kind of consumer-centered approach or user-centered approach, how we design things—I think it’s really enlightening.

Simon: [20:23] Nick, so we’ve just taken so much and really appreciate your time. How can people listening find out more about you and look you up?

Nick: [20:31] Most of my stuff, my thinking, people can find for free on LinkedIn. I blog every time I have an outburst about something; there will be a video or an article I’ve written on LinkedIn. I’m on Twitter as @shackletonjones, and I have a blog Aconventional. Those are the main ones.

Simon: [20:49] Thank you so much for today—everything you’ve shared, and some really great practical advice as well. Thank you very much.

Nick: I’ve really enjoyed it. You asked some questions I haven’t had before, so thank you very much. And yeah, thanks, Simon. Thanks, Kirstie.

Join the conversation!

Thanks again to Nick for sharing so much today. Please do go and look up his book so you can dive into some of these topics a bit more deeply. We really want to hear your thoughts on today’s chat. You can join us on Twitter to keep the conversation going—just look us up as @Learn_at_Large. If you have any questions or thoughts about the topic today, please email me at simon@elucidat.com. Finally, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app. See you next time.

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