Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Importance of Learning about Your Learners

I just got back from the CLO Summit at the Red Rock Resort in Las Vegas. It was a long trip from Connecticut, but well worth it. Red Rock is a great place for a conference and this one was exceptional. There were approximately eighty Chief Learning Officers, Talent Management Vice Presidents, and other development professionals in attendance. It was an intensive three days, focused on key issues impacting the learning industry. There were presentations on organization structure, learning trends, and strategies for managing a learning function during these challenging economic times.

One CLO from the insurance industry presented a case outlining how she built a comprehensive program to raise performance levels among independent agents. It was in support of her organization’s strategy to meet growth targets. This required the independent reps to double their two-year productivity. It was an impressive success story that provided an example of the power of solid instructional design. But what particularly struck me, was the emphasis the CLO placed on learner analysis in the instructional design process. All too often we take this step for granted, instead relying on competency models to tell us what we need to include in the training. In truth, as this CLO well knows, competency models tell only part of the story. Her learner analysis went much deeper, using what she referred to as a waterfall approach to analyze required behaviors at cascading levels.

Listening to her describing her work reminded me that my most successful projects were the ones in which I employed all parts of the instructional design process, including a thorough learner analysis. By that I mean an analysis that explores as many characteristics of the target audience as is possible. In addition to reviewing required competencies, here are a few questions I have found helpful to include in my learning analyses:

What entry behaviors do the learners already possess? In other words, what required skills have they already mastered? This is what the insurance industry CLO was trying to determine in her waterfall approach to learner analysis.

What prior knowledge of the key topics do the learners already have? Usually, learners will have at least some familiarity with the proposed training topics. By answering this question you can determine which topics to emphasize and which topics to downplay. You may even discover topics that can be discarded altogether.

How do the learners feel about the proposed topics? Are they interested, motivated, or indifferent to the proposed topics? Answering these questions will help you size up how much of a challenge it is going to be to capture and hold your learners' attention, and whether or not you will have to make a case to them about the importance of reaching the learning goals.

How do the learners feel about potential delivery approaches? What are their expectations regarding how training will be delivered? Are they expecting live classroom training, e-learning, or something else? You may have the flexibility to choose a delivery approach that is favorable to your learners, or you may not. Either way it is best to know what you are getting yourself into as you develop the program.

What general characteristics do the learners possess as a group? Are you training a homogenous group, or are they very diverse? Group variables should be considered when developing objectives, instructional strategies and motivational approaches. Ultimately, you want to give yourself every possible advantage in knowing what learning activities are most likely to be successful.

This is just a sampling of some of the questions that could be included in a learner analysis. Many others will be specific to the program being developed.

I wish I could say I was always thorough in all my analyses. But at times, I have been guilty of relying on competency models and cutting corners. This mostly happens when I'm short on resources and under deadline pressure. However, like the insurance industry CLO who presented her case at the summit, when big issues are stake I will push back on those deadlines in order to do the right thing.

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