Interviews from LearnX - How do managers really learn with Owen Ferguson

Owen Ferguson from GoodPractice talks about some of their findings from their research into how managers learn.  


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Transcript - How do managers really learn with Owen Ferguson

Robin: Welcome to the Learning While Working Podcast. For our audience, can we do a quick introduction of who you are and what you do?

Owen Ferguson: Sure. I'm Owen Ferguson, managing director of GoodPractice, we're a learning technologies firm. I am also a regular participant in the GoodPractice Podcast, which is a weekly show about work learning and performance. Finally, most importantly for today, I am a bit of a nerd. I am a big fan of using data and analysis to understand the habits of our core target audiences.

Robin: GoodPractice has been doing some research into how managers learn. We’re talking about that today. What are the key things you learnt from that research?

Owen Ferguson: Sure. We've got about three years of research that we've done, and we worked with a research company called Home Raised to make sure that we had genuinely representative samples to work with. If I could pick three keys things that we've found, not just on the research itself, but also from the process of conducting the research. The first thing is that the word, learning, itself is loaded with prior experience and misconceptions. I think through working in learning in development, we've got very different relationships with the word learning. But when people working in organisations hear the word learning, they think of it as something they either have to make time for outside of their normal working practise, or it's something that gets scheduled for them. We say learning, and they hear education.

Robin: They hear that very formal separation between work. They see it as doing a new thing, they don’t see it as something that happens all the time.

Owen Ferguson: Yes, absolutely. The insane thing is, if you ask them about overcoming unfamiliar challenges, or situations where learning is part of the process, they will talk about learning all the time. They just don't describe it as learning. They all talk about having conversations with colleagues, they'll talk about searching on the internet, they will talk about accessing resources that are helpful for them to achieve a task, but they don't describe it as learning.

Robin: It's interesting, because essentially maybe the thing in L&D is we want learning to be this continuous improvement cycle where people don't particularly think about learning and training and education. We actually need another term.

Owen Ferguson: And--

Robin: In our industry, it could be capability development

Owen Ferguson: Yes. I think sometimes we're a bit hard on ourselves in L&D. Every profession has its own internal ways of describing things. How you present that to your audience doesn't necessarily have to be with the same kind of language. One of the things we recommend clients do is if you've got something that's not formal learning, but you want people to engage with it, don't describe it as learning. Cause if you use the word learning, or words that are associated with learning, people will treat it as something they have to do outside of their normal work flow. Whereas, if you position it as something that's there to help them do their jobs, they are more likely to access it just-in-time.

Robin: Yes. One of the nice things I’ve heard people talk about is using the 70:20:10 learning model, but they don’t actually call it the 70:20:10 learning model when they talk about it because that is a bit of a learning jargon. That was the first thing. What was the second thing?

Owen Ferguson: Sure. The second thing is that when we looked at the kinds of activities that manager engaged with most frequently, there were two key factors that influenced their adoption. One was how easy is it to access, and the second was how quickly it got the manager to an answer that they were looking for. Without those two things--if it's not quick and easy to access, and it doesn't give them a quick result--they are less likely to engage with them. In one of our reports that we looked at, traditional training is dead last in terms of the activities that managers engage with, whereas having conversations with colleagues and searching on Google for stuff came out right at the very top. You have all the different activities in between. Basically, the quicker it was to access, and the quicker it got a result, the further up the list that it appeared.

Robin: Yes. In the organisations we often quite hide things, we put it on their learning management systems, we don't make them easy to find is the best way to put it.

Owen Ferguson: Yes, absolutely. Discovery and usability are a challenge for enterprise systems. If you've got that wrong, you've already lost your audience. Having acute, clear focus [and] using some of the techniques that the consumer providers have, in terms of how they design that user-centred design process, is absolutely critical to getting engagement-- with any kind of learning.

Robin: That's actually in a podcast that hasn't been released yet. We talked with Learning Pool about their chatbot, which is potentially about trying to open up different types of learning resources and bring those people just-in-time on other platforms. This strikes me as a nice way of learningjust-in-time.

Owen Ferguson: Yes. Chatbots are interesting. I think there's bags of potential there. Call me slightly sceptical, I have yet to see a chat bot for which a more traditional interface doesn't do the job quicker and better. Don't forget, you're dealing with an audience not all of whom are completely comfortable with the latest and greatest technologies. While that might work for a particular audience, it doesn't work for perhaps the more conservative members of your audience. We need to experiment, and we need to find out, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the new stuff. We just need to be able to get interfaces better.

Robin: Yes. It's essentially a series of podcasts around AI and machine learning. I didn't expect to have them end up being about chatbots. It still strikes me that such a primitive insert, would almost return it back to a command mind, chat-text based thing.

Owen Ferguson: Yes.

Robin: Which is just how it works for some people and doesn't work for the other people. It works for some things as well. I think it's gonna be interesting to see how people figure that out in the next few years.

Owen Ferguson: Yes, absolutely. I think you're absolutely right. It is gonna be over the next few years that we start to figure this stuff out. In another report that we produced looking at learning technologies, we looked at which ones managers found most useful. This one was more about a perception than it was about frequency of use, or a managers' perception of its effectiveness. We asked them how useful they find it. Basically, in that one, the older, more established the technology was, the more useful managers find that technology. So, online groups and networks, mobile apps they find the least useful. Whereas, and this came as a surprise to us, e-learning--of the learning technologies--had one of the highest scores.

Robin: Gee that's interesting, isn't it. ‘Cause even as we're talking I'll visualise on a curve, which is actually the whole type curve, and then the actual application which is basically-- almost what I'm thinking about there and what we’re talking about.

So that’s two of the things, what was the third one?

Owen Ferguson: The third one, and it's a kind of corollary to the first point, is that the frequency of use is actually independent of managers perceived quality of the activity's effectiveness. Right? If we take internet searches as an example, and our list of 13 or 14 different activities that we called out, it came second in terms of how frequently managers engage with it, but sixth in terms of how effective they felt it was. Traditional training, which was dead last in that list of how frequently the managers engage with it, actually scored really quite well. It doesn't matter that managers perceive value in the activity. What matters is how quickly can I access it, and how quickly does it give me a result.

Robin: Yes. Which is interesting isn't it? That it was the speed to something.

Owen Ferguson: Yes.

Robin: The speed to knowledge and actually we're talking about how low quality is actually more important than the actual effectiveness.

Owen Ferguson: Yes. In terms of adoption, how likely is it the manager's' roles actually engage with something. Something someone said to me quick some time ago was that "It's the things that you interact with every day that make the biggest difference to your wellbeing." I think there's something that's probably also true in terms of learning, that the things that you interact with on a daily or weekly basis in terms of things that you try and get help from and have as big an impact as the big bang, big buck, immersive experiences that we try and create. It's entirely possible that we are concentrating too much on the wrong things.

Robin: From those three things, what do you think is the biggest takeaway that people should be thinking about when they're starting to design learning?

Owen Ferguson: I would say think about how you're positioning interventions within your organisation. You don't have to position something as learning in order for it to have an impact. In fact, sometimes you might be better off positioning it as something else. The second is, focus in on your user experience. Find out what it is that people actually value, what's gonna encourage them to engage with something more regularly, and design for your audience.