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Training & Learning

GP Strategies’ 5 Techniques to Put Learners at the Heart of L&D Strategy

Consumer expectations for tailored products and services are at an all-time high. Now, businesses can use digital platforms to offer highly customized experiences, making it easy to complete even complex transactions like mortgage applications in the flow of everyday life. 

This shift to intuitive consumer experiences offers amazing new opportunities for businesses, but it also raises the stakes. If you can’t offer a smooth experience, your customers will find a competitor who can. To deliver these experiences, your teams need the right learning support.

That’s where management consulting firms like GP Strategies come in. Recently, I chatted to Matt Donovan, Chief Learning and Innovation Officer at GP Strategies, about the five techniques he’s using to help clients deliver these intuitive consumer experiences, and the importance of putting learners at the heart of company L&D strategy.

We started by discussing what the growth of responsive consumer technologies means for business. 

Using technology to wrap the digital environment around the consumer

As a leading management consulting firm, GP Strategies supports clients around the world with the right technical training and workforce transformation tools. For Matt, this has meant dealing with a lot of disruption over the last year.

“Even if you’d caught me last March before COVID-19, I would have said our clients were managing a lot of disruption and change,” says Matt. “With a global pandemic, this disruption has gone from pretty significant to downright critical.”

“We were already managing what we call ‘Work 3.0’: the shift from analog to digital. Now that we’re used to learning online and sharing information, we’re coming into ‘Work 4.0’: the growth of interconnected networks and digital environments shaped around the user.”

As Matt explains, this shift is creating more responsive customer experiences. “Now, rather than consumers coming into a business, we’re using technology like smartphone apps to wrap the digital environment around the consumer.” 

“Mortgages are a great example,” says Matt. “Now, you can apply to refinance your mortgage while you’re watching your daughter’s soccer practice, go home for dinner, then finish things up once your kids are in bed. You can complete these tasks in the flow of your life. This is critical while we’re all dealing with COVID-19.”

This shift may be convenient for consumers, but for L&D teams, it requires a total readjustment in how we train people. “With the pandemic, many institutions were caught short in terms of how they work with each other and connect with customers. To adjust to these new expectations, we need to change how we learn.”

One key tactic to match these expectations? Shifting to a learner-centric L&D strategy.

Now, rather than consumers coming into a business, we’re using technology like smartphone apps to wrap the digital environment around the consumer.

How GP Strategies is shifting to a learner-centric L&D strategy

“With such major shifts underway, we need to think differently about how we engage our learners,” says Matt. “We need to move from an organization-centric or content-centric design process to one focused on learners. It’s a significant mindset shift, but it’s crucial.”

As Matt explains, this mindset shift isn’t always easy for many L&D leaders. “I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, and I’m very proud of my profession. But a lot of times I’ll introduce myself to people as a recovering instructional designer. People aren’t always willing to change.” 

“I’ve had a lot of good practice and worked collaboratively with a lot of great teams and great clients,” says Matt. “But with the disruption and volatility we’re facing right now, we have to start thinking differently on how we design, develop, and build learning experiences.”

“We’re not saying our traditional methods of organizational design are completely outdated, but we do need a way to put learners at the center of every engagement.”

So, how can organizations bring this learner-centric L&D strategy to life? For GP Strategies, it comes down to five key techniques.

Related: Post-COVID-19: What the Best Tech Companies are Doing to Get Ready

I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, and I’m very proud of my profession. But a lot of times I’ll introduce myself to people as a recovering instructional designer. People aren’t always willing to change.

GP Strategies’ 5 key techniques to put learners at the heart of L&D strategy

As Matt explains, GP Strategies is facing challenges in adjusting to these shifts in technology, too. “The challenge is the same for our partner clients as it is for our internal teams. We’re all going through the same transformation, and we’re all managing the shift in our L&D mindset.” 

“This shift is more fundamental than just a single session of work-based training,” says Matt. “It’s about designing a learning experience that really pulls the learner in. To achieve this, we’ve developed our Academy for Learning Professionals.” 

“This is an internal resource, but we also share it with our partners. We offer this course using our five key techniques: spacing learning over time, focusing on micro-learnings, making learning social, organizing learning around cohorts, and using negative space.”

Here’s what these five techniques look like in practice, and how they put learners at the heart of L&D strategy.

1. Spacing out learning over time

“We want to create modern learning experiences, which is why we’re spacing out our learning,” says Matt. “Creating true behavioral change takes time. People need to be able to reflect on what they’ve learned, and to talk with others. We give them the time to do that.”

2. Focusing on micro-learnings

“Shifting to a learner-centric strategy is about breaking content down into smaller pieces. We want people to take accountability of their own progress, and it’s easier for learners to do that when they’re learning incrementally at their own pace.”

3. Making learning social

“You need to be able to pull people in so they’re truly absorbed in the learning experience,” says Matt. “Making learning social is a key part of that. People retain more knowledge when they’re interacting with each other, and we need to make room for that.”

Related: Discussion Forum: Boost Completion Rates from 20% to 90% with Collaborative Learning

4. Organizing learning around cohorts

“It’s important for the learning to be cohort-driven, so people can exchange their experiences with others who are going through the same thing. This is critical for people learning to cope with new disruptions. You need a platform that allows you to bring people together.”

5. Using negative space

“Negative space is another key concept,” says Matt. “Historically, instructional designers have been led to believe that their value lies in the thing they create. But we have to recognize that what you decide to leave out of a course is just as important as what you do decide to put in.”

As Matt explains, the concept of negative space encourages instructional designers to think carefully about the right balance of information. How can we engage learners without overburdening or spoon-feeding them?

“Succeeding as an instructional designer is about much more than just creating a set of 120 slides for the learner to click through asynchronously,” he says. “You have to create enough space for people to take an active role, and to own the learning experience themselves.”

We finished up by chatting more about this key element: how to create learner accountability.

Related: What Web-Based Training Should Look Like After COVID-19

This shift is more fundamental than just a single session of work-based training. It’s about designing a learning experience that really pulls the learner in.

Creating accountability for learners with ‘ruthless relevance’

“The first rule of modern learning is that individuals must take accountability for what they’re learning,” says Matt. “That’s the only way you ever achieve true relevance: when the learners are engaged, they start to take ownership for their own outcomes.”

“One of our design requirements is something I call ‘ruthless relevance’. It’s about making sure we’re really thinking through what’s going to be important to learners. We start with empathetic interviewing, connecting with learners, and using personas to guide our learning designs.”

As Matt explains, this strict focus on relevance helps every learning experience to be as tailored and targeted as possible. In turn, this encourages learners to be more accountable for their own progress.

“Modern learning isn’t something that is done to you, but something the learner must own, drive, and link back to their needs. If we make sure every part of every learning experience is directly relevant to these needs, then we can encourage greater learner accountability.”

Modern learning isn’t something that is done to you, but something the learner must own, drive, and link back to their needs.

Thanks again to Matt for taking the time to share his insights! 

While you’re here, check out my expert interviews with Avinash Chandarana of MCI Group about how to pivot your L&D strategy in times of crisis, and with Jeremy Lane of TTI about how to encourage your teams to think of L&D as a key part of business operations. 

Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. Or you can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.