Designing empathy into compliance training

I’ve been thinking about how smart people are recently. I’ve also been thinking about how easily people get swayed by arguments and are influenced in their thinking. And, as I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about how learning is complicated. Owen Ferguson wrote a good piece thinking about this in a different way where he advocated for complexity in our thinking.

As I’ve been thinking about all these things, it occurred to me that in the olde world of training delivery on compliance training, one of the reasons it fails so often is that people just don’t care about it. The only reason they’re made to care is because of some esoteric reason to do with consequences – so people comply, but not because they care about the topic.

The problem with compliance training has always been that it just has no bearing on people’s day to day activity. I’m not proposing I’ve got the solution in this blog, just some thoughts on how we can do things better.

Things like the following:

We know that people are influenced by what other people do more than creating a business case for doing something. That’s why you read signs in hotel rooms like “most people who stay here reuse their bath towels”. They used to read “save the environment and re-use your towel”. Except, most people can’t relate to that message. Not in the same way most people will think “Oh I better do what other people are doing so I’m not the odd one out”. We’ve got strong aversions to standing out from the crowd and from breaking communal norms, and in the main we don’t.

Lesson to be learned? Instead of writing how compliance training is compulsory, use insights from social psychology and behavioural economics to get people to comply. For example:

  • “Most people who completed the e-learning on data protection, completed it in 20 mins.” You help people see that completing the e-learning doesn’t take long, and most people are doing it (apparently)
  • Try some sort of open completion records – let others see how teams are doing with completion. People’s competitive nature is likely to be more motivating to do better than other teams. Some companies out there have even gone to the lengths of gamifying their compliance training.

We know that if you repeat a message over and again, people will remember it – regardless if they understand it. This is how modern politics works, and why advertisements are constantly being shown. In a world of too much information, people’s attention is limited, so you need to repeat something at least 7 times before people hear the message in the first instance.

Lesson to be learned? This is where the idea of developing campaigns is more effective than single communications. People need to be reminded that their appraisals are due? They need to be told that in multiple ways, through different media and with different approaches.

We know that giving a cause for a person to focus on, improves the chance they’re going to respond positively. That’s why charities often present the case of one person or the photo of one person in their adverts and marketing. The case of “Izzy living without a book to read” is more compelling than “help provide books to children”.

Lesson to be learned? Make the compliance relevant by highlighting how it helped a person. Don’t write “completing your health and safety training means we will successfully comply with audit”. People can’t relate to the audit – it doesn’t mean anything to them. Instead, write something like “Bernie, in Sales, spotted a loose tile in the hallway and reported it to be fixed. It was resolved in 2 days. Complete your training today.”

I want to build on this further, though. What’s missing from nearly all forms of compliance training is that it’s not designed to build empathy with people. Instead it’s often talked about in terms of business benefit. Not enough thought or smart thinking is applied to help people know how it matters to an individual, when it clearly can. We’ve banged on the drum so much that we need to let people know why it’s important to the business that we do things, that we forget that it should also be important to the individual.

When we make things important to people and individuals, is when we help empathy be built. With respect to topics like Equality and Diversity, it has to be better than saying “it can help people be more respectful of one another”. Yes, that’s important but it’s not enough to help people truly relate to it. And it also has to be better than “it can help people learn how to not be offensive to others.” Again, that’s a good thing, but it’s just not enough of a human motivator.

This also challenges us to go beyond thinking about ‘resources and not courses’. What I mean is, if you read a guide on anti-slavery, and it’s clear that it breaks the law, how does that build empathy? If you watch a video about the impact of being vigilant against slavery is that enough of a solution that you don’t need a training course? If you go through a slide deck which outlines the company process about anti-slavery practice, how does that help you connect with it on a practical level?

Our challenge with compliance training is always that you want people to comply! We want them to forego their freewill and just abide by the rules. And of course, people just aren’t compliant. So, in the civil domain, we penalise and we place heavy consequence on non-conformance. Where, in the corporate domain, what we need to build more is about how actions impact on others.

And yes, part of this is about the culture of an organisation. Is it the culture where designing empathy for compliance will help people make better choices?

So, that’s my thinking at the moment. I want to be more concerned about how we build in empathy to compliance training so that people are better people for doing the thing. The thing might be training, but I’m guessing that if we design with empathy in mind, we’ll help people know how that makes a difference to someone directly – and that training may not have been needed as a solution at all. As always, I’m not bashing training, I’m just mindful that if what we need to do is help people achieve an outcome, and if learning is complicated, then that also means identifying the right solution for achieving an outcome – and that solution can be multi-faceted.

Very interested to know about your thoughts on the above. Do comment below.

