Employee Engagement in Learning: The Tuna Paradox

Written By: Rich Mesch

May 1, 2018 – 5 min read

Have you ever heard a statement likes this? “We want to engage employees in this new learning initiative, so we’re going to use gamification, because people love games.” Does that make sense to you? Do you believe it would work? That’s sort of like saying that problem is “hunger “so the solution must be “tuna.” Sure, tuna is the solution to some hunger problems, but is it the solution to all of them? Nope. So let’s spend some time defining the challenge of learner engagement (you know, the way we tell our clients to). 

Measurement Is a Lagging Indicator of Learner Engagement 

Measurement is a good thing. However, most employee engagement efforts seem focused on measuring engagement at a point in time. That’s a little like trying to win a baseball game by spending the game staring the scoreboard. Evaluating metrics is useful, but it doesn’t drive engagement. And what’s even more dangerous is inferring causality: “Well, we did gamification this year, and our engagement scores went up, so that’s proof that gamification increases engagement.” So by all means, measure; but accept that measurement will tell you what happened, it may not tell you why it happened, and it’s not going to tell what’s going to happen in the future. 

Learner Engagement is About the Learner 

Sometimes we talk about learning like it’s entertainment. And yes, often good learning interactions are very entertaining. But entertainment is not the goal of learning—it’s just a method of getting to the goal. Similarly, sometimes we talk about engagement as if it’s all about keeping the learner’s attention. But attention is not engagement. So what are the elements of employee engagement in learning?

  1. Relevance: Why does this information matter to me? Will it impact how I do my job? Will it make my job easier? Will it prevent me from getting in trouble? Often, learning content is presented with a “trust us, you’ll need this” message. That may be true, but providing the context of the learning will lead to higher engagement. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer in a classroom taking Driver’s Education. I certainly didn’t want to spend my summer in class, but I did want a driver’s license. According to my parents, taking Driver’s Ed would get me there faster. That’s what Relevance looks like.
  2. Learner-Centric: An important part of engagement is control. As a learner, am I in control of my own development? Do I have choices and multiple paths? Is learning available on-demand? It’s frustrating for a learner to go through rote content that they already know, or to learn skills they may not apply for months or even years. Even more frustrating is not having access to knowledge that the learner needs now to perform their job. Most learners want the opportunity to build their skill set so they can build their career, which brings us to…
  3. Career Development: Where does this learning fit into my career development? What opportunities will I have one I am able to do this that I don’t have now? What requirements will I have met that make me a candidate for a promotion or lateral move? Even if this isn’t a milestone, how does this get me closer to the next step?
  4. Smart use of time: There is nothing more frustrating than a clever design that expands a simple five-minute learning transfer into a 30-minute learning experience. It leaves learning designers feeling quite pleased with themselves and learners frustrated that their time is being used so poorly. One of my clients tested out this theory; they provided the same sales training content to learners on mobile devices in three different formats: as a video, as an interactive game, and a series of bullet points. They then surveyed learners to determine which they preferred. Overwhelmingly, learners preferred the bullet points to the video and the game. Since they spent most of their time in the field, they appreciated being able to do a quick review of content before meeting with a client, but were unable to take the time to play a game or watch a video.
  5. Performance Improvement: Will this learning encounter actually make me better at my job? Am I smarter, better prepared, more highly skilled? Can I get things done faster, smarter, or more effectively? Or is this just a time-consuming task that the Training Department is making me do?

What about learning that doesn’t impact any of those aspects? 

If a learning initiative genuinely doesn’t impact any of those aspects, you should probably be asking yourself if it’s valid (or if it’s even learning). But more often, the learning is highly relevant, but it’s provided in a non-relevant way. Compliance learning is a great example; often, compliance content is presented as a list of rules and regulations that must be clicked on. That approach makes retention doubtful and application even less likely. Instead, identify how appropriate compliance behavior ties back to the five criteria listed above. Does the learning communicate if compliant behavior will make you more effective at your job? Will it enhance your career prospects? At the very least, make the relevance clear; what are bad things that can happen to me or the company if I’m not compliant? So do solution design and learning modality impact engagement? Absolutely. Once you understand the criteria that engage employees, you can create solutions that leverage those criteria.

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