Safeguarding the privacy of users’ data is a hot topic for pretty much any company with a digital presence, so it makes sense that many companies require employees and managers to complete compliance training on policies and procedures for protecting privacy and enhancing data security. But Microsoft might be the only one that can boast of bingeable compliance training and learners who voluntarily take additional courses.

For eLearning to be effective, adult learners need to feel invested in it, according to Rashelle Tanner, the director of compliance training in the Office of Legal Compliance at Microsoft, who created the popular TV-series-style training. The eLearning features diverse, relatable characters and scenarios that feel real. “Real life doesn’t happen the way things happen in most training modules, especially if they’re short,” Tanner told attendees at her Compliance Training Summit session.

In previous training, Microsoft had emphasized rules—and the consequences of violating them. The company’s shift to values-driven compliance training occurred “in part because it was more aspirational, and because we felt it could be more engaging,” Tanner said. The new eLearning was also designed to overcome the forgetting curve—to make training scenarios and issues stick in learners’ minds.

Series-style training

Tanner turned to an approach that had served her well in the past: storytelling. The video-based data privacy training included four episodes, each 7-9 minutes long; in addition, the team created a 3-minute “behind the scenes” video for each episode, as well as supplementary materials that include short takeaways and activities for each episode. Learners can watch each segment separately or consume the entire package in a single 45-minute sitting.

The training was so popular that the team created a second “season” and is planning more. They also created two spinoffs—related courses with the same characters, one for managers and one for a particular work group. Many employees who weren’t in those groups clamored for access to the extra training because they wanted to know what happened, Tanner said in a telephone interview. “That’s been a really amazing thing to see that people are taking training that they are not required to take. And that’s another opportunity to reinforce the content,” she said.

Extending the story in new directions just made sense. “We can take the same story and tell it from a different angle, from one character’s point of view for this audience. Because they have the context from the bigger story, it’s an easier lift for them to connect the dots and get the context, and they already understand that character. It seems to stick better,” she said.

Context matters

Context is an essential ingredient of engaging eLearning, Tanner said. It requires “creating realistic scenarios about how things actually show up on their job, which can be challenging when you’re speaking to multiple audiences,” she said. If the characters and scenarios are not relatable, learners can feel as if they are “in a box” during training. “The key is really to put the training in the context of our learners’ day-to-day, how they might come upon the issue.”

A fan of the popular NBC drama This Is Us, Tanner said she got the idea for telling stories from multiple perspectives from the show. She then created multidimensional characters, including a manager, a new employee, and others whom learners could identify with or recognize from their work lives. “We also stick with and use the same characters throughout and try to be true to their personality types,” Tanner said. As viewers “get to know” the characters, they find shared traits and interests. Some viewers email her questions about the characters as if they are real Microsoft employees, she said, which shows that they are invested in the courses.

The “behind the scenes” videos also help flesh out the characters. “We give our characters life by maybe showing them at home, talking to a friend—so you can get their mindset,” Tanner said. The short supplemental videos also reiterate key learning points in the episode and include “flashbacks” to things that happened. “The thing about it is: it feels fun, but people are getting reinforced training,” she added.

Multilayered content

The first episode of the series opens with a scene showing someone typing an incident report on a computer screen as suspenseful music plays. The camera zooms in so that viewers can see the steps in creating a report—but the person is not identified. It’s not until the season one finale that viewers learn who submitted the report.

This opening had two functions, Tanner said: It was intended to create some drama and suspense, but also to show learners how to create a report. “I wanted to get everyone’s attention and make them immediately know that this is not going to be the regular training that they’re used to,” she said.

The dual-purpose learning is sometimes more subtle than that, including set décor that features posters promoting Microsoft goals and culture, as well as aspects of character development. Tanner describes a manager character as someone who often suggests actions that are not ethical or are on the edge. His direct report, a brand-new employee, had read a lot about the culture of integrity at Microsoft, yet she’s confronted with a manager who seems to undermine this goal. A storyline exploring how she grapples with this conflict is meant to illustrate how influential managers are.

“That’s who you get your cues from,” Tanner points out. “Managers really do set the culture. Your world is where your manager is, it’s not where the top CEO is. You don’t walk in those spaces.” By emphasizing both the importance of managers and the company’s cultural values, the training can go beyond teaching about data privacy and be part of a broad effort to instill and reinforce a corporate culture.

Enthusiastic feedback (mostly)

Most employees have loved the training. Tanner gets emails and hears anecdotes about managers and groups of employees “who say they sat around and discussed what happened.” It was the number-one chat topic among employees on social platforms. She’s planning a meeting of 100 managers in India where part of the curriculum is “unpacking” the managers’ version of the course—at their request. Microsoft’s net satisfaction scores for season one broke records, she said, and, season two “shattered” that record.

That said, she emphasized that “Everyone learns differently. This way that we’re doing it—it’s wildly popular, and people are tweeting about it. But there are people that will email me, ‘Can you just tell me what I need to know?’” Some learners like more traditional training “without the fluff.” She’s considering an interview-style podcast version for season three, to offer learners more formats for consuming the learning. “What’s successful—it’s different for everyone,” she said.

Budget not a barrier

Not all L&D teams have Microsoft’s training budget, of course. In her previous job, Tanner said she had “no budget.” She still used stories and relatable characters to draw learners into compliance training. The stories showed “good people doing non-compliant things” and used still photos and narration. She’d show a character making a “baby” decision to do a very minor unethical thing—and then a somewhat tongue-in-cheek scenario where that one small infraction set off a downward spiral of bad results. The story would then rewind to that first decision and show a different chain of events stemming from the ethical choice, ending in everyone “living ethically ever after,” Tanner said. “That was where I started to see that people could retain information, people liked it, and it could bring people together,” she said.

Tanner, along with other eLearning leaders, shares tips for creating engaging compliance training in Creating Compliance Training Learners Will Love. “A lot of it is just shaking up training just a little bit,” Tanner said. “Do something a bit differently.” Download the free white paper for more suggestions on how to do just that.