Can competence and compliance sit comfortably together in e-learning?

A couple of days ago I read with interest Clive Shepherd’s latest blog post in which he refers to his recent experience on the other side of the fence, as a student rather than designer of compliance e-learning. He draws the conclusion that it’s hard – if not impossible – to create something that achieves both competence and compliance. This is a topic we’ve broached before on the Spicy Learning Blog and I admit my thoughts on this are perhaps half-formed (or, more accurately, ever evolving), but I’m not entirely sure I agree with Clive…

What’s interesting is that he goes so far as to say the material was not just interesting, but fascinating. This is not always the case with compliance training, and creating something which actually piques the learner’s interest and gets them engaged is a great first step towards really effective e-learning. The next step is to create something that doesn’t simply achieve compliance, but delivers improved performance and behavioural change.

I would argue that this is absolutely possible in compliance training. Let’s take data protection as an example: a ‘traditional’ approach might simply run through the eight principles of data protection, instructing the learner in what they must and must not do when handling personal data. There would probably also be some horror stories about the dire consequences of breaking the law (as Donald Clark says, ‘the driver is NOT learning or people development, it’s “fear”‘), and a knowledge test or assessment consisting of questions focused on the wording and definitions of each of the principles. This type of course is designed purely for compliance purpose: the organisation can prove they’ve trained their people as required and cover their back in case an individual does break the law having taken the course.

But this is by no means the only way to approach the design of compliance e-learning. A more effective data protection training course, which aims to achieve the competence or enhanced awareness that Clive found lacking at the end of his experience as well as meet regulatory requirements, would focus not on the legislative detail but on what the law means in practice to each individual learner in their day to day work. We recently produced a course that took this approach and certainly took big steps towards achieving those aims.

We did broadly structure the course around the eight data protection principles, but we didn’t begin each section with the legal jargon and then hammer the point home with threats of dismissal, fines or prosecution. Instead we used video to engage the learner and demonstrate relevance by using very recognisable everyday situations and asking the learner to identify what the issues might be. We also offered them a variety of resources including real life case studies presented as news reports and newspaper articles, a take away list of suggested dos and don’ts that they could refer to in future (rather than ‘must’ and ‘must not’ messages on every other screen) and a data protection dictionary to translate any necessary jargon into easily understandable terms. We also paid close attention to the end of course assessment to ensure that this approach was applied there as well – all the questions presented the learner with situations that they might reasonably encounter at work and asked them to identify whether there was something to be concerned about, why this was the case, what should have been done differently or what action they would recommend.

The result was a course that absolutely met the organisation’s compliance obligations, but which also engaged learners and gave them an increased level of awareness and competence. Having taken the course they may not all be able to recite the actual wording of each principle, but they have the appropriate knowledge to be able to identify risky situations or areas of concern and to take steps to avoid or remedy those situations. They also have a genuine awareness of the seriousness of the topic, having been introduced to relevant real life examples and case studies throughout the course.

Of course, there would be people who took the course and claimed the aims hadn’t been met. But the overwhelming feedback from users and experts alike is that we delivered something they didn’t expect from compliance training. My favourite comment was from the technical expert testing for accessibility purposes who reported that he actually found himself reading the content voluntarily and being interested and engaged – not often the case with mandatory compliance training!

I’m guessing there are some strong views on this out there and I’d love to hear them. What do you think? Do you agree with Clive that competence and compliance are more or less mutually exclusive, or do you think there are ways they can sit comfortably together in e-learning? Leave your comments below and hopefully we’ll get a snapshot of what the learning and development community really thinks about compliance training!