Thinking about the design of mandatory learning

Most of us are lukewarm, at best, at the thought of the mandatory learning courses required in organisational life.  For some reason they rarely hit the priority list.  I’ve just received a reminder to do one (of nine) where I’m ‘non-compliant’ and I’m not feeling motivated to leap into action on it.

People involved in organisational learning and development in the UK, like The Royal College of Nursing, in their very good guide on the topic, say that,  ‘Mandatory training is learning deemed essential for safe and efficient service delivery and personal safety. It reduces organisational risks and complies with local policies and/or government guidelines.   It varies depending on the needs of the workforce; the type of service and risks encountered; insurers’ standards; and the governance and legal frameworks in place, including country specific requirements.’  Generally, this means there are some learning courses that people have to do, like it or not.

The list of mandatory learning topics, vary depending on industry sector and organisation, but typically they include:  Diversity & Inclusion, Responsible for Information, Health and Safety, General Data Protection Regulations Essentials, Cyber Security, Counter Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Health and Safety Awareness, Display Screen Equipment.  (As an example, see those usually found in healthcare and social care environments here).

Although I’m not racing to do the mandatory course I have been emailed about, this week I have, in fact, done what feels very like mandatory learning:   I’ve learned the Latin names of ten conifers, and I’ve learned to keep my hearing aids in their box when I am not wearing them and, like many of us, I also received strong public messages offered through various channels on washing my hands often and thoroughly, and that now seems mandatory. (More on these further down).

What’s the difference between the mandatory learning I’m not motivated to do and the mandatory learning I am motivated to do?  Why is the public messaging on hand washing seeming to have an effect – if the run on soap and hand sanitizer is a good measure?

I am asking the question because I’ve been observing an on-line discussion on it, initiated by someone asking how to increase their organisation’s completion rates.  They are wondering whether/how to ‘enforce’ compliance and completion.

Before we go back to the three things I’ve experienced as mandatory learning this week, there are four assumptions I’m making.

  • we are required to do mandatory learning because it is felt – by learning & development professionals – to be either useful or necessary (or both) to our job performance
  • having done the learning course, we and/or others will be able to notice a positive performance outcome
  • we are not being required to do it mainly in order to fulfil the organisation’s mandatory learning target.
  • the known benefits of mandatory learning (to the learner and the organisation) are a good return on investment for the effort put into a) designing and delivering the courses b) monitoring and reporting on uptake and compliance c) encouraging increased uptake and compliance (For an example of toolkit for monitoring and evaluating learning and development see this one from Essex Safeguarding Adults Board).

With these assumptions in mind, let’s go back to my three examples.  I’m willingly learning the Latin names of 10 conifers because I’ve just started an RHS Certificate in Practical Horticulture course.  It’s a continuous assessment and, each week, we are required to identify 10 plants.  We have to get 100% right on this ‘ident’ as we call it. Any mis-identified get added to your next week’s go.  You fail the course if you don’t get through the ‘ident’.  Thus, learning the ‘ident’ is compulsory if I want to pass the course – and I do.

My failure to keep my hearing aids in their box when I was not wearing them, resulted in my losing one, and now having to pay a very hefty amount to replace it.  (It’s somewhere between my house and where I am currently working).  I feel obliged to spare future dents to my bank balance by integrating this painful learning into my daily practice.

I’m taking the advice of the public health messaging because I can understand the reasons for it, and see it as a sensible and easily do-able measure that contributes to helping stop the spread of a virus.

Using my experience, albeit an example of just one, there are five aspects to consider that I think are applicable to the design and delivery of mandatory learning:

  • Motivation (What engages the learner  enough to make them want to learn the topic?)
  • Meaningful outcome (Does the decision to learn whatever it is have an outcome that the learner considers meaningful?)
  • Timing (Is this the right moment for the learner to do the learning?)
  • Penalty (What happens to the learner if they don’t learn? This assumes that taking a  course equals learning the intended thing and we know what they have learned)
  • Existing knowledge (Does the learner actually need to take the course? Is it providing new learning?)

My experience over several decades of working life suggest to me that mandatory learning doesn’t take full account of these user factors.

Thinking about this I wondered whether we could try user-centric design as method to help us find some answers to the question of increasing take-up.  Sergey Gladkiy says, User-centered design (UCD) is an optimistic approach to invent new solutions. It starts with human beings and ends with the answers that are tailored to their individual needs. When you understand the people you are trying to reach, and then design from their perspective, you come up with unusual answers. UCD is both how you are thinking and what you are doing. It is all about building a deep empathy with the individuals you’re designing for. Generating heaps of ideas and building a bunch of prototypes. Sharing what you’ve got created with the people you’re designing for. Failing and trying again. And finally putting your innovative solution out in the world.’

Beyond UCD there are other design approaches we could bring to bear on the question.  So now we are thinking of running a hackathon-type event, inviting people with expertise in different design methodologies/disciplines to work for a day with the learning/development professionals plus others, including those who the mandatory learning is aimed at i.e. the users, and seeing what happens. Who knows we may come up with innovative, implementable proposals.

How would you tackle the question ‘How do you increase uptake of mandatory learning’?  Let me know.

Image:  Strong hearts are mandatory

One thought on “Thinking about the design of mandatory learning”

  1. 1. I read your article about the design of mandatory learning. It was interesting particularly the user requirements elements. The article was also interesting to me as I’ve advised on mandatory learning before although the approach to me was from the angle of compliance (and some other points).

    2. When answering the question I took a wide angle approach and advised from
    the perspective of what the organisation in which the mandatory learning is required purports to be; its value base/mission (e.g. a learning environment where expertise is valued and nurtured) because this sets the tone overall.

    3. I think that compliance requirements can work well when they are an expression of an organisation’s values so that when staff take the training it makes sense to the overall mission of the organisation and their roles. When I speak about values it isn’t that I think organisations necessarily have a value that is about mandatory compliance or mandatory training. But there is a culture and additionally a climate that should flow from a value statement or else it is meaningless. So as an example many organisations these days say they value Diversity and Inclusion, for public sector organisations with a specific legal duty under the Equality Act it would be bizarre for them to be pro D&I and yet have no knowledge or desire to comply with legal requirements that are consistent with their proclaimed value.

    4. A more legalistic approach would be to say that mandatory training equips people to understand the legal parameters within which certain activities take place and in a learning environment where expertise is valued people would understand that having a certain level of knowledge which minimises the possibility of them creating legal risk (and the associated cost of defending/mitigating this if the risk materialises) is a valuable thing to do as it means the organisation’s resources are less likely to be diverted away from core objectives into litigation or settlement if staff have some knowledge enough to avoid significant/repeated legal risk.

    5. I think the user perspective is important but it can be misleading and sometimes just plain wrong if there is no coherent institutional framing of standards of performance expected. This could be set out in a broader narrative which positions mandatory learning as a complement to achieving the organisation’s objectives, having a suitably equipped/competent staff and effective management of risk. When people don’t understand their context and what their role is in that context they can be vocal about whether or not mandatory training is required and be completely misguided in their views. Having said that I think hearing people’s ideas can be useful in terms of how training is presented, (I.e. delivery which is engaging and likely to stick; a tiered offering to support incremental learning); it can also provide useful insights about the extent to which people’s understanding of their context and role are rooted in reality. Where the difference is significant this would require action from both the organisation and staff.

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