How to make human-centered learning a reality: 6 top takeaways (Ep6)

What does a bottom-up approach for delivering learning look like? Which types of learning experience build better engagement? How do you benchmark the effectiveness of your learning strategy? In this episode, Nick Shackleton-Jones puts his theories into the context of an L&D leader, with practical guidance and real-world stories. We’ve pulled out the 6 top takeaways from the conversation with Simon below!

Nick Shackleton-Jones human centered learning

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.

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

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6 key takeaways

1. Identifying performance measures starts with talking to people about the problems they have and how those are impacting their work.

“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.”

“… we use the 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 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.”

2. Understand an audience’s values and experiences to create content that speaks to them.

What I explain in [my] 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, you know, new operating procedures, isn’t going to see a performance shift.”

“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.”

3. Storytelling and roleplaying can be linked to create a holistic experience for an audience – ultimately allowing you to point learners in the direction of resources.

“As you’ll know from [my] 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. [8:14] 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. [08:30] 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.” [8:39] 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?’” [09:00] 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.”

“Another learning experience, additional learning experience, that I personally designed—we took very senior leaders and we invited them to give a presentation at a future world 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.”

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…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.”

“…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.”

4. Company culture eats strategy for breakfast; establishing and iterating a culture can motivate a newer audience to learn and grow.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, and [learning developers] 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

5. The most learning happens at periods of transitions, and training should focus on flexible resources that demonstrate clear value rather than static courses.

 “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.”

“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.”

6. Establishing audience-centric, company cultured resources is essential to creating tailored job-related learning.

 “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.”

 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.”

Nick’s book:

How People Learn, Nick Shackleton Jones 

“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 and to design toward the end, and lots of stories along the way.” 

Nick’s book recommendations:

The Checklist Manifesto, 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.”

Clayton Christensen: The Theory of Jobs To Be Done

 “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.”

Nick’s contact information

 “ 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.”

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 Finally, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app. See you next time.

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