Learning is complicated

This tweet from Don captures something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

There is a lot of stuff being written about learning solution design, effective training models, top tips for learning, micro-learning and variations of these. It’s all good information for learning professionals who want to understand how learning solutions are being designed, and the variety of methods people can use to deliver those solutions.

My concern in these is that we’re desperately trying to reduce the learning process down to simple, bite size chunks of information. And, as Don says above, humans are complicated. The process of learning is complicated and more often than not, we in L&D try and dumb down our audiences.

What do I mean? I mean what we do is we take really helpful and insightful models and theories and whittle them down to understandable chunks of information for the masses.

The thing is, as humans, and as social beings, we can’t help but learn pretty much every moment of every day. Humans excel at taking in information and doing something useful and productive with it. We think at speed and act at speed.

The workplace is a fast moving place. Products are being developed, processes are being refined, skills and knowledge are being honed, all in the pursuit that we can have efficient and profitable organisations. That’s not always the outcome, but it’s nearly always the intention.

When Nick-Shackleton Jones says we should focus on ‘resources not courses’ he’s onto the crux of what learning is about in the workplace. People don’t have time to ‘learn’ at work. Not in the way the human learning process takes place. The learning process takes time, commitment to learning and development of thinking. As much as we might rail against the education system, what it understands well is that people need to be immersed in a subject in order to learn it and become knowledgeable in it. Expertise develops when you go beyond that initial process and focus intently on your subject matter. That’s what learning looks like.

On a side note, it’s also what grates me about modern political commentary by the ‘what do experts know brigade’. We have such open access to information and knowledge that we can know about most things within minutes. That’s just a cursory level of knowing though. The learning only happens when we take the time to understand the nuances of various subjects, the implications of certain choices, and the research into what can and can’t work. That’s how we learn. The biggest downfall of open access to information and knowledge is that people aren’t given the skills to know how to explore a topic further, relying almost exclusively on short articles and the likes.

Back to the ‘resources not courses’ mentality – what this drives is that we help people at work perform – because that’s what they’re paid to do. Building in learning into that process is obviously an element of how that happens, and that’s where the role of L&D if fundamentally changing.

Learning is a process and combination of exposure to content, awareness of self, reflection, hypothesis making and testing, research and evidence gathering, action and challenge. If you think about your typical training course – be it digital or in-person, that’s not what we help people with. I’m not bashing training courses. They play an important role in the learning process. They’re just largely inefficient because that’s not how people actually learn.

My call to action for L&D practitioners is to better consider how we describe the work we do, and not over-inflating nor over-conflating what we do. Humans are complicated. Psychologists, economists, philosophers and essentially anyone interested in the human condition are still trying to better understand what it means to be human. We know a lot about the human condition and accordingly about the human learning process. What we’re also learning is that there are a number of models and theories we need to know about in order to support the learning process. It’s a fallacy to think one model or theory has any more prevalence than another.

When it comes to workplace learning we need to bear in mind that we’re only ever concerned with an aspect of human learning. This is no reflection on how skilled a trainer, facilitator or learning solution designer you might be. This is an acknowledgement that all we’re really doing in the workplace is enabling people to perform better.

And we all know what that means…

As a facilitator, one of the hardest things I have to deal with is helping others articulate themselves so they’re being clear on what they want to say and to whom they’re saying it.

Most people have a belief that they are likely to offend someone if they speak their mind, so they don’t and they speak in vague language instead. They try and couch what they want to say in words and language that is trying to say something but doesn’t end up saying anything.

I guess some of this is the British stiff upper lip attitude. We’ll just crack on and hope to not offend anyone along the way. 

But teams don’t work that way. Especially when people have things they need to say. They end up expressing themselves in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. Things I’ve heard and seen often over the years:

  • And we all know what that means
  • We have a blame culture
  • It’s not my opinion but…
  • Someone not engaging in the team discussion
  • Behaviours that suggest some people are not willing to speak up

And so that’s where I think the role of a facilitator really comes into being. In providing safe and healthy ways for people to express themselves, to say what they want to say and need to say, to be heard. And those of us who philosophise about such things, will understand those are human instruments. We need those to happen in our lives for us to be well.

It’s one of the challenges I see online. People express themselves poorly when they’re in anger and frustrated and they’re seeking ways to express themselves in ways they can’t see a better way of doing. 

Which is one of the things I enjoy about Twitter chats like #ldinsight or #failchat. They have a community of people who can help you to be more articulate. There’s a group of people present who are mindful about words and language and the influence they have on day to day living.

Just some thoughts and reflections today. Nothing more.

Creative Thinking and Empathy in HR

At the CIPD annual conference last week, I was facilitating a session with Neil Morrison and Claire Thomas of Penguin Random House. They were provoking some thought behind how we improve recruitment by encouraging people to think about things from the candidate’s point of view. What’s their point of view about being interviewed? What would make the recruitment campaign a useful one for them? How could it be a more invitational setting? What’s their experience of going through recruitment with you, and is it as good as it could be?

