Walk a mile in your learners’ shoes

How learner empathy can boost your training material

Krishna Gathwal

Krishna Gathwal

Director Advisory, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG US

+1 214-840-2000

Jacqueline Bhavaraju

Jacqueline Bhavaraju

Director Advisory, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG US

+1 212-872-6639

The world of work continues to evolve – and training plays a critical role in preparing employees to navigate rapid changes driven by technology, markets and socio-economic and political forces. Whereas the challenges of the Second Industrial Revolution involved the advent of mass production and training workers to operate on assembly lines, here in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, advancing technology has made speed, efficiency, and innovation critical to business success. With this comes the need for the employee to have not only the ability to be a life-long learner but also to be able to learn at the speed demanded by business changes. Guiding employees through this pace of change is one of the most critical challenges facing learning organizations today.

The adage “time is money” is perhaps truer than it ever has been. Today’s learners are too often faced with the impossible choice between getting their work done and continuing to develop their skills. This is a problem that needs to be addressed, as business is only going to keep accelerating. New roles and skills are going to come faster and faster, leading to a shrinking span of time in which learners can expect to adapt.

Technology continues to have a profound impact on the way we work – and the way we train employees. The proliferation of technology has led to a plethora of choices for learners. Initially seen as a positive thing, the amount of information the average learner has access to is now immense. What was meant to make their lives easier has become another overwhelming aspect – and organizations with inundated employees tend to see higher rates of turnover and lower productivity.

Learner empathy to the rescue

To create a learning ecosystem that is able to provide relevant, contextual, and just-in-time learning to grow employee skills and productivity, L&D professionals need a deep appreciation for the unique challenges that their learners face, their aspirations and needs and have an understanding of the strategic business needs and market trends. Designing with learner empathy is a way that learning leaders can connect with learners to design solutions that will meet their needs. Learner empathy involves understanding on a deep level how the learner works and what challenges he or she might face, as well as how training might be adapted to help optimize the way he or she works. In other words, learning leaders should keep in mind not only the learner’s journey or career path, but also the path that the organization sees for them. Learner empathy helps learning designers embody the learner’s perspective, understanding how the learner will apply the content to their job and how it will increase their performance.

Conducting a holistic needs analysis that considers the content, context, and environmental aspects of the problem allows learning leaders to better understand the specific needs of the business, as well as the learners. Instructional designers and subject matter experts need to have a deep insight into the challenges faced by learners. Interviewing employees and even conducting task analysis studies, as part of a thorough needs analysis enables learning leaders to design training that targets the right needs and implement instructional treatments that will yield the desired results. Gathering insights from employees, rather than solely relying on guidance from the business, can provide a more holistic approach to designing training.

Human-centered design

As businesses continue to reopen postpandemic, the changes wrought during the pandemic and the resulting scramble to adapt has left a lasting impact on learning strategies and how organizations are preparing to adapt to unexpected circumstances. Organizations had to shift their training from in-person classrooms to online at a rapid pace during the pandemic with mixed results. This transition highlighted the importance of designing with learner empathy and a deeper understanding of how employees work, and how best to support them in the environment in which they work whether in the office, at home or hybrid workplace.

These new methods seem unlikely to change as we return to the workplace; rather, many organizations are committed to using what they learned during the pandemic to further streamline their L&D and meet learners where they are. Whether it’s on-the-job learning, eLearning, job aids, or videos, designing with learner empathy and using a variety of training delivery modalities helps ensure that learners will receive the learning in a method they prefer – which leads to increased training effectiveness. The shift to remote working also made it clear that blended learning offered an effective solution for modern organizations that need to cope with rapidly changing environments and markets.

Additionally, with recent advancements in technology like more powerful algorithms and artificial intelligence, we can ensure that learners not only have access to a wide variety of content but that they are presented with content that is most relevant to them during their time of need. Learning leaders who understand and take steps to anticipate their learners’ needs will create targeted learning materials that enable employees to quickly solve problems in the flow of work.

In the face of a quickly changing world with an ever-increasing amount of information available to the average learner, we as L&D leaders must strive to incorporate learner empathy into our design processes. If we develop a deep understanding of the learner’s preferences, needs and challenges, we’ll be able to develop relevant content that enables employees to grow in their current and future roles.