How well do you really know your learners?

by Viv Cole on November 4, 2014

It is a truth universally acknowledged in any presentation skills or business writing course that you need to get to know your audience – that way, whatever your message, you can gauge useful things like what they already know, think and feel before you jump into the delicate basis of encouraging them to unlearn some old comfortable behaviours/ knowledge and learn some new behaviours/ knowledge that will only pay off after repeated practice and a few wobbles. So as an L&D professional, hand on heart, how confident are you that you really know your learners well?

Do your learners prefer the bare facts presented as fast as possible or a more interactive, immersive, fun experience that takes longer?
How does this vary according to different subject matters or segments of you organisation?
What do learners expect only face to face and what do they want on their smartphones?

The traditional ways to find out are still valid e.g. ‘walk the floor’, shadowing, focus groups, staff surveys, bespoke questionnaires, feedback data, suggestion boxes, networking. All enjoyable and important parts of the job, but the challenge is time.

As firms have generally got bigger and internationalised over the last few years, often as a result of mergers, your target audience has got bigger. At the same time the number of L&D staff has usually stayed the same or reduced, so you’re spread more thinly. It takes more effort to understand what your target audience already knows, thinks and feels, and you have less time to do this.

Even worse, as self-paced e-learning has increased its share of learner time, the amount of time where you might get real-time feedback from body language of what people are finding difficult to grasp/ agree with has decreased (hopefully xAPI will mitigate this somewhat).

In the short term, you may get away with an incomplete understanding of your learners. It’s a bit like driving at night with faulty headlights: you’ll be fine for a while, but the longer you go, the more likely that you will crash into something that will hurt.

One easy way out is to play it safe, make your message blander and less likely to cause offence, or stick to messages that are mandatory, but is that what you really came into L&D to do? If you’re fearful about how your stakeholders will react, that indicates you’ve not spent enough time understanding them (by doing a learning needs analysis using some of the methods above or perhaps a Learner Audit) and influencing them.

To make a positive difference you need a great understanding of what you’re changing. It’s worth investing the time so that you can.

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