March  20,  2018

One of the first big learning programs I worked on was for a global corporation in the construction industry. They were rolling out a new logistics system to tens of thousands of seasoned blue-collar workers. My team of twenty-something suit-wearing consultants could not have been less credible. Our SMEs (the warehouse supervisors serving as our subject-matter experts) were openly skeptical that we could teach them anything useful. To be honest, we weren’t so sure ourselves.

The new system would touch everyone in their warehouse, forcing them to use handheld radio frequency (RF) terminals to perform nearly every task. They had been 100% paper-based and computer-free, and that’s the way they liked it. We were the bearers of very bad news.

But we were also good instructional designers. We knew we needed to know the new system inside and out but, to serve our learners, we also needed to know them a lot better. Here’s the advice we followed.

Think about each role represented in your audience. Gather enough information – from the right sources – so you can imagine yourself in their shoes, whether they’re pumps or steel-toed boots.

  • What are the most important parts of their jobs? Which of their behaviors drive results for their team or their company?
  • What is their motivation? What are they rewarded and punished for? What gets them a pat on the back or kudos from the boss?
  • What kinds of behaviors are supported or discouraged by company culture?
  • What are their work settings? Group? Solitary? Loud? Quiet? Long periods of concentration or lots of switching gears? Office? Cubicle? Shop floor? Car? Retail store?
  • What language, acronyms or metaphors do they use? What kinds of communication are they used to and what do they prefer?
  • How do they feel about this change? What will their attitudes and expectations be as they start the learning program and as they go back to the job?

The answers? For our learners, the most important thing was moving the right materials and getting orders out the door. They were rewarded for speed and accuracy and encouraged to be team players. Their work setting was a loud warehouse full of lots of people moving constantly.

They were not computer-literate. They communicated through conversation and team meetings and notices or signs posted in the workspace. They had tons of technical terms and shorthand. They were NOT excited about the new system.

They seemed disinterested or annoyed, but we felt that some of this was really fear of failing – suddenly not being able to do the jobs they had mastered over the years. They didn’t want to sit in a classroom for any reason and they didn’t want to return to work and have to use a new system when the stakes were high.

Based on all this, we wanted to move a lot of the learning into the warehouse, but that didn’t fly with our client; we had to train in a classroom. So, we created other elements with our users in mind. One of them was a job aid, showing critical codes and functions for the RF terminal. We made it from tough, flexible plastic with curved corners that wouldn’t cut or scratch. It was pocket-sized, but we also punched a hole in one corner and attached a closed hook so the user could clip it to his belt loop or the RF terminal itself. It was a pretty simple thing, but it was what we thought they would want as they tried to use the new system on the job. Our main SME John agreed.

As expected, our learners approached training warily. They weren’t exactly happy, even as they demonstrated they could use the new system. Day One was rocky, but work was getting done.

A week later, John came to our team with a smile on his face and a story. It seems that Pete, easily our most disgruntled learner, had arrived for his shift, realized he had left his plastic job aid at home, and drove all the way back home to get it. He punched in late for his shift, but apparently it was worth it. We knew then we had done something that mattered, because we took the learner’s perspective.