Ep7: How to solve real-life business problems through learning design

Today, we’re lucky to have two guests on the show from Aviva. 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. With design at its heart, this episode is useful for practitioners looking to build a team that will make a real business impact. Enjoy.

Gemma Critchley Learning design

About Aviva:

Aviva is a multinational insurance company selling to 33 million customers across 16 countries, with a workforce of 30,000.

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Podcast transcript

Simon: [1:00] Gemma, how are you doing?

Gemma: Hi, Simon, you alright?

Simon: Yeah, good, thank you. 

Gemma: You’ve got me and Paul here on the line. 

Simon: Hi, Paul. How are you doing? You alright?

Paul: I’m good, Simon. 

Simon: So, Gemma and Paul, welcome to Learning at Large. Before we get started, could you both introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about your role at Aviva?

Paul: [1:17] Thanks, Simon. I’m Paul, Paul O’Hara, and I’m lead for learning experience design here at Aviva. The way I see that role is that it’s helping to bridge what the business wants with what the people need, so stuff like creating resources, learning experiences, that help people perform in their roles, connect with each other, and ultimately developing their careers. 

Gemma: Brilliant, Paul—I don’t think I can add too much to that. [1:41] Paul and I work in the same team at Aviva. I’m Gemma Critchley, I head up the team. Within the remit of learning experience, we also look after technology and innovation, and that can be quite exciting but also quite challenging. People hear the word innovation and think it’s all about crazy ideas and creativity and technology, and actually, one of the things our team is laser-focused on is that innovation is creative problem-solving. [2:10] So, it’s not about the next sexy thing; it’s about how are we going to create stuff that does exactly what Paul just said, help people to do what they need to do in the best way that they can possibly do it?

Simon: Brilliant. [2:20] Thank you very much. And I’m going to delve into the way you deal with creative problem-solving later on. Before we deal with that, can you share an example of a project that you both worked on that delivered value to the organization? So, where have you kind of put those things into practice and seen a great result that you’re proud of?

Paul: [2:40] Probably our annual mandatory compliance training program. Basically, we stripped it all back to its actual bare essentials to really understand what was really important, to keep us safe, what’s going to protect us as a business and try to remove all the blockers that made it hard for people. So, stripping back a lot of the content, working with SMEs to try and make it more task-focused, more of opposed to what it was previously, which was all kind of topic-centric. We increased the time to complete it, and their score went up.

Gemma: [3:11] That was like a real flagship for us, actually. We stuck our stake in the ground around this is how we do things differently and how we slip this to be about what the business wants people to know and makes it about the challenges that people face. One of the things that I think was a real move on was that we started to move the organization away from the idea that tests equal learning. [3:36] We stripped out your traditional tests and replaced them with a more adult approach, which was asking people to say that they’d read and agreed to the content and knew where to find help if they needed it, which I thought was a real move on. 

“We stripped out your traditional tests and replaced them with a more adult approach – asking people to say that they’d read and agreed to the content and knew where to find help if they needed it, which I thought was a real move on.” @GemStGem on the Learning at Large podcast

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Paul: [3:54] Yeah, what you said about treating people like adults and getting that balance between, as you said, what the business needs and people know they have to do this stuff, so how do we make it as smooth and slick and effortless as possible?

Gemma: [4:04] Another 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: [4:28] 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? [4:52] 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. 

Simon: [5:06] Can I just check what you’re saying about external thought leadership, and bringing that through? What do you mean by that? 

Gemma: [5:13] For me, it’s about how do we bring external perspectives into the business? So, things like what we’re reading, what blogs 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. [5:44] Not everyone thinks, “I’m going to go watch this video 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?

Simon: [6:16] Yeah, I love it. Okay, so where you had that kind of great NPS score—from minus seventeen to plus fifty-five, what formatted that take on for that overhaul? 

Paul: [6:27] 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 [6:40] 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. [7:14] 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 stripped 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. [7:41] I think all those things combined add up to actually make it an improved experience.

