Attendance is the old problem, engagement is the new problem

Back in the good old days (we’re talking ten plus years ago here) it was easy enough to measure how successful training was. All you had to do was count how many people were in a training room and how many people completed the course at the end of the session. Some organisations went a step further and gave employees happy sheets to complete, but essentially, it was all about attendance.

Written by Emerald Works
Published 10 January 2018
Attendance is the old problem, engagement is the new problem

Sound easy? Yes, well this approach was actually too easy. It was too simplistic and because it was just a numbers game, it yielded little in the way of useful information.

All it told L&D and business leaders was how many people were in a room, on a course, at a given time. It didn’t tell them how effective the learning was, whether learners found it relevant and interesting or whether they paid any attention at all to the content being delivered.

The big shift: from attendance to engagement

A lot has changed since then. The emphasis has moved away from attendance and is now on engagement. How engaged are learners with their learning? Are they actively engaged with it? Are they independent learners? Is the learning having the desired effect? Is it improving productivity, efficiency, innovation…?

The use of language connected to training also mirrors this change in emphasis – we now talk about learning, as opposed to training.

But is it working? Does this shift in emphasis mean that learners are gaining more in terms of skills, understanding and knowledge than they did ten plus years ago? Are they more engaged with their learning than before? Whilst it’s easy to congratulate ourselves that we are now measuring the right thing (engagement with learning, as opposed to attendance), are we any better at helping learners learn?

Learners: taking control of their learning

These are hard questions to answer, not least because we don’t have the data about how engaged learners were with their learning ten plus years ago – we just know how many of them did it. However, we do have a lot of data now about what learners think about learning and how engaged they are with organisational learning and it often makes for uncomfortable reading for L&D.

According to research by Emerald Works (formerly Towards Maturity)

  • 93% of learners are responsible for their own learning and development
  • 88% know what learning they need but only 42% agree that their company provides relevant online learning for their job

  • 29% of workers find online content uninspiring

  • 12% find current online learning is not relevant to their need

As always, organisations have employees that are actively engaged with learning and with their work, employees that are actively disengaged with learning and their work and then there are those employees in the middle: the employees who are not particularly engaged with learning and are not particularly engaged with their work.

It is really important that L&D reaches out to these middle employees in particular and gets them engaged with learning and their everyday work. It would be very easy to let them keep slipping through the net, but getting them engaged with learning would be of real benefit to them, their colleagues and managers and to their employers.

Overcoming the disengagement challenge

The problem is that it’s not always easy to identify disengaged learners because they often mask their disengagement. These people are most likely turning up for and clocking onto learning interventions. When asked how helpful the learning has been, they often give L&D and their managers the answers they want to hear: “Yes, it was helpful. Yes, I thought it was good.”

They may it look as if they have engaged with their learning, but the reality is that they are going through the motions and for them, it has been a tick box exercise.

However, it can be easier for L&D and managers to spot these middle learners, the hidden disengaged learners, if you think about how proactive they are with their learning. Do they sign up for learning interventions without being prompted? Do they actively seek out learning to meet a current need?

This doesn’t need to be in the form of a course or event – it could be asking a colleague to show them how to do something or taking on a new challenge that will require new skills or participating in extra curricula activities such as focus groups or mentoring.

Understand your learners

What L&D needs to do (and should be doing anyway) is strive to understand your learners. If you understand your learners, you are much more likely to engage them with learning that meets their needs. Another research report, ‘Preparing for the Future of Learning’, found that 86% of those in the Top Deck (the highest performing companies in the benchmark) are proactive at understanding how learners currently learn what they need for their job, compared to 30% of other respondents.

Look at this statistic the other way around: 70% of respondents outside of the top deck are not proactively trying to understand how their learners are learning.

To engage with your learners, you need to meet them where they are. This means making the best use of technology and offering mobile learning so that learners can access learning at a time and location that suits them best. If they want short and sweet learning, then offer them that. And critically, it needs to be timely and relevant – learners need to access learning at the point of need.

Integrating learning into the workflow enables learners to learn and work at the same time and to apply learning in real time. All of this keeps them engaged because the learning is meaningful, accessible and relevant. Otherwise, learners will switch off.

From trainer-led to learner-led

Learning needs to be learner-led, rather than trainer-led. As Peter Cheese, CEO at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, says in the foreword to the ‘Preparing for the Future of Learning’ report, “Learners must be at the heart of learning design and delivery.”

The report talks about the need for L&D to have a ‘customer-activated learning strategy’. It is very useful for L&D professionals to maintain the mindset that learners are customers: you need to know what your customers want, why and how to give it to them.

Learners have become very good at knowing what learning they need and where to find it. The problem for many learners is that organisational learning is often letting them down. According to ‘Preparing for the Future of Learning’, 88% of learners learn more by finding things out for themselves than through face-to-face classroom training

The report highlights what happens when organisations do understand how their learners and learning and are able to engage them with learning that is relevant, timely and meaningful. It says the Top Deck are achieving these results:

  • 49% report improving employee engagement with learning (compared to 20% average)
  • 49% increase the ongoing sharing of good practice (22%)

  • 53% improve staff motivation (20%)

  • 43% increase self-directed learning (18%)

Now that we know how important it is that employees are engaged with their learning and now that we have the tools and techniques to collect the data and measure the data, it really is time to engage with learner engagement.

L&D has to provide learning that engages with learners in a way that helps and suits them. Otherwise they will switch off or find the learning for themselves and that would be an opportunity missed.

5 tips for building learner engagement

1. Focus on employees who are not particularly engaged with learning and not particularly engaged with their work

These employees tend to represent the majority of your workforce. They will give you the answers you want to hear, masking their disengagement. So, at a surface level, it might look like they are engaged with both learning and work. Make sure you identify this group and have tactics ready to engage them (see below).

2. Capitalise on signs of proactive learning

Once you have identified the people who are engaged in work, start looking for signs of proactive learning. Look at their behaviours and their learning patterns. Who is signing up for learning interventions without being prompted? Who is actively seeking out learning to meet a current need? Who is stretching themselves by volunteering for activities such as focus groups or special projects?

Once you can answer this, find out why. Why are they being proactive with their learning? Is it a mindset? Is it the learning on offer? Is it driven by their manager? Knowing the answer to this question will help you establish ways to win over your more disengaged learners.

3. Understand your learners and how they learn and then design for that

The most successful learning teams, according to data from Towards Maturity, are those that proactively understand how learners currently learn what they need for their job. This isn’t just about that proactive learning, but about any type of learning that is taking place.

Take time to understand your learners’ challenges, how they like to learn and involve them in designing solutions that meet their needs.

4. Use technology to make learning accessible, timely and relevant so it can be used in the flow of work

Following on from our previous point, make sure your learning is easily accessible at the point of need. Learners need timely and relevant resources to help them with work challenges. Provide ways for learners to access content at a time and in a way that is convenient to them.

5. Shift to learner-led design and delivery to put learners at the heart of all that you do

Think of your colleagues as customers: you need to know what your customers want, why and how to give it to them. This is a big mindset shift for L&D but one that will help build engagement and to do it quickly. Design with your customers in mind. Don’t design as if the L&D department is the customer.

Want to know more about how we recommend engaging your people, and where to start? Our reserach papers will give you the tools you need to do a complete engagement audit and make improvements.

About the author

Emerald Works

Emerald Works

At Emerald Works, we’re committed to helping individuals and organizations around the world realize their full potential by using evidence-led learning solutions that work.

We work together to build learning cultures that empower people to bring about real change for real impact.

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