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The Five Persistent Problems of Learning: Problem 1 is About Getting Engagement

by Todd Kasenberg

Horses and water come to mind when thinking about the first persistent problem of learning - namely, that the learner sees no reason to participate in the learning. This may be the most exasperating of the problems of learning for the instructional designer (and for the learning sponsor, if any), because it can reduce what is often substantial investment to waste.

Through the sales and marketing lenses which I believe applies to learning, refusal to participate (or to “buy”) is usually a function of not enough pain.  People, in choosing to engage with change – and both buying and learning represent change! – need to feel that the current state of affairs is not acceptable.  There is a strong requirement, essentially, for the “buyer” to feel the need for change; this need is not dominated by the rational, but by the emotional.  (In fact, if we follow Passikoff’s research into the buying process, we come to understand that up to 75% of any buying decision is emotional, which really turns on its heads the notion that we buy rationally. As in, “I want the red car!”)

So, applied to learning, the learner must recognize that there is a problem, a gap, in her current learned landscape, and the pain must be sufficient for her to engage with the proposed “program”. This drive for change must exceed the cost of the status quo.  To get her there, the instruction designer may need to craft a learning experience that turns up the heat.

Ponder, for a few moments, the most compelling buying/selling experiences you’ve ever had.  Many of us who have earned a few grey hairs contemplate experiences in shops, while many (i.e., under the age of 30) pretty much ponder digitally-augmented experiences.  (This, of course, speaks to the challenges of demographic and channels, which must also be considered in experience architecting.)  Think, for a moment, about the characteristics of the experience or encounter.  How much was checklist-oriented and rational, versus emotional?

One of my more memorable buying encounters occurred in a mall in the West Island area of Montreal. I was working in a role which required more travel.  (This reflects a change of circumstance, which can be a provoking incident in the buying and learning journeys.)  Realizing I had truly awful luggage (both practical and esteem needs invoked, all by myself!), I decided that it was worth considering the purchase of a serious suitcase. Part rational, part emotional. I actually dreaded the idea of the shopping experience – what a boring thing to buy!  I had the good fortune, however, of meeting a remarkable salesperson at the luggage store in the mall.  She was excited about luggage.  She was enthusiastic about learning about my needs – how often was I expecting to travel, how many nights would I be away, was it usually by aircraft or by car, etc.  Her questions were gently yet enthusiastically framed. The store was attractively merchandised. She oozed professionalism. After our “discovery” session, she explained why I should look at 3 options – at first, very logically.  But then she continued down the road to the sales hall of fame – she evoked images of my travel from her needs investigation, telling me about the places I would go.  She talked about baggage handling by airlines. She told me about ballistic nylon.  She talked to me about mad dashes through airports and the challenges of certain kinds of wheels on bags.  She got me nodding my head about things I hadn’t even thought about – so much so that I lost track of time and comfort.  I was ready to buy, and in fact, knew that I had to have the Samsonite bag – even if it was 80% more than I had counted on spending.  Nothing else would do.  She joked that the bag was large enough that I could pack my mother-in-law in it.  I was totally emotionally engaged.

I still have that bag –12 years later.  I use it all the time. I still think about the experience.  I have supplemented my luggage collection using the same things I learned about bags all that time ago.  That was a powerful learning experience.

So – through internal stimuli (circumstances changes and needs awareness), and external stimuli (a brilliant shopping experience), I moved dramatically. My behaviour changed.  My attitudes shifted. I was engaged. Believe it or not, I still feel passion when I buy luggage. 

Our learning programs need to go beyond the “event”.  We need stoked learners, learners who are ready to engage when we dish “the hard stuff”.  Almost always, that will require crafting a pre-engagement emotional experience.  More often than not, there is a “selling campaign” underway before the learner engages with the program so that they are convinced that the current state of affairs isn’t acceptable. They must fully recognize and feel about the problem that the learning will address.

Think about needs assessment approaches in delivering learning, and how to humanize and personalize. Think about “campaigning” to create an emotional experience that precedes the learning.  Think about your best buying experiences – and you will gain the insight needed to overcome the first persistent problem of learning. It is very much about crafting an experience.


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