In Good Company interviewed Liz Wilson, one of Impact’s digital learning designers, to get the inside track on how digital design works.
Why do you think the demand for digital learning is growing?
There was a time when learning and development in organisations was quite exclusive, limited to a few high performers. However, the advent of digital learning has meant that the traditional constraints of time and space no longer exist, and learning and development can be offered to everyone. It also makes it easier to make learning stick long term, and to weave it into real life, work, family and community; to take the learning experience beyond a classroom experience and into a virtual world. This shift comes at a time when the pace of change and the level of disruption in the global marketplace has never been greater. In these testing times, organisations and their people need to learn faster than ever before.
What excites you about learning technology?
We can now address the challenges of today in a new way. We can achieve big-picture, tangible and measurable outcomes by focusing on the learning, not the technology; the context – what’s going on in our client’s world – rather than the content; and the learning process, not the specific digital platform.
Face to face vs. digital learning – which works best?
At Impact, we say let the learning lead. We'll choose the best possible method to meet the specific need – tech makes it possible to do familiar things in new ways, and lots of new things too, things we didn’t dream possible. The trick is to only do face-to-face the things you can only do face-to-face – we can take everything else online and into ‘real life’. We aim to do what we’ve always done, which is to give people new insight and understanding that they can use in their working lives, and to bring their everyday working lives into the learning experience – tech gives us exciting new ways to do this.
What skills does a learning designer need?
Being a good listener is the most important part of what we do. At the start of every design we spend a lot of time listening to our clients and trying to understand their needs in the context of their wider world: their marketplace, workplace, challenges and hopes. It’s also vital that we go into every meeting with a clear head and a completely open mind; all pre-conceived ideas and judgments have to be left at the door, which isn’t always easy. Finally, bravery is important. We need to be bold and have the confidence to challenge clients and colleagues on their thinking and never to take anything at face value.
What’s your personal design process?
I begin any design process by immersing myself in the client’s world, reading everything available about them and trying to gain access to people from all levels of the company. Then I sit with it for as long as possible before getting started on the design. It’s important to try to imagine the participants and their lives, to put ourselves into their shoes.
While I’m immersed at the design stage, inspiration comes from all sorts of places, such as the media, the natural world, colleagues, current affairs, overheard comments, whatever boxset I’m watching! It’s important to think big and to draw from a wide pool of inspiration. Sometimes when you throw seemingly random elements together you spark a mutual creativity that you don’t get by following the same path every day. The main source of inspiration always, of course, is the client – they will always have passion and energy that’s infectious.
Are there any limits to Impact’s learning designs?
The only limit is in our imagination and courage. Designing brings huge possibility and potential. Imagine a Venn diagram in which the hopes and dreams of the organisation meet their constraints; design can be anything in the overlap. Digital learning allows us to do anything – even more than we could before! With this in mind I really try to set my imagination free and to be as creative as possible. For example, if a client wants us to work in a 1:40 ratio in a small inner-city room, my first mission would be to devise a way to get those people out of that room and into the fresh air. Or, if a client can’t physically get all of their people together in one space, we would think hard about how we can use digital learning tools to build close, intimate groups of learners who can look after each other on a difficult change journey.
Why are you such a fan of digital learning?
For the last two years, at Impact, we’ve been immersed in the challenge of designing our own learning technology. We have come to see that virtual learning is not a replacement for face-to-face experiences, and it’s also not just what you do when you have a travel ban! Instead, digital learning complements face-to-face learning, and expands its potential enormously. Or it does something entirely different to what we would do face-to-face. By removing the limits of the learning experience, it allows us to: facilitate for people 24/7; to give them new perspectives on their everyday habits and ways of seeing the world; and to bring learning into everyday interactions with their colleagues, friends and family.
Digital learning also allows us to embark on much longer learning journeys. More and more clients are imagining much longer development processes, thinking in years instead of days. Having the luxury of time enables us to forge strong, intimate relationships with clients, and also paves the way for cross-fertilisation, allowing us to learn from clients as well as to bring different organisations together in exciting and unexpected new partnerships.
What difference has the development of Impact’s own app, air, made?
With emphasis on context over content; process over platform; and learning over technology, our digital tool, air, forms part of a wider learning process, rather than functioning solely as a learning platform. Just as new tools such as Microsoft Teams are perfect for collaborative working, air is the perfect safe space for dialogue, collaboration, learning and change. The results happen in work or in real life, with all limitations of time, space and imagination removed. Digital learning allows us to traverse boundaries, embark on new adventures and to remove the limits of what it is possible to do for, and with, people. It’s also sent me on a pretty mind-blowing learning adventure of my own!
Any advice for an organisation looking to buy a bit of learning tech?
Don’t lose sight of your own expertise – it's about the people and the outcome, never about the tech! Think about your context, the learning process that’s going to work best for you, and be realistic about what people will actually do or not do. Tech might have evolved a lot in the last five years, but human beings haven’t!
Liz Wilson has designed learning for 20 years, for clients as wide ranging as Google, BAE Systems and Santander. Her current challenge is to deliver the magic of experiential learning remotely. Do you have any questions of your own? Get in touch to join this conversation!