“Once you’ve stripped it all back, 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.” Paul O’Hara on the Learning at Large podcast

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Simon: [7:45] So, Paul, your title is Global Learning Experience Lead, and you’re talking about a range of disciplines you’re bringing out—external agency ideas, looking at what’s going on and how people are consuming content. You’re talking about kind of UX discipline. What kind of range of skills do you need to really be an effective leader in L&D nowadays?

Paul: [8:10] That’s a really good question. I think people who are in L&D can be quite pigeon-holed—like you’re an L&D designer, make me an elearning course. But I think if you’re really passionate about the learner, you need to have that range of weapons, you know, you need to get to work with the business, do that needs analysis. A lot of that is around, I would say, trying to storytell—sell your vision in focus groups of users. You know, scripted videos, shooting videos, editing videos, web design. [8:43] I think the modern-day learning petitioner, you need to have a good standing of all those elements I would say..

Gemma: [8:48] I would definitely agree about the breadth of skills being really important—being willing to open up and try and learn new things in that world. 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 collaboratively. 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 with 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. 

[9:27] 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?” ask 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. 

“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?” ask those sorts of questions. Have those difficult conversations.” @GemStGem on the Learning at Large podcast

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Simon: [9:48] I think that what’s coming through in these conversations is to be brave and have that clear vision for what effective learning experiences are and how you’ll go about them, and what’s needed to kind of push things from where they are right now—something better. 

Paul: [10:04] 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. 

Simon: [10:11] Do you think you need to learn what other people need to learn before you can enable them to learn it? I mean, how deep to you have to go into the actual subject matter, and what the SMEs are sending you? 

Paul: [10:23] I think—well, I don’t think you can know too little about it, 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. [10:45] 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 leek it out 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. 

“Part of the role is trying to turn the complex into the simple. If you’re getting stuff you don’t really understand, it’s then hard to design it in a way that makes sense to anyone else. That’s just repeating what’s been given to you” Paul O’Hara on the Learning at Large podcast

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Gemma: One of the things that we really try and do is to bring design thinking into our approach. [11:12] 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. [11:34] 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.” [11:48] 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. 

Simon: [11:57] There’s a project I worked on a few years ago where it was angling the academic knowledge and expertise around schizophrenia, to target people who care for relatives or friends with schizophrenia. So it happened to be a totally different message, and I got them to just think about the audience and imagine they were addressing them, that they were going to make a change in their life as careers. They had to kind of explain it in a way that would give them something that would change their lives. I got them on the phone to kind of recount that and it really got them to cut down all of the academic-speak and just get to the point, and also understand what that audience wanted. [12:39] That was, in that context, a quite useful way of kind of curating—getting them to curate themselves and take some of the work out of it. 

Gemma: [12:46] I think that point about letting the audience become the creators or the curators—I think that’s really neat. You mentioned at the start of the call, Simon, that you’d spoken with Nick Shackleton-Jones recently, and a lot of the work that we do is rooted in some of the thinking that Nick shares in his book, How People Learn. There’s a methodology in there called the Five DI, which is basically a design thinking methodology as to how you creatively solve a problem and then continue to iterate that problem-solving. [13:19] The second phase of that is discovering. I’d say that’s probably where we spend the majority of our time, is really understanding what people are up against and co-creating it with those people. 

Simon: [13:29] Can I ask something about the scale of the team and how many people are making, designing these kind of learning experiences in the business? How many learners are you supporting, and how big is the team that you facilitate to support that audience?

Gemma: [13:44] The formal team is small, but perfectly formed, I would say. There are 5 of us in the global team, all with a range of skills like Paul described—we’ve got people with really strong coaching backgrounds, people who are brilliant facilitators, people who are experts in video production, people with graphic design and web design backgrounds, copywriting. [14:08] We support the big global programs that touch big audiences in Aviva. There are also teams within the business that are closer to the markets in the business and the customers themselves. Say, for example, there’s a UK learning team, a Canadian learning team, France, Poland, Italy, Asia—all have their own in-house teams that would deal with things like professional qualifications, technical learning. [14:34] What our team tends to get involved in is those big global interventions, things like leadership development or risk, for example, that touches everyone, or culture change. 

