Before, after, and beyond: why in 2014 we need to ‘design the complete experience’

Recently I’ve been rereading The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, first published in 2006. It’s a fantastic toolkit for learning professionals who want to design programmes which make a genuine business impact. Pleasingly iconoclastic, the book challenges some of the bad habits and received wisdom which limit the scope of our ambitions. Most importantly, it also offers an easy-to-use framework for implementing breakthrough learning strategies. Those tools can be summarised in the six disciplines, as follows.

  • Define Outcomes in Business Terms
  • Design the Complete Experience
  • Deliver for Application
  • Drive Follow-Through
  • Deploy Active Support
  • Document Results

They each deserve some serious attention and in a series of blog posts, I want to share my thoughts on how they apply to us in 2014. I was prompted to get started by my main takeaway from this year’s Learning Technologies Exhibition. More than any other year, there seemed to be a fresh and urgent emphasis on the second D: ‘Design the complete experience’. The ‘complete experience’ at the show had several different facets. Many exhibitors, including Saffron, introduced the idea of replacing our notion of learning management systems with collaborative platforms which generate and capture holistic ‘learning experiences’. This idea of a total experience also informed seminars on mobile learning, gamification, learning design and the 70:20:10 approach. Instead of simply hyping a particular technology, they tended to focus on how the tools at our disposal can meet the high experiential demands of generations X, Y and Z.

So what do we mean by ‘the complete experience’ in terms of programme design? Fundamentally, it means thinking outside of the ‘box’ of a particular learning intervention. What happens before and after the course is as important as the design of the course if you care about what happens beyond: if you want to achieve the ‘ripple’, and not just the ‘splash’.

In terms of ‘before’, we appreciate how crucial it is to understand what learners already know. But it’s equally important to understand what they expect, and to actively manage it. Along with two other behavioural principles, our seminar stressed the importance of ‘frames’. In fact, we put forward the controversial idea that: The ‘wrapping paper’ around content determines our response to that content. This idea is integral to designing the complete experience. Most learners have already made up their minds on the value of a programme before they start it, and this is reflected in their feedback. Humans selectively confirm prior assumptions, so it’s vital that the learning is marketed effectively – and personally. Research demonstrates that a manager’s involvement prior to the formal course is the single most powerful influence on whether learning transfer will occur (Broad and Newstrom, 1992).

By building up the right expectations and framing the learning properly, we concretely impact the chances of it changing behaviours. We often view management champions or super-users as part of the follow-up to a learning programme. In fact, the framing principle means that we need to seek out these powerful influencers earlier, and involve them in our business communications. So that was the ‘before’ – how about the ‘after’? This ‘after’ is, oddly, the most overlooked aspect of learning programmes, often because there is no serious intention to measure their impact anyway. This must change in 2014. If it doesn’t, we risk L&D becoming totally detached from the business transformation function on which its long-term viability depends.

Logically, behavioural interventions begin only once the formal learning is finished. This is because changed behaviour is always new behaviour for those involved – it needs to be nurtured and fed if it is to take root. At the most basic level, we should design learning to be transferable. This is something that Saffron stresses at every project kick-off. If learners don’t come away with a toolkit, action plan or some kind of personalised ‘take-away’, you’ve already made transferability more difficult. Potential ‘after’ methodologies are numerous. Organise conference calls and ‘circle-back’ meetings to report on how the learning has been implemented. Measure the metrics that point towards an impact, and then conduct targeted surveys as a basis of planning your next intervention. Use email or social media to break down the learning and communicate a tip of the day in the weeks following the course. If you have the platform to do so, try and create lasting communities of practice. As I’ve written elsewhere, you should be aiming here to exploit the second principle of behavioural science: the endowment effect.

If you think the above sounds like a lot of time and effort, you’re right. That’s why we must stop blowing our budgets on the formal training itself. We need to recognise the importance of ‘before’ and ‘after’ if there is to be a measurable ‘beyond.’ And we need to adjust our timescales, budgets and deliverables accordingly. Learning Technologies 2014 has demonstrated a renewed focus on experiential learning (that is, real learning). Now, not everyone who attended can afford to procure a new social platform, bespoke content or invest in external consultancy. But can you apply the principle of ‘design the complete experience’ to your next learning intervention? In my opinion, you can’t afford not to.