"Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business."
This quote, attributed to Sir Richard Branson, can be adapted for learning and development (L&D), where our employees are instructional designers, facilitators, and mentors, and our customers are learners: Take care of your designers, developers, facilitators, and mentors, and they’ll take care of your learners.
Too often we, the learning leaders, focus narrowly on our learners and we simply miss all these great people who design, develop, deliver, and support the products and solutions we offer to our learners. Let’s call them learning implementors.
It’s up to us to establish and support a culture where learning implementors are not on their own, where they can help each other and share best practices—much like the learners share their knowledge, skills, and experiences.
As learning leaders, we want to create a space in which teachers teach teachers, trainers help create new trainers, and mentors discuss the best approaches to their work with their peers. We want to create an environment where learning implementors are enthusiastic about what they do and directly relate their work to the learners they serve. This fosters a culture and sense of enthusiasm that simply "infects" the learners!
The development environment leaves a stamp on the content
"The content rules the training" is a phrase often heard. We all know that there are many other factors that contribute to the learner experience and to the transfer of knowledge but good, solid content is a great foundation.
So, in your learning leadership role, make sure that everyone involved in content development—from instructional designers through media producers to subject matter experts—feels valued, receives the appropriate support, and is encouraged in what they do.
I often use a message I conveyed to the developers I led: “Create content you will be proud of. The content that will carry your stamp.” Who is not proud when a happy learner asks about who developed the content—and someone from your team can say, “I did it, we did it!”
In the many years I spent developing learning content, we paid a lot of attention to enabling our development teams, sharing their experiences, and helping subject matter experts. We regularly organized development kick-offs for large projects. At these gatherings we not only discussed the project and expectations; we also helped onboard new people to the team and helped them find best approaches to the content we were about to develop. We always revisited the lessons learned from the previous projects, too.
One of the important aspects of our development efforts was to get as much feedback as possible from learners who had attended previous (or similar) versions of the courses and from instructors teaching that content. Such an approach enabled us to bring truly refreshed content to the market and thus proved to learners that we did listen.
Often, we did kick-offs together with the customer and used a wiki-style repository to share information and best practices among our development team, as well as with stakeholders. Since we worked with some customers for many years, our development teams actively participated in their regular developer summits. Such tight relationships evolved into a situation where we started shaping and optimizing the development processes together. Our developers were proud and happy to see their impact and influence.
Our process of focusing on the learning implementors enabled us to maximize the quality of the content—improving accuracy, cognitive impact, and learner experience. We often celebrated successes as a team.
The energy of trainers and facilitators powers the learners
Once you have content, it needs to be delivered. A lot of it is done digitally yet there are traditional programs where a typical instructor or a facilitator ensures that the content reaches the learners and is optimally absorbed by them. The cognitive impact in particular depends on the readiness, dedication, and passion of the instructors or facilitators who deliver the content.
From my career as an instructor and a team lead for instructors, I remember how valuable it was when we shared information about the way we conducted various activities. We maintained a list of the most common questions for specific courses and shared them among the team. The vendor maintained the so-called "Course Bug Tracker" where we instructors were able to report errors and provide other feedback on courses we taught.
These options allowed us to establish a vibrant informal community whose members gained respect and enjoyed high motivation. Motivated instructors motivate their learners.
I remember one large cohort learning cybersecurity skills: Our main focus was on the instructors, who not only had to deliver the content but also motivate and inspire the group. Our work with instructors, including providing a program support team and involving them in discussions of ideas for handling such a large cohort, significantly improved the quality of the program and reduced the number of students who dropped out of the program.
Key lessons for learning leaders include creating an environment for the instructor or facilitator community where they share experience and receive as much support as possible. Show them your respect, and help them recognize their importance and mission. They are the face of your organization and the ones who have the most direct contact with your "customers"—your learners. Make them proud of their mission.
Informal learning is enhanced by well-organized mentor groups
A great deal of learning happens in informal settings, on the job, "in the moment of need"; yet there is a grey area, a semi-formal setting often associated with mentorship. However, even 1:1 mentoring has to maintain some structure such as regular meetings, and when a mentor is responsible for an entire group, structure is even more essential.
In mentored programs in our group of companies, we work with a lead mentor and local mentors in the countries where the companies are located. In several programs we have run it has become clear that the mentor preparation sessions were crucial for the success of the program.
Our mentors meet with each other regularly to discuss the content they cover with their learner groups and align with the lead mentor on the proper approach and messaging; they also provide one another with feedback and enhance the content they are working on.
Peter Buijsse from Conscia group, the lead mentor of one of the upskilling mentored programs in Conscia Academy, said, "Drafting content and presenting it to yourself only gives one angle of feedback (your own). Teaching to others it reveals more missing parts. Being a lead mentor gives me the possibility to get more feedback and angles on the learning material and shape it together with local mentors—to achieve higher quality."
An opportunity to share best practices and to help one another (with the program management present at their sessions) improved the overall mood and motivation of the mentor group and brought more structure into the program across companies.
Mentor meetings went beyond the specific program the mentors were working on. Several great ideas emerged during the discussions—ideas that led to additional events, to higher-level methods of transferring knowledge, and to a greater visible impact of these programs. And, first and foremost, the increased focus on the mentor preparation sessions resulted in better collaboration, better connections across the group, and an improved culture of knowledge sharing.
Buijsse concluded, "As lead mentor I don’t need to be the most skilled on the subject; there I can rely on the local mentors. My input to the program is making sure that all needed is there; material, time schedule, keeping all onboard, etc. Comparing it to a ship—without the captain, the ship would go anywhere—and without the crew it would go nowhere. Putting the people in the right place makes the ship go in the direction and pace needed to reach the destination."
Again, as a learning leader it is important to talk to your mentors and let them know they are instrumental in the overall success of the program. By participating in their discussions, you can even co-create best practices and try out a new creative idea, all with one goal—to improve the learner experience and ensure effective knowledge transfer.
The payoff? Learners thrive
Your learners will feel the passion that your developers put into the content, that your instructors demonstrate during the delivery, and that your mentors invest into their interactions with their learners. So, respect your “learning implementors”—the instructional designers, media producers, graphic designers, content developers, instructors, facilitators, mentors. Talk to them, ask about their experience with the learners, and solicit feedback about the work they do. Give them some time and room to step away from the production, from the classroom, from their virtual studio, and think about what they do. Help them become your “learner relationship managers,” your “learning sales force,” and the ambassadors of your solutions. Then your learners will thrive.