What’s your opinion of your organization’s accounting practices? I’m willing to bet that’s probably not something you think about all that much as an L&D pro—unless you run your own business, of course. As for me, I’ve always known that my employers have accountants. I’ve always been aware of the organizations’ financial positions. However, I’ve never concerned myself with how the accountants go about their work. I trust that they know what they’re doing, especially because I don’t really understand what they’re doing. I got As in my accounting courses in college (humblebrag), but it certainly isn’t one of my core competencies today. Accountants have professional standards, and, if they maintain those standards, I assume they’re doing what they should be doing to support the company.
Workplace learning is quite different. Unlike accounting, L&D is a loosely defined profession with the potential to directly impact everyone in the company. Sure, we have our competency models and best practices (for those who still tolerate that term). We often use similar technologies and delivery methods. However, the work that we do can vary wildly from organization to organization. Job titles like “instructional designer” mean different things depending on where you work. Even the department’s name is a moving target, depending on how we want to represent the scope of our function (L&D, talent development, training, learning enablement, etc.) All of this variability can make it quite difficult to explain what you do for a living to people outside L&D.
There’s another big difference between accounting and L&D. While people may not have strong ideas about how accounting works, they DEFINITELY have opinions on learning. No, I don’t think employees are spending considerable time every day thinking about learning practices. But we’ve all learned new things. We’ve all taken classes we didn’t like. We’ve all been trained in a particular way that worked for us that one time. While we may be the designated learning people, much of our audience has established beliefs on how we should be doing our jobs. This can manifest as awkwardly specific requests, critical feedback, and general engagement challenges. Personally, I can’t go a week without someone telling me they’re a “visual learner.” So, if we’re supposed to be the “experts,” how can we best do our jobs when everyone else acts like they already know how learning works?
First, let me clarify that I fully believe people should have strong opinions about how they’re supported at work. I’d rather have them care and be critical than completely disengage. These opinions can help us shape a support structure that best fits the context of the work. At the same time, many people’s opinions on learning are limited to their own experience. What worked for them—based on their background—is not likely to work for everyone. Uninformed opinions can also be easily swayed by trends and marketing. For example, do you have people in your organization screaming for “microlearning” without any real understanding of what “microlearning” means? (More on that conversation here.)
It’s our job to navigate people’s opinions on learning while maintaining a critical eye on both the needs of the business as well as evolutions in our field. When someone tells me they are a “visual learner,” I can’t smack them in the face with my understanding that learning styles don’t exist. Sure, I’d love to show off my advanced knowledge on my field and correct them on the spot. But, in real life, you can’t alter long-held beliefs in one fell swoop. Rather, we must leverage influencing tactics to strategically shift people’s mindsets while establishing the credibility to be viewed as true experts moving forward.
Speak in familiar terms
While many people have an opinion on how learning works, plenty don’t really care all that much. It’s not what they do for a living, so they may not be looking for a deep lesson in learning theory. What they do care about is the job for which they are held accountable. So, rather than speaking in L&D terms, we must use the language of the business when attempting to share new ideas and shift mindsets. For example, rather than speaking Kirkpatrick and talking levels of evaluation, we should focus discussion on the fact that collecting the right data throughout an initiative can demonstrate how learning opportunities are impacting business outcomes and the employee experience. In that way, L&D is a lot like pizza. You can get people more interested when you bring it to them rather than making them come to you.
Relate to real life
I never start a conversation about learning science with learning science terminology. Rather, I find real-life examples of learning science in application and relate the current topic to those more familiar ideas. For example, retrieval practice is a proven strategy for knowledge retention, but you don’t need to know the science behind it to acknowledge its potential. When I want to bring the topic up in conversation to combat information-dumping, I talk about flashcards. Most people have used flashcards as a study aid with great success, but they never considered why they work better than re-reading the content over and over. Real-world examples can open eyes to simple, foundational learning principles and help shift opinions regarding workplace L&D tactics.
Leverage trusted partners
You may not yet have the credibility to directly address people’s opinions and change minds regarding the best strategies for workplace learning. That doesn’t mean you can’t start influencing through others. Find partners with established credibility and an interest in workplace learning topics, such as employee engagement, knowledge sharing, and performance enablement, and start the conversation there. Provide simple references, including brief articles, videos, and case studies, to gauge their interest. Discuss how you can partner to influence other stakeholders who may not be as engaged or flexible in their beliefs. Getting champions on your side early can start a collective voice to begin shifting the overall organizational mindset.
Prove in increments
As I already mentioned, you can’t shift beliefs in one fell swoop. Introducing a radical new strategy at full scale may push people to change too quickly and result in pushback and disengagement—even if it is the right idea in the end. Instead, tag small, new ideas onto existing, familiar learning strategies to help people realize there are better ways to address their performance problems. For example, rather than fight for the value of shared knowledge as a foundation for my entire learning ecosystem (which I wholeheartedly believed), I started small and showed how making resources available helped cut down on training time while increasing retention and application over the long term. Once the concept proved successful for several high-value projects, I was free to have the larger conversation about overarching learning strategy, using the stakeholders’ own experience as evidence to my point.
Have the research ready
If you’re trying to shift people’s opinions on learning, someone is going to eventually hold you to it and ask for proof. Rather than argue principles based on common sense or experience alone, it’s critical to have tangible evidence available to back up your claims. If I were deep in a retrieval practice conversation and someone wanted to better understand the scientific basis, I would share RetrievalPractice.org and similar resources so it’s clear that it’s not just me who thinks this way. It’s also a good idea to have practical case studies available so stakeholders can see how these ideas have led to meaningful results in the real world.
Everyone learns. Therefore, everyone has an opinion on what works best for them based on what has and has not worked in the past. As L&D pros, it is our job to help people recognize what’s possible beyond their experiential awareness. We may spend time reading up on new concepts and the latest research, but we can’t expect others to be up to speed in our field. Before implementing awesome new ideas within our organizations, we must start the necessary mindset shift and help people recognize that what once worked for them in school or in training or at home may not have been the best possible approach after all.