It is disappointing when a training programme fails to deliver expected results despite all the hard work that has gone into it. As professionals in HR and training and development, we know not to take these situations personally, but nonetheless it’s frustrating. In these situations, it pays to reflect on one’s emotions, do a rigorous analysis of what happened, and then work out how to remove any barriers to learning that have been spotted.  

What are barriers to learning?

Barriers to learning at work can be:

  • Personal (for example, a colleague feeling anxious may hit a barrier because their concentration is limited)
  • A result of the organisation’s structure (for example, conflicting organisational and team expectations)
  • In-built into learning materials themselves (for example, videos that don’t play or materials that don’t download)
  • External (for example, being in lockdown is not conducive for effective learning for many)

In this post, I’ll share some of the tactics we use to remove barriers to learning. I’ve included examples of obstacles I’ve encountered in the L&D community to illustrate how these situations happen across all sectors and types of organisation. 

Look at the data

If it is an online programme, your LMS may yield clues as to what’s going wrong. For example: Is there a trend in learners exiting an elearning course? A quiz question many are getting wrong? A module that does not launch properly? Analysing the data could reveal a technical problem that’s (relatively) easy to fix. 

Look at the feedback

Evaluating your learning courses will provide useful data that may yield clues about how obstacles have arisen. They could be technical but they may be more fundamental. For example, an organisation had problems with warehouse staff not following standard operating procedures, which were set out in an eLearning module. A quick look at the comments on the module revealed that warehouse staff couldn’t hear the audio in the module: they were using the shared computers in the warehouse – obviously a noisy environment – to access it. Added captions, headphones and access to a computer in a quieter space were simple ways to remove barriers to learning in that situation.

In another anecdote, L&D colleagues could not understand why their international staff were struggling with a particular set of concepts. Comments from the trainers revealed that learners didn’t understand the Kiwi idioms being used and they thought it rude to mention this in the post-training feedback. 

Ask the learners

Evaluation feedback is always useful but there’s nothing like detailed insights from the learners themselves. Talking with them about their experiences and their roles can reveal many challenges that are hidden by conventional data. Obstructions revealed in this way can be trickier to overcome.

It is common to hear that learners don’t have time to complete pre- or post- workshop work, for example. Although you can’t create time, you can review the training to see how the pre- and post- activities could be built into the session – and indeed whether there is a way to tighten the session to make it work well with the time involved. 

Remove built-in barriers to learning

This sounds an obvious step but nonetheless it’s often overlooked. After all, learning projects tend to be complex and the prospect of dissecting them isn’t usually a happy one. Enlist a friendly neutral expert outside your organisation to review your training for in-built obstacles that may have been missed. Look for barriers such as too steep a learning curve, use of complex or ambiguous language, unclear instructions, activities that are too short or too long, or that aren’t relevant to learners’ daily work.

If your training is face-to-face, it’s worth observing it being delivered. Many courses have deviated from their original aims over time or suffered from a timing miscalculation, thus rendering them ineffective. A reflection session with the facilitator can set it back on track. 

Look at the bigger picture

Roadblocks exist outside the learning itself, and these ones are harder to overcome. They can be built into the organisation – for example, managers who are too busy to deliver team-based training or a flawed system that no amount of training will improve. Nonetheless, it’s important to identify these barriers, if simply to put them on the ‘training can’t fix this’ list.

Speak to managers about the issues your training was developed to address. It’s common – particularly in large organisations – for corporate goals to clash with team ones or take a lower priority.

It is also surprisingly common for training to be assigned to the wrong people. As with all problems, the first step is to identify exactly what you are trying to achieve (i.e. what the goal is), and then to be clear about which people need to receive training in order to achieve that goal. The training participants should be identified right up front as part of the needs analysis. 

Plan do check act

I’m fond of this approach because it is rigorous but still flexible. Leaders like plans too, because they provide evidence of progress towards change. Isolate your ‘training can’t fix this’ situations first, because they’ll need to be raised from a strategic perspective. Then develop a plan to address other obstacles, working in partnership with leaders and managers to remove barriers to learning and build a smooth path. 

Download The 6-Step Formula Infographic!

Download our Barriers to Learning infographic for a handy 6-step formula of this blog’s key points.