What came out quite strongly from this group of 100 folk is that when they were asked to think differently and reconsider recruitment from the candidate’s point of view, it really challenged the group.

Most people ended up discussing and sharing what their current practice looked like and how good it was because: it was mobile enabled, they tested for values and behaviours, they used psychometric testing, they did assessments, they used an ATS that could automate everything.

With some guidance from the speakers, we helped people to develop their thinking and discussions encouraging thought and debate to happen around improving the candidate experience. There were some great suggestions that came through along the lines of:

  • giving candidates the interview questions ahead of the interview – we want them to show their best and then expect them to perform their best with no real preparation. This doesn’t happen under any normal business activity, and making candidates do this in interview just doesn’t make sense.
  • providing a clear breakdown of the recruitment process – what happens, when, by whom
  • PRH have taken the step to invite candidates to let the hiring managers know how they’d like to be interviewed and when – not being restricted by in person, and not being restricted by only interviewing during working hours

What ended up being a struggle was how to break out of that original thinking and critically look at what they’re doing from the candidate’s point of view. We helped people get there, but it took work.

As I’ve been thinking on it, it seems like two things are fairly prevalent across HR – and I’m very aware this is a broad brush stroke.

First is that we’ve become so good at developing processes, procedures and policies that when it comes to being creative, our default is almost that we fall back on how we make a new process that is better than the previous one. That’s not creative thinking or being innovative, that’s just replacing one thing with another – like upgrading your mobile phone. Or like getting rid of paper-based appraisals by making them electronic. That’s just being efficient. And we’ve become really good at making things more efficient.

Second is that we’ve had it ingrained in us that we have to think of the business first, and as a result have almost neglected how these things impact on people at work. It’s great we can improve processes, but if it’s done at the expense of improving the employee experience, why was it done? Like when we tell people we expect them to complete e-learning to fulfil compliance purposes. People at work don’t care about completing it, but we make it arduous and mandatory because we have to be compliant. That’s just unhelpful to the individual. We don’t place a high value on empathy because we want to improve the process, and when that happens, we dismiss the importance of the individual.

This isn’t me bashing HR. I am HR just as much as anyone reading this. It’s an observation and an example of how our profession has developed to such an extent that we can forget how it is to take a fresh look at what’s in front of us. Asking questions like:

  • Is a new process required, or just different/better thinking of what we’re asking people to do?
  • How does us implementing this impact on an individual, even though it might be better for the business?
  • If we don’t improve things and help people be their best, what is it that we’re doing?
  • How can we seek better feedback about the impact of our processes on people without being defensive in response?
  • What does a more human and adult way of doing this look like?




Make the face to face stronger

A couple of weeks ago I was at an LPI event for vendors and they had Charles Jennings speaking. For those not in the know, Jennings is better known for his work in promoting the 70:20:10 model of learning. And to ensure we’re all singing from the same hymns sheet, here’s a quick run down of what that means.

Charles explains that through researching how people learn work based skills, only 10% of what they know is learned in a formal learning environment – traditional classroom training or e-learning. 20% of what they’ve learned comes through social learning – learning from others through coaching, mentoring, regular conversations. 70% of how people learn at work is through on the job stuff, the experiential side of things – things like work based projects.

I’ve made that mistake before of thinking this is a hard and fast formula, and it’s not. Obviously context matters, and those numbers can and do change accordingly. Also, it doesn’t discount the importance of the training course, it just helps identify that there are additional things we can put into practice which build on the 10%.

That’s something which Charles picked up on that I’d like to share a bit more. Some organisations aren’t ready to fully explore how to integrate a 70:20:10 approach to learning delivery. What they can do is build around the 10% and make it 10+. 

What does that mean? It means taking the traditional training course and building around it resources and content that people can access independently. It means providing additional opportunities to discuss the content and learn from each other/others in the business on the same topic. 

What this allows for is that it strengthens the quality of that training course. People value spending that face to face time more because they’re given ample other opportunities to engage with the content and their own learning.

Plenty of people in my network are averse to the 70:20:10 model because they have a (mis)belief that writers about modern learning are claiming to ditch the face to face stuff. On the contrary, what we’re understanding better is that there are stronger ways to make the face to face training even better.

Reflections on mentoring

I was recently invited by the CIPD London team to be part of a group of mentors to help budding HR/L&D professionals develop their skills and knowledge through mentoring relationships.

As a result of the event, I’ve agreed to mentor 3 people. Each is at a different stage in their career, and I’ve had an initial meeting with each. These are some thoughts on how I think I’ve started with these relationships and where I can do more for them to be better.

