Understanding the Workforce: Designing Targeted Development

When designing targeted training for a four-generation workforce, CLOs might want to borrow a trick or two from the film industry: Hollywood has perfected how to define an audience and deliver engaging content specifically to it.

“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

How many people in your organization, outside of the film aficionados, would know who drawled those words, ones the American Film Institute regards as one of the top 100 film quotes of all times? (The year was 1967. Does that help?) If your group were developing a learning experience for members of the so-called Generation Y, would they get it? If the training were aimed at developers, would they “grok” it, or would it earn a mumbled “whatever” response? Learning organizations can learn a lot from the film industry’s proficiency at targeting its audiences.

Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said about learning organizations developing or guiding development of training. The organization will have the data — it knows the age, sex, ethnicity, roles and responsibilities of every employee on the payroll, as well as whether its organizational culture is hierarchical or flat — but it might not be focusing on transforming that data and knowledge into useful information to develop and deliver targeted training.

Targeted training development is a systematic content development practice of “audience alchemy.” It’s the process of turning training — even obligatory compliance training — into an effective learning experience that reaches, engages and transfers knowledge, skills, understanding and values/beliefs to the learners. Audience alchemy involves making the best use of insights and data to build an understanding of the “characters” who represent your target audience, then folding that understanding into the process of developing targeted training. The bottom line, of course, is audience alchemy will make money for the company.

The costs to an organization of not targeting are both tangible and intangible. They range from the missed opportunity to effect change in your organization and even employee backlash to wasted resources and failure to achieve regulatory compliance. Achieving regulatory compliance is not as simple as putting a checkmark beside the name of every employee who sat through sexual harassment or HIPAA training as if to say, “Hey, look at the list. We complied.” Two better questions: “Sure, you complied, but did you communicate? Did you effect a behavior change or a shift in values and beliefs?”

Compliance depends on how employees perform. If, in the trainees’ opinion, the scenarios didn’t suit or the pace seemed glacial, the likelihood of comprehension and retention drops like a barometer before an approaching storm. And that’s a fair indication of the trouble a company can get into by not developing targeted training. Simply showing a PowerPoint slide about the cost for each incident of noncompliance might contribute to awareness, but it is not likely to convince employees of the critical need to do things differently.

Whether the learning goal is skills improvement, career development or performance-based compliance — such as the complex quilt of state, federal and international data protection regulations — taking the time to define the audience will deliver value by improving the training outcome, and it will even have a positive effect on employee morale.

Most training experiences at some level rely on persuading employees to do something such as doing their jobs differently or taking on a task with confidence. Even when the factor motivating the training investment is compliance (and perhaps keeping C-level executives from doing jail time), the human factor of persuasion is key.

The fundamental principles of persuasion were written down long before the Hollywood sign was erected. Back in ancient Greece, Aristotle defined the approach to reaching an audience based on logos, ethos and pathos that still works for scriptwriters, politicians and instructional designers today.

  • Logos: The argument is logical and reasonable. It flows and makes sense.

    • Ethos: The person or character delivering the argument has the ethical standing to do so and therefore has our trust. He or she is the right person to communicate the message. (Volvo selected Donald Sutherland to be its soft-spoken spokesperson to purr about safety and reliability — Volvo did not choose Tom Cruise or Paris Hilton.)

      • Pathos: An appeal based on emotion. In terms of rhetoric, a reasonable person, following a logical argument by the trusted character, would empathize and be persuaded.

        Through his writings, we know Aristotle personally preferred logos. Astute learning designers recognize the determining factors are the makeup and attributes of the learners. For example, salespeople respond particularly well on an empathetic level. Employees who work in a “command and control” environment, however, are more inclined to respond well to training that relies on logos and ethos. They are accustomed to a strong leader, so having the right spokesperson lead the training feels familiar, which increases receptivity.

        Discussing Aristotle’s rhetoric is not an exercise at resuscitating principles from antiquity. Michael Tierno’s book, “Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters: Storytelling Secrets from the Great Mind in Western Civilization,” is more than Hollywood hyperbole from a Miramax story analyst — it’s a practical application of Aristotle’s principles as a means for screenwriters to reach contemporary film audiences. These story structure fundamentals, as well as the principles of developing credible characters, are equally relevant to writing instructional scenarios as writing screenplays.

        Scenario-based learning has grown in popularity because it works. We like to put ourselves in the picture, and we relate or empathize with people or personas we recognize. Relevance of situations and characters is crucial.

        Personas: Magic Formula or Too Formulaic?
        There are strong opinions as to the upside and downside of creating personas to represent a target audience. A persona is a description of an archetype, as defined by usability engineers, which helps a team understand the goals, motivations and behaviors of the people who will be using a product. Persona detractors argue the practice leads to stereotyping rather than understanding an audience.

        Personas serve the same function as an actor’s stand-in — they are reference points in team meetings and communications throughout the development process. For a team that uses personas, it’s not unusual to hear a passionate debate about whether “Sandra” (the tightly scheduled soccer mom) or “Dominick” (the 15-year old hobbyist programmer) would use a certain feature.

