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Do Your Learners Care About Learning and How Does Learning Connect With Their Goals?

Story Introduction 

Kathryn is the Chief Learning Officer at a fictional manufacturing company called AshCom, located in Minneapolis. Kathryn has been the CLO for more than five years and, with her team,  has produced some amazing learning experiences. But things are changing fast. Rebecca is a consultant from MindSpring who has served as an advisor to Kathryn for the last four years. This is their story.

Kathryn, the Chief Learning Officer at AshCom and Rebecca, a consultant from MindSpring, sat at the conference table in Kathryn’s office. On the whiteboard were eleven questions written by Rebecca, who promised they would clarify some of the challenges Kathryn faced. 

AshCom’s learning challenges were significant and began with a decline in training results. Learners were learning less and making fewer behavioral adjustments in their daily work. Fewer people were seeking out learning opportunities. Something in the culture was changing.

Just as Kathryn and her learning team began to notice these shifts, the Chief Financial Officer announced a hiring freeze for every division in the 7,000-person company. That news unsettled her team. Two weeks later, the youngest member of Kathryn’s team announced she was leaving. 

AshCom’s financial performance had been a struggle, and now it deepened. The CFO told Kathryn that she needed to make reductions. She had to let two people go. In a short period of time, her team had gone from ten very capable people who functioned well as a group to seven people who were unsure of what the future might hold for them.

Kathryn called in Rebecca to help, and she immediately got to work. She introduced eleven questions that would help Kathryn find clarity and build a pathway for moving forward.  

Kathryn started the conversation. “Of all the questions, this one might be most bothersome to me.”

“Do you mean difficult?” replied Rebecca. “I’m sure you’ll find the upcoming questions more challenging—and we already covered some hard ones when we looked at ‘What are your top company priorities right now, and how will learning play a pivotal role in achieving them?’. We also covered, ‘Who are the targeted learners, and how well do you know them?’. Do you think this question is harder to answer?”

“Not really,” said Kathryn. “Maybe bothersome is the wrong word. Maybe I mean annoying.”

“Before you toss out any more words, let me guess what you mean,” said Rebecca.

“This will be interesting,” replied Kathryn. “Take your best shot.” The corners of her mouth turned up into a bit of a sarcastic smile.

“Annoyed probably is the right word,” said Rebecca. “You’re wondering why learning isn’t a priority for some people. How could a person not be interested in information that would make them better at their jobs? Why wouldn’t someone be compelled to improve themselves?” 

Kathryn’s sarcastic smile turned into a real one.

Rebecca continued, “You’re someone who loves learning for its own sake. Learning, for you, is often its own reward. In your nature is a deep desire to expand what you know and what you can do.”

Kathryn nodded in agreement.

“You’re annoyed,” continued Rebecca, “because you don’t understand why other people don’t think like you do. You find this ‘bothersome.’’

“And you’re going to tell me other people aren’t like me, right?” asked Kathryn.

“Actually, I’m going to add to your annoyance,” said Rebecca. “The question we’re going to work on answering in this section comes from the learners’ perspective. And that question is ‘Why should I care?’ And the answer can’t be, ‘Because learning is always good.’ If you can’t provide a different answer, you should continue to expect results you’ve been seeing.”

“You’re wondering why learning isn’t a priority for some people. How could a person not be interested in information that would make them better at their jobs? Why wouldn’t someone be compelled to improve themselves?”

“You really take your ‘unvarnished truth’ principle seriously,” said Kathryn, as the smile ran away from her face.

“I do,” replied Rebecca confidently, “and I think that’s why you called me in to help.”

“This is personal to me and my whole team,” said Kathryn. “We were disheartened to see less interest in learning in the past months. Lower scores. Fewer recommendations. We want our learners to engage with what we produce. We care about them, and we’re passionate about what we do. We want our learning to be sticky and make a real difference in the lives of our team members and for the company as a whole. I’m pretty sure everyone involved in learning feels like we do.”

“I agree,” said Rebecca, “and I know this is personal. That means we have some work to do. I’m not really into admiring problems. I’d much rather solve them.”

“In our last session, we talked about using profiles and personas to find out who the learners are,” said Kathryn. “We talked about removing barriers and making sure all team members are represented in learning. How do we approach the question of motivation?”

“Learner profiles and learner motivation are really two sides of the same coin,” said Rebecca. “To really move the needle, we’ll need to examine both sides. Let’s start with what we like to call The Learning Motivation Matrix.

“Dive right in,” said Kathryn as Rebecca walked to the whiteboard.

“Let’s think of a specific learning experience,” said Rebecca. “It should be something high-priority with a lot of visibility at AshCom. Anything come to mind?”

Leadership development,” said Kathryn immediately, like she knew the question before it was asked. “It’s one of our top priorities right now.”

“Perfect,” said Rebecca. “That will work.” She wrote Leadership Development at the top of the whiteboard.

“Let’s think about the groups involved,” said Rebecca. “There’s AshCom, the learning team, and the learners themselves.” She paused a moment, then wrote:

  1. Why is AshCom motivated to make this a priority?
  2. Why is the learning team motivated to make this a priority?
  3. Why are learners motivated to make this a priority?

“Now,” continued Rebecca, “think about all the possible gaps between these groups and why their motivations might not align. We’re not going to provide detailed answers for each group. For today, we need to think about the bigger picture. Understanding these gaps is essential. The key is to get complete clarity on the size and the cause of the gaps.”