It seems that I like to talk. I need to rein this in. I think.

I mean, there’s stuff to say! These people are beholden on me to impart all my knowledge of the universe unto them and help them improve so they can be amazing individuals. If I don’t tell them everything, how will they possibly learn anything?

Of course I let them talk. Kind of.

My main learning point here is that I need to make sure I don’t go overkill with what I want to say. This is the start of a learning journey for them and there’s time and opportunity later to develop thoughts and observations.

It’s easy for me to make assumptions about what they must do to make things better. As an objective observer, I support that’s the privilege we have. We can see that they’ve got to a certain point, and might need some help moving to the next point.

I’m normally quite careful about my assumptions. I don’t tend to declare the answer to their situations. I tend to offer my observations and my reflections. If that marry’s with what they want to achieve, then it works out. If not, I’ll need to be mindful that there can be better ways to encourage thinking and debate.

As a mentor, I am conferred a position of authority and power. I never like having that. It doesn’t chime with my values and how I like to operate. Except as a parent. But even there I’m learning that power and authority is a shared responsibility with my kids.

For me it’s more important to create an environment of trust and openness. That’s where great exploration tends to happen and with healthy discussion too. That means, for me, ensuring that I’m not talking in ways which are hierarchical, or by directly highlighting faults or errors. That’s not my place. It’s my place to enable a discussion and thinking to happen.

And, for now, the last thing that I’m aware of is that this is a new journey for me too. I’ve never professionally mentored others before. There’s a feeling I’ve been left with after the initial meets which can be best described as “I’ve done some good”. I think that’s a healthy reaction. I’m also cautious that I’m not left thinking that because I have a delusion about my own ego. As much as that might be part of the mix, I think there’s a healthy balance of – I could point to parts of the discussion where my mentee shared with me how they have found it to be useful.

This post is written in part for #wolweek, where people are invited to openly share their thinking and their practice so that other people can learn from the sharing, and in turn, hopefully, share their own experience for others to learn from them.

How my learning delivery has evolved

In a recent post, I likened the use of learning styles, NLP and MBTI to that of using asbestos in building and construction. The comments on the post and from social networks showed to me that people are really wedded to their preferred methods of practice. I was quite clear in the post that I can see why people would choose to continue to do this and that in my practice, I’m making the active choice to move away from using models like these.

What I’ve been gradually moving towards, is adopting and adapting multiple approaches when I deliver learning solutions. If you were to look at how I facilitate a learning solution – either in person or digitally, you’d probably recognise elements from different models of thinking, and also wonder where the consistent approach in that delivery lies.

When people attend a learning event, most won’t know or care if you’re using NLP or MBTI or emotional intelligence or scientology as your approach. They are there to learn something useful that can increase their performance. How they do that, is in your hands.

I’ve made the decision that in my hands, I’ll use adult learning principles and modern understanding of learning design. What does that mean, though, right? I mean, they’re fancy words.

It means that I will design in dialogic approaches to help people do the sense-making they need to do. When you introduce a topic that requires thinking and understanding, you have to give people the space and time to debate it, think about it, and decide on what it means for them in their role. There’s multiple ways to do that, and I’m always cautious to say there are definite better ways than others. Ultimately, though, as long as people are able to engage with the content and with others, that’s a healthy thing to do.

It means presenting information and content clearly and without prejudice. If someone needs to understand a way of doing things, or an approach, they need clarity on what that looks like. This isn’t new, it’s basic human psychology. And it’s a fundamental. Get the basics right, and people – as adults – are capable of doing the rest themselves.

It means actively seeking to provide inclusion as a design principle. That means I will provide an environment where people have the chance to be heard, for their opinion to be shared and for challenge to be raised. It also means helping people find the support they need with the group present.

It means I work on a basis of trust. That trust comes from me as the facilitator and with the group as knowing a lot of things about a lot of things. I know some things, they know some things, and together we can learn more things.

It means using a range of learning solutions as a way of improving performance. The traditional training course or face to face isn’t my only solution. It’s one solution amongst many others. Some people may just need a nudge to go and find the solution themselves. Others may need to be pointed to some content of value. Others may need an e-learning solution. Others may learn best from video. Others may need to work with a group of peers to learn from one another.

It also means, I experiment pretty much every time I’m designing a learning solution. I’m constantly seeing new ways of being able to improve the learning experience of people at work, and so I’m constantly looking to see how I approach the solution, what I’m doing with it, and how it works in practice. There is safety in the world of L&D. If something doesn’t work, we nearly always have the opportunity to improve it the next time. There’s often little risk of a learning solution going wrong and directly negatively impacting a business outcome.

What does this blog post get you thinking? As the title of my blog says, it’s about Thinking About Learning, and I’m interested to know what you think about what I’ve written here?