[14:44] The number of people we’re here for—there’s about 30,000 people in Aviva globally, across a range of languages and regions. They do a range of different things for our customers as well, so we’ve got some areas of the business that are really focused on saving for retirement, for example, some really pure general insurance, and some are doing the more innovative digital stuff. So, a real scale of different needs. [15:12] It’s about how do you get to the crux of what those needs are, and then do the right thing for them.

Simon: [15:18] To some people, that would be an overwhelming challenge, to think, “I’ve got 30,000 people who collectively need to do something differently, or learn something.” How do you break down that challenge? You’re an advocate of design thinking; how do you then break down that huge change that needs to happen in the business? 

Gemma: [15:40] I’ve got a view on this—and Paul, chip in if you think differently. One of the things I think businesses—and not Aviva specifically, but what I’ve seen in a number of organizations— 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. [15:57] 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. 

“What I’ve seen in a number of organizations— 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” @GemStGem on the Learning at Large podcast

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[16:30] 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.

Simon: [16:45] Hypothetical question—so, if you could invent a brand-new technology to address the challenges that frustrate you in your roles right now, to solve the business issues you’re seeing, what would that look like? What would that do?

Gemma: [17:00] I think the one thing for me that would solve the problem—I don’t think I’d be inventing anything new—but I would just be making everything work and talk to each other. Giving me that seamless experience that I have when I’m not at work—and I’m looking at my phone right now, because that’s where I get my seamless experience from—bringing that into work a bit more, I think. If I could invent some sort of laser beam that made the UX of everything feel brilliant, I would, but there you go—that’s what I’d do. 

Simon: [17:32] Love it, great. 

Paul: [17:35] I guess I would like a digital assistant that I could ask anything of, but within the context of the business. A kind of digital assistant that could help me do my job at Aviva would be fantastic. Please? Where do we sign? 

Gemma: I love that!

Simon: [17:53] Is that the future of L&D, do you think?

Paul: [17:54] I think learning more at the point of need, I can see. I think L&D technology is always playing catch-up to consumer technology. That’s just the way it is. But that’s the way consumer technology is going; it’s got more assistance in the moment. Book a flight, book anything. I think eventually that will translate into the work environment. Hopefully sooner rather than later. [18:15] But yeah, I think that’d be something that’s quite useful to have people do their job better, not necessarily replacing their job, but helping them do better.

Simon: [18:24] Can I ask you both to just recommend a book that’s really inspired or helped the way you think about the changes at work and what you’re doing, and kind of the innovative approach that you both take?

Paul: [18:36] Well, I’ve just bought Nick Shackleton’s book. I haven’t quite finished it, but it’s a very interesting read. One I have probably read more is one by Cathy Moore, called Map It. I’ve found that quite useful in our role, I think. She’s got a lot of good practical advice.

Gemma: [18:51] Yeah, we love Cathy Moore. She’s a bit of a living legend in our team. I started reading as a recommendation—a friend of mine, a guy called Eric Roden who runs a company called Able Works, recommended and kind of gave me a book called Designing Your Life, which is by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. They’ve got a really good pedigree in MIT, Standford, type background. 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. [19:39] But I would definitely say check it out, Designing Your Life—I think it’s on Blinkist as well. 

Simon: [19:44] I’m definitely going to check that out. Great recommendation—thank you very much. Thank you both for your time today. It’s really exciting to hear what you’re doing, what you think about things—the way you’ve opened your minds to exploring new ways of doing things and challenging things. It’d be great to keep in touch and see where you go next. Thank you so much for making the time today as well—really appreciate it.

Gemma: All about sharing the love!

Simon: Definitely. 

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 simon@elucidat.com 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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