Supporting the learning demands of 2.5 million technical specialists: 4 key takeaways (Ep8)

How can ‘performance adjacent learning’ contribute to learner retention? Why are nuance and complexity essential to gathering performance metrics? How do you keep up with best practice? We’ve pulled out the 4 top takeaways from Simon’s conversation with Karen Hebert-Maccaro, Chief Learning Experience Officer at O’Reilly Media, who supports over 2.5 million technical specialists worldwide. 

Karen Hebert-Maccaro technical specialists

About Karen Hebert-Maccaro

Karen oversees the learning strategy for O’Reilly online learning, as well as learning and training events that happen beyond the platform. Her role ensures they’re designing, delivering and measuring the best learning experiences possible across the O’Reilly platform.

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

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Here are 4 top takeaways:


1. Not all learning is linear; “performance adjacent learning” can also contribute to how a learner retains information and implements it in the workplace.  

“So, O’Reilly’s online learning platform is truly multi-modal. We have experiences that can be consumed by the learner in a variety of formats, everything from what I call performance-adjacent learning—which is learning that happens in the moment of need, where someone has to solve a problem or get an idea and then jump back into their work—but also learning that is premeditated, if you will, that might take a bit more concentrated time and be scheduled into somebody’s workday or weekend as they see fit.”

“So, the linear learner is going in a more sequential way, let’s say consuming content in the book from chapter 1 to chapter 2, to chapter 3. It’s a learning path where they may be going in order and consuming all the various multi-modal content that would be in that path in the way that it had been designed in sequence.”

“And then, nonlinear behavior is what I call performance-adjacent behavior, and that’s behavior that isn’t as consistent across the sequential order that the content has been developed in. Rather, the individual seems to be—in the examples I gave you—maybe jumping right into chapter 3 of the book, skipping 1 and 2. And maybe they’re even going to the fifth or sixth page in chapter 3 and reading page 6 through page 10 of chapter 3. They may go into a video course, but they may skip the entire first module and go right into the part of the video course that’s of particular interest to them, and that might be two-thirds of the way through.”

“Part of what we see with the linear and nonlinear behavior is that it is at least partially driven by the proficiency of the learner. So, when learners are new to a topic, they tend to prefer a higher degree of structure with the smaller amount of content.”

2. A good balance between synchronous and asynchronous digital training gives learners a chance to learn at their own pace and ask questions of experts.

“Live online training is something that was brought to the platform over two years ago now in an attempt to create a few things. The first is to create a concentrated period where somebody could set aside to come and engage in a very active experience through the platform—so you don’t have to travel anywhere, it’s available to you wherever you have access to the Internet and the platform. But it gives you direct access to people who are also interested in whatever that topical area is, as well as to the expert that O’Reilly has brought in to actually deliver that experience. They range from one hour to several hours , and they provide a synchronous way to engage on the platform that complements our asynchronous experiences, which are sort of on-demand at that moment of need. They’ve been wildly successful, but one of the things that I think makes them so successful is the fact that when you are engaging on an online learning platform, you can get access to a whole wealth of knowledge and information regardless of what platform you’re using.”

“But when you get into a situation where you have a specific question or you aren’t sure how to interpret something, getting some sort of support—live or asynchronous support becomes critical. Our clients really enjoy the opportunity to engage with our experts, to ask questions, to be involved in discussions to get more active in their learning. So, it’s a nice complement to the asynchronous work on the platform.”

3. Nuancing and complexity are essential to gathering metrics of performance and content value.

I actually want to mention something about what you said about sort of the fiercely complex situation in which we find ourselves and being able to be nuanced in the way we talk about measuring and learning from the data that the platform produces. We are believers that that kind of nuancing and complexity is actually long overdue in the world of learning. There has been an overreliance—and this is not being critical, I’ve been a chief learning officer inside corporations and a head of talent and I understand the unique challenges that are inherent in roles such as that—but one of the things that we have been a little too lax on is the overreliance on very simplistic metrics to understand our learners and whether or not we’re being successful.”

“It’s easy to measure things like hours engaged in learning, or completion. Those things are not inherently bad, but they are inherently limited. One of the things that worries me about measuring things such as hours spent in learning products or platforms or classes or experiences or completion data, is that that really tells you a very small amount of information about the value that’s being derived or the impact that that experience is having. It may tell you very little, it may tell you nothing about what really matters, which is are people finding what they need, getting support to do their jobs better, are they getting back into their work and doing it with greater ease, with more productivity, with better outcomes? That’s what we really want to understand. So, we are focused on being more nuanced and accepting and embracing the complexity of human behavior when it comes to learning in hopes of getting us closer to the space around truly measuring impact and not just measuring things like compliance. I just wanted to mention that because I think that’s sort of part of our philosophy and I think it’s important.”

4. Keeping up with best practices involves keeping an eye both inside a company and on a larger network of organizations.

And to answer your question about how do we keep up with the unbelievable pace of technological change, how do we meet the needs of those that are cutting edge in the technological space? Actually, we have an entire editorial team as a result of our early days as a book publisher—and of course, we still produce books today, but it’s no longer the sole method of providing—spreading the knowledge of the innovators in our network. But we have a whole team of editorial professionals who are intensely connected in the markets around technology and business. We are providers of a dozen conferences annually across the world, where we are interacting with our conference chairs and presenters who are cutting-edge practitioners in their respective fields. So we build our network, in part, by the fact that we are a convener of expertise in a variety of different forms.”

“So that’s one way that we stay in touch with what’s happening literally inside every major organization, every small startup, is by really becoming a center of professional work. We also have a separate team within O’Reilly called O’Reilly Radar, and a gentleman named Roger [unintelligible 17:22] is the VP for Radar for O’Reilly. And that Radar team is focused on not necessarily what’s happening today inside of companies and inside the technical world, but what’s emerging today that is likely to become more mainstream in, let’s say, two or three or five years from now.”

Karen’s book recommendations

The Surprising Truth About How We Learn and Why It Happens, Benedict Carey

“What I love about it is it makes cognitive science, learning science, really accessible. It talks about what it is we grow up learning about learning—you know, self-discipline and all that—but it also goes beyond that to talk through all sorts of, many many years and decades, of learning and education research and studies that uncover how our brains actually retain information and make it accessible to everybody and practical in terms of good learning design. So, that book jumps to mind right away just because I’ve always felt that it was a really good basic primer of understanding of how the brain works and how we can translate that into good, solid learning design.”

Contact information

Linkedin: Karen Hebert Maccaro

Twitter: @learnadjacent

O’Reilly site page: Karen Hebert-Maccaro

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