How to solve real-life business problems through learning design: 5 top takeaways (Ep7)

With learning design at its heart, this episode is useful for: practitioners looking to build a team that will make a real business impact, designers wanting to create effective, user-friendly learning experiences, and learning leaders looking to make the most out of learning curation. This week, we’re lucky to have two guests from Aviva – we’ve pulled out 5 top takeaways from the discussion!

Gemma Critchley Learning design

About Gemma and Paul:

Aviva is a multinational insurance company selling to 33 million customers across 16 countries. Aviva has a workforce of 30,000, and our guests today, Gemma and Paul, oversee the global learning strategy from the headquarters in London. Between them, they are treading a new path and setting an example for what an effective L&D team looks like.

Hear what Gemma and Paul had to say about learning design on the Learning at Large Podcast

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5 key takeaways:

1. External perspectives can help develop content in an exciting, and relevant, new way.

Gemma: “[Some]thing worth mentioning is the way we started bringing the external thought leadership into Aviva. Paul, you’ve worked on a project recently to bring in Blinkist into the business, which I think is already starting to make a real difference to how people view what learning could be. That’s sort of a game-changer, I think, which I’m psyched about—I’m proud that you’ve done it.”

Paul: “I’m glad I have the support to do it. I really am excited about the idea of taking the idea of how we learn outside of work and bringing that into work. It kind of makes me giggle, because whenever we talk about Blinkist in L&D circles, people get a bit uptight about it. You know, it’s “not the real thing,” “why are you doing that?” But when you speak to people in the business, they love it. Because it’s solving that problem, right? People—you ask people, “Would you like to read more?” They’ll say yes. If you ask them why they don’t, then it’s time, usually. It’s hitting that niche spot in a really nice way. And again, it’s wrapped around a beautiful user experience.”

Gemma: “For me, it’s about how do we bring external perspectives into the business? So, things like what we’re reading, what books are we engaging with, what podcasts are we engaging with, which TED Talks are we watching? How do we bring those into the organization? One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years in working in learning has been some of that stuff that feels like second nature to people like us, who are learning professionals, it’s not second nature to everyone. Not everyone thinks, “I’m going to go walk to the city or read this article or listen to this podcast.” Some people do, and they don’t see it as learning, and that’s brilliant too. But I’m trying to—a bit like Paul said—how can we stop thinking about learning in terms of this sort of weird elearning, x% pass mark LMS approach, and instead look at what people are doing in real life and bringing that into work? How can we do more of that—like the curation of different perspectives into the work?”

2. Cultivating effective learning experiences centers around making them user-friendly, tailoring content to correspond to the learning resources people have outside the workplace.

Paul: “For me, it’s around how do you make it as simple and smooth for them as possible. One way I wanted to think about it was if we were to make our customers do this, how might that look? And come at it from that angle—so we spoke to a few creative agencies that were outside the L&D space just to get a few really different approaches. They had really cool ideas around, you know, like an app that you could ask questions to, various different things. And obviously, various different prices as well. Working within the constraints of—you know, we had to get something by the end of the year, we wanted to move on. How do we rework it, to feel more like an experience you might do online outside of work?”

“And then a part of that is working with the business around what actually has to be in here. Working with them to say, “Okay, I know this is important to you, but for the sake of this, what actually needs to be in there?” Having those conversations. And that’s probably the hardest part, really. Once you’ve shipped it all back, you’ve worked with the business to do that bit of negotiation and then you’ve done a user test and designed it in a way that’s more user-friendly, you remove any unnecessary barriers—just little things like that can help to move experience. I think all those things combined add up to actually make it an improved experience.”

3. By simply asking “why” and facing challenging conversations, learning and development teams can find greater success in identifying and understanding problems, their solutions, and what it will take to get to the desired results.

Gemma:… “One of the big things that I think really makes our team work well is that the best work we do is we do it cooperatively. When we’ve got the team on it from day one and we’ve got real accountability, and we deeply understand the problem we’re going after and deeply understand the audience who’s going to deeply be engaging in whatever it is we’re creating, and being able to collaborate and all be in it together and have that sort of shared and collective accountability.”

“I think that’s the secret sauce that makes an L&D practitioner strong, is really strong consulting skills—being able to go out into the business and really say, “Why?” Those sorts of questions. Have those difficult conversations. That’s the thing that I really think made the difference when it came to the essential learning piece that Paul was talking about.”

Paul: “A lot of the time, your first steps are trying to reeducate people about what you’re there for. That can be quite an interesting experience sometimes.”

4. Bring design thinking to creating learning by considering not only the subject matter itself, but the real challenges people are facing.

Paul: “I think—well, I don’t think you can know too little about [the subject matter], I’ll put it that way. I often think part of the role is trying to turn the complex into the simple. If you’re just getting stuff someone sent over to you and you don’t really understand it, it’s then hard to design it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. That’s basically repeating what’s been given to you. So I would say you really need to immerse yourself in whatever it is you’re doing, but it’s not necessarily about becoming the expert yourself. It might be around a bit like podcasts, having a long-form conversation with the SME to really leak it of them. Maybe your learning experience becomes the learning experience for other people, right? Because you’re going on the same journey that you’re going to ask other people to.”

Gemma: “One of the things that we really try and do is to bring design thinking into our approach. One of the main bits of that that really makes a difference in what we do is not only understanding the subject matter itself, but really understanding the challenges that people face. Having a really deep discover set is spending time with people—in their world, in their work, what they’re up against. And then working out whether the subject matter that people are sharing is actually going to solve that challenge. Sometimes, it ends up being that we have to go back and have a conversation with a subject matter expert and say, “Actually, the problem’s really different than what we thought it was at first.” I think it’s about immersing yourself and understanding content, but also it’s really about understanding the challenge that people are facing as well.”

5. Prioritize both large- and small-scale problems to make the most of learning curation.

Gemma: “One of the things I think businesses—and not Aviva specifically, but what I’ve seen a number of organizations—do is that it’s a bit of an addiction to program. People love a big program; they love a big thing they can roll out and put everyone through. Where my practice has gone in the last couple of years has been much more focused around problems. So, how can we find out what is a problem in the business? And then, how can we really articulate what would look differently as a result of tackling that problem? That should be our North Star. I’m not saying it always happens that way—sometimes we are in a place where we’re delivering big programs and stuff—but I think that can really help us to prove our value as L&D as well as helping with the scale question as well.”

“If there is an organization-wide problem, solve it for everyone. If there’s a problem that’s going to make a big difference if you solve it, and it’s only for a small audience, go after that as well. And use those problems to help you prioritize what you need to do after as well. That would be my take on it.”

Gemma and Paul’s book recommendations

How People Learn, Nick Shackleton-Jones

Map it, Cathy Moore

Paul:  “I’ve found that quite useful in our role, I think. She’s got a lot of good practical advice.”

Gemma: “Yeah, we love Cathy Moore. She’s a bit of a living legend in our team.”

Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

“It’s all about how you can apply design thinking to your life. Sort of work out what you want out of life—the subtitle of it is “How To Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life.” But what I’ve found is it’s really affected my practice of how I work. So, I’m hopefully living work a bit better and building stuff that’s a bit more joyful to use as a result of it. But I would definitely say check it out”

Join the conversation!

I want to say thanks again to Gemma and Paul. It was so refreshing to hear how they’re putting the learner first and working toward a more people-centered outcome. Please join us on Twitter to keep the conversation going; just look us up @Elucidat or email me at with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. Lastly, don’t forget to subscribe to Learning at Large in your favorite podcast app. See you next time.

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