Off-the-shelf learning materials are great when you’re on a budget or have simple requirements, but sometimes, only custom learning will do. It’s the most effective way to address specific training challenges – particularly gnarly problems that call for a learning campaign-based approach. However, it can be tricky to develop. Not only do you need to marry up stakeholders’ requirements with learners’ needs but you also need to present options that may not be what stakeholders are expecting.
In my experience, clear communication is the key to making custom learning design projects a success. It will help you manage the all-important relationships involved, create clarity in a complex situation and enable everyone involved to work to their strengths. Below I’ve outlined some of my top tips for managing custom learning and development projects.
Focus on organisational needs
If you’ve read any of my other blog posts you’ll know that I’m a fan of performance consulting for learning design. With this approach, you focus on what the organisation needs and what people need to do to achieve that. You can also use this method to get to the heart of the matter: what’s really the problem and will training solve it?
Whether or not you’ve established that training is the right way forward, focus on what the organisation needs in your conversations with those involved in the project. Tie these needs to organisational goals if you can so that there’s a clear link between your plans and the organisation’s success.
You’ll also find that this approach narrows the power gap between you and your stakeholders (important if they’re very senior) and reminds them that it’s the bigger picture that’s important. Take a look at my tips on using performance consulting in training development for more ideas on managing these conversations.
Research the user experience
Learners are essential stakeholders so it’s important that you understand the situation from their perspective. It’s common for senior staff and those working in specialist roles not to appreciate the daily experience of working for an organisation, from the challenges involved and the areas of frustration to the devices available for learning. When you speak to learners and understand their work from their perspective, you’ll be able to ensure that proposed learning reflects the reality of the organisation – or indeed that your proposed learning design needs to be reconsidered for reasons that more senior staff couldn’t appreciate. From a practical point of view, you’ll be able to use your research to develop relatable scenarios and use the terminology that your learners use every day to create truly customised learning.
Once you’ve got to know your learners, keep them involved in learning development by including a testing programme. This will give you ongoing access to learners’ views, so you can check that your proposed approach will address the problem you’ve identified and that it will work for the learners in question. This type of user research is often overlooked in learning development, but for custom learning design it’s essential as it captures insights into how learners will engage with the learning.
Make use of data
Data can tell you many things that stakeholders can’t, so if you have access to it, use it to glean information about the organisation and the problem you’re aiming to solve. Data is also handy if you’re struggling to convince managers of the rationale for a learning project: it’s objective and you can use it to show hidden trends – for example, in the uptake of a particular program or resource. If you can’t access existing data, you can always commission your own, for example via surveys and LMS statistics.
Later on, you’ll be able to use data again to explore the impact of your learning programme, both for yourself (to check that it’s bringing about the desired change) and for stakeholders (to demonstrate value and impact).
Keep stakeholders involved
The nature of custom learning projects means that they call for ongoing input from stakeholders. This can be difficult to manage because they have numerous competing priorities and often don’t expect involvement in training development to be one of them. However, without their contribution, custom learning projects run the risk of becoming too generic or failing to address changing needs.
Make the most of people’s time by using prototypes and an iterative approach such as the successive approximation model. Use catch-up meetings to show progress, harness expertise and update your brief. This way, you’ll be able to manage stakeholders’ involvement while showing respect for their time.