If you’re a learner, who do you think benefits from a high-profile learning experience?”

“I get it,” said Kathryn. “There are certainly gaps between these groups. But how do the gaps help me understand motivation?”

“Excellent question,” said Rebecca. “This framework helps identify the gaps and their causes, but the exercise doesn’t stop there.”

“Wait, there’s more?” asked Kathryn now laughing.

“Yes,” said Rebecca laughing. “Like those old television commercials—except this is actually the most important part. Let’s look at these things specifically from the learner’s perspective. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes. If you’re a learner, who do you think benefits from a high-profile learning experience?”

“Our company,” said Kathryn without hesitation. “I’d like to say the learner, but I don’t think that’s true. My first thought would probably be that this benefits the company as a whole, especially if it’s high-profile and leaders are promoting it.”

“Ok,” said Rebecca, writing Company under Leadership Development. “I’m not sure that would be everyone’s first thought, but for now let’s say the order doesn’t matter. Who else would benefit?”

“I suppose I’d think about the team I’m on,” said Kathryn. “I’m committed to the advancement of my own team, and I believe a lot of people feel the same about their teams. Team performance matters around here.”

“Very altruistic of you,” replied Rebecca. “She wrote Team at the top of the whiteboard. “Anyone else?”

“Me, as a learner,” answered Kathryn. “I’d think about how this benefits me.”

“A lot of people would have started there,” said Rebecca, “and I agree with you. Anyone else?”

“Nothing comes to mind,” said Kathryn.

“Now let’s examine each one of these as motivating influences for learners,” said Rebecca. “If you had to rank the company, the team, and the individual learner in order of influence, which would be at the bottom?

“The company,” replied Kathryn. “I just don’t think most people are driven by what’s best for the company. I might wish they were, but I don’t believe it’s human nature. I think most people are motivated by self-interest.”

“So you’d rank the learner’s self-interest as the highest influence?” asked Rebecca.

“Yes,” replied Kathryn. “I’d put the team in the middle. Your team members are the people you work with closely and know best, and that matters.

“I agree with your ranking,” said Rebecca, “as do most people asked to do this exercise. Let’s return to the company. I can tell you from experience that many leaders and companies get this order wrong. When launching a new learning initiative or pushing an existing one, leaders often talk about company benefits first. Sometimes that’s all they talk about. There’s no mention of the benefits to their team or to the individual.”

“And I can tell you that our team’s willingness to learn for the benefit of the company is pretty low right now because of the hiring freeze and layoffs,” said Kathryn. 

“Makes sense,” said Rebecca.  “Rah-rah speeches are not likely to be the best motivators, although they may work well for a small percentage of the people at AshCom. So, when rolling out this new leadership initiative you’ll need to ask if a company-first message will achieve what you want.”

“How about teams?” asked Kathryn.

“You placed the team second in terms of influence,” said Rebecca, “and I think that’s right. Like at most companies, I’m guessing a little friendly competition among teams creates some motivation for a team to perform well. ”

Mostly friendly competition,” said Kathryn. “We have some pretty competitive people.”

“Great,” said Rebecca, “then use that competitive fire to motivate people to learn. We’ll talk about how to do that in future sessions, but for now, let’s agree that this will be an effective approach for AshCom.”

“Now the learner.” stated Kathryn. “From what I’m hearing you say, talking about the benefits to the individual is the best bet for motivating learners.”

“To tap into the learner’s prime motivation, you need to make the questions personal. Why should I begin this? Why put in a good effort to learn? What’s the motivation to finish? Why should I try to apply what I’ve learned to my job? These questions and others are what you need to think through.”

“I believe that’s right,” said Rebecca, “but I want to make sure I make something clear. All three factors can and do motivate learners. I’m not asking you to ignore any of them. I’m simply pointing out that some are better motivators than others. All three need to be communicated well.”

“I get that,” said Kathryn. “We won’t lose sight of all three.”

“Let’s talk about the learner,” said Rebecca. “To tap into the learner’s prime motivation, you need to make the questions personal. Why should I begin this? Why put in a good effort to learn? What’s the motivation to finish? Why should I try to apply what I’ve learned to my job? These questions and others are what you need to think through.”

“I’ll need to have some honest conversations to understand this,” said Kathryn. “I’ll make sure I ask for a healthy dose of your ‘unvarnished truth.’”

“I highly recommend that,” said Rebecca. “Let me make some other suggestions. Begin with a high-impact, mission-critical project. You mentioned the leadership development program. That sounds like a good candidate. I imagine that involves a fairly small number of people and that the objectives are very focused.”

“It’s one of the top priorities of our C-suite,” said Kathryn. “I think they’re focused on it because people in leadership positions and people hoping to move up the ladder are demoralized right now.”

“This isn’t going to fix everything overnight,” said Rebecca, “but it will give you insight into the reasons for low completion rates, poor performance, rare implementation, and poor ratings on your learning experiences. In time, as you master this approach, you’ll be able to expand it to other learning initiatives.”

“Time for another break,” said Kathryn looking up at the whiteboard. “I see our next question is, ‘What organizational factors are influencing your learning initiatives?’ I’m confident I can fill the whiteboard with organizational factors that are dragging down our learning and performance.”

“At least you’ll be ready for a fast start,” said Rebecca. “We’ll get those listed, and then I’ll share a framework to help you think about them. Sound good?”

“I’ll be ready,” said Kathryn.  “See you back here in 20 minutes.”

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