        During development of Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 (then code named “Whidbey”), the Microsoft developer division identified three primary personas — Elvis, Mort and Einstein — who represented three different types of developer personalities. According to a 2004 blog entry of Microsoft developer Nikhil Kothari, “Elvis, the pragmatic programmer, likes to create long-lasting solutions addressing the problem domain and learn while working on the solution.” Mort likes a more immediate approach and learns as needed, while Einstein, the “paranoid programmer,” likes to learn in advance.

        Look Who’s Talking
        Even when managers tasked with developing training really know their target audience, the next question is: Can their managers or their internal customers who have approval (and budget) authority for the training separate themselves from the target user audience? Further, can they buy in to a creative approach that doesn’t suit them but is the right fit for their audience?

        A colleague planning a training program once relayed to me his experience running into a creative roadblock. When Dire Straits was topping the charts with the international hit, “Money for Nothing,” he approached the agent for guitarist and vocalist Mark Knopfler about getting the rights to use the tune. The buzz surrounding the catchy refrain (“I want my MTV!”) and groundbreaking, computer-animated music video was captivating the Generation Xers. With some customized lyrics, he thought the hit would make a great “theme” song to reinforce a new training program and win the hearts and change the minds of his target audience. After the band agreed to a deal for the rights and even volunteered to record the revised lyrics themselves, he took the idea to his boss. Amazingly, his boss, who was only a few years older than the younger-than-30 average age of the corporation’s employees, said, “I’m not familiar with that song.”

        About the same time the Dire Straits idea bit the dust, Douglas Coupland published an article in Vancouver Magazine that became the foundation for his book “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.” Born on a tide of rising affluence, education and entertainment technology, the TV generation grew up with technology-assisted learning and collaborative study groups, which was good preparation for the high-performance work teams that were soon re-engineering the enterprise workforce.

        Now, the numbers of Generation Y employees in the workforce are increasing, and organizations that want to “turn on” (persuade) these employees need to “tune in” to the cultural distinctions. Known as the twitch generation, members of Generation Y were weaned on hypertext and grew up more comfortable “reading” a graphical user interface than print. They don’t rely on manuals — they learned to succeed at getting to the next level (first in video games, then in life) by experimenting with what to click and sharing insights with other gamers. Their experiences with eye-blink processing speeds and random access to information via the Internet make them poor candidates to sit through a linear corporate video or endure “death by PowerPoint.”

        Audience survey data, post-learning event feedback and usability research are useful tools to help refine your understanding of your audience. When it comes to IT professional training, we know from cultural anthropology studies that, in general, while many developers might skip through and scan a book to gain a general understanding about a new technology, when it comes time to solve a problem using a particular application, they don’t want a storyline. They want quick access to sample code and developer forums.

        Cut to the Chase
        The cost in terms of actual dollars and lost productivity of sending employees to training drove the shift from instructor-led training to self-paced e-learning. Today, corporate training budgets are still dwindling, and business process outsourcing has replaced entire training departments. Cost-conscious outsourcers are moving to real-time, collaboration-based learning events. Real-time, collaboration-based learning is the fastest-growing learning technology in the United States, mainly in the nonenterprise corporate sector and also in the higher education, state and local government and consumer sectors.

        Virtual classrooms and virtual labs are ideally suited to Generation Y, as well as technical professionals, because learners can interact with other learners and/or instructors and get hands-on experience. Virtual labs suit the “click on it and see what happens” experiential approach to learning with the added benefit of doing so in a safe environment, where a wrong click won’t bring down the network.

        The workplace environment is no longer the only place where work gets done. Advances in mobile device technologies, high-speed wireless and 3G cellular networks are propelling mobile learning. The mobile learning market for content and services is growing by a healthy five-year compound annual growth rate of 27.3 percent for 2006-2011. Learning managers are converting existing training content to mobile formats to reach younger, tech-savvy audiences.

        The sector that has the most immediate opportunity to reach its target audience via mobile learning is health care, which represents 20 percent of the total demand for all mobile learning. Physicians, nurses and technicians have integrated their devices into their work styles, as well as their lifestyles. More than 1 million health care professionals use mobile devices for their continuing medical education, according to Ambient Insight.

        We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto
        As learning technologies continue to advance, and baby boomers advance to retirement, the challenge for learning managers will be to continue to adapt and create persuasive learning experiences.

        Most baby boomers know the line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” came from “Cool Hand Luke.” The Captain (Strother Martin) said it when addressing the prison guards and road gang about escapee Paul Newman, whom he later failed to “retrain.” If learning managers make the effort to understand their audience and target training to their needs, they will communicate and contribute to their organization’s strategic growth and bottom line.

        Tyson Greer is the chief executive officer of Ambient Insight LLC, a provider of strategic research on wireless productivity tools and mobile learning technologies. She can be reached at tgreer@clomedia.com.