The Role of Knowledge


For a few years now, the term *knowledge* has been getting a bad rap from across the spectrum. From a Learning Design perspective, we say: “In real life, no one will ask you to list the steps to perform first aid, what actually matters is that you’re able to administer first aid when the need arises.”

And even in general, we tend to discourage people from memorizing things. The thinking goes “Why do you need to know something that you can google and find out in a minute?”.

And so, while designing learning solutions, we focus all our energies on the application of knowledge, by designing plenty of practice activities.

This is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s very good.

But a lot of times, we fail to understand that knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, has a role to play as well.

There was a reason we learnt math tables by heart. These provide the foundational knowledge required for us to not have to rely on a calculator to perform simple math calculations.

Same is the case with alphabets and the fundamental vocabulary. Without it, we’d be unable to form sentences, unable to communicate our thoughts, and unable to express our feelings.

While these are rudimentary abilities meant for children, let’s look ahead to the kind of skill that we typically try to build for adults – for example, first aid.

Unless the first-aider knows the steps by heart, they wouldn’t be able to automatically administer first aid when the need arises. A good first-aider is one who has internalized the knowledge of the steps so well that they can perform without having to think about the steps.

In other words, their skill is built upon knowledge. And knowledge forms the key building block, or the foundation, on which application rests.

Therefore, while we focus on application and practice, let’s not forget what lies at the root of it all – knowledge.

2 Things to Consider When Defining Business Goals for a Course


Just like good learning outcomes answer the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the learner, a sound goal answers the WIIFM for business. It helps explain the need for a training intervention, and sets the direction for the project once it kicks off, course correcting and providing guidance as required.

Having established that (it’s important to have a clear business goal at the start of a project), we advocate for learning outcomes which read as follows:

  • Ask questions to probe the customer
  • Uncover the customer’s ‘real’ need
  • Explain the benefits (not features) to the customer
  • Lead the customer towards the sale

And, these learning outcomes contribute towards a larger business goal, which should read like this: “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

The understanding is that if learners are able to successfully demonstrate the desired behaviors on the job, then the business goal will take care of itself (considering other environmental factors, of course).

It should, but I have a couple of issues around this:

1. The above approach works well for outcomes that directly contribute to a business goal. It is not difficult to imagine similar learning-outcomes-leading-to-business-goal situations in other contexts, such as:

  • Better hand hygiene (learning outcome) results in fewer infections (business goal)
  • Tighter password security (learning outcome) results in lessened security threats (business goal)
  • Better call handling and resolution (learning outcomes) result in improved customer satisfaction ratings (business goal)
  • Greater use of personal protective equipment (learning outcome) results in fewer safety incidents (business goal)
  • However, let’s say we need to create a course on ‘E-mail Etiquette’.

The learning outcome would be to write effective e-mails (e-mails that are addressed and copied to the right people, and are clearly worded and structured).

(Aside: There was a real need for a course. E-mails that were poorly worded, as well as those without proper structure or call-to-action were part of the folklore at this organization.)

How do we equate this with a meaningful business goal, a metric that is important to business? We could say that effective e-mails lead to better clarity and lesser confusion within a team, and therefore this might enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.

So, the business goal would be to improve team effectiveness? The goal seems contrived at best to me, and I’m not convinced that effective e-mail alone will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the team. There are so many factors at play – the culture of the organization, team size and dynamics, the goals and challenges faced by the team, not to mention other forms of communication.

I don’t think we need to force ourselves into that circle. While there is no excuse for poorly formed learning outcomes (actually, they should be performance outcomes; i.e., outcomes that lead to a change in behavior), a business goal is something that can be bypassed, if the outcome doesn’t directly impact a meaningful metric.

2. The second issue that I have relates to the measurability of the business goal. “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

Sales will absolutely improve if learners are able to implement the actions they learned in the course. But what about “5%” and “Q3”? Let’s look at a scenario and see where this goes.

Say the sales division has a team of 100. The course is rolled out in January, and all 100 go through the course within a month’s time. If the course is designed well, with plenty of practice, spaced repetition, and post-training performance support, we can reasonably expect that at least 60 will be able to demonstrate the stated behaviors. And given a time gap of four months (March – June) in which to practice and hone their newly learnt skills, they will be more effective, and successful, salespeople than they were before the training.

So, if the team was selling 500 units a month in January, they should ideally be selling at least 560 (60 salespeople selling one unit more each) in July (Q3) – an increase of 12%. Now, we know there are other factors to consider – product pricing, market conditions, competition, etc. – which probably haven’t changed much in the last two quarters.

Looking at the above, a conservative estimate of “5% by Q3” does seem achievable.

However, my discomfort with assigning such numbers to our lofty business goal stems from the fact that there are too many variables unrelated to the design of the course. The course must be rolled out in January, people should finish taking the course in February, and market conditions, competition, etc. should not have changed. All of which are well beyond the control and influence of instructional designers. Considering these factors, I believe that assigning such targets seems arbitrary, and a bit frivolous, to me.

Cathy Moore has some good advice for us here. She says “Consider this only a goal, not a guarantee.”

However, I still feel that we would do well to focus on what we can influence (change in behavior), rather than chasing a target which we have no control over. Of course, we want to prove that we are valuable to business. So, the goal can read “Sales will improve as learners are able to…”. If it leads to a 5% improvement, great. If the improvement is 10%, why not?

What am I missing here? How can we improve our business goals in a way that they are meaningful, realistic and achievable?

Duolingo Gets Both Gamification and Learning Design Right


We were collecting examples for a gamification webinar we conducted last September, and I was intrigued to know about Duolingo, the gamified language learning app. I downloaded the app immediately, but though it listed over 20 languages, there was none that I specifically wanted to learn. The intrigue intensified as I read about its features and rave reviews, but at that point, I had no time to experience the app by learning a new language, so I went ahead and delivered the webinar, citing Duolingo as an example of gamification done right. I gathered this much from users and gamification experts alike.

But Duolingo remained at the back of my mind. Recently I came across an article which cited a research finding that the “brain networks [of those who learned a new language] had become better integrated, which means they’re more flexible and allows for faster and more efficient learning”. This caught my attention. Who doesn’t like to become smarter, better integrated etc. ;-)? So I decided to check it out.

I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the languages on offer (by the way, did I mention that Duolingo is entirely free?), so I randomly chose Spanish. English, of course, remained my source language, the language through which I would be learning Spanish.

And here’s what I experienced:

When you start, you get to decide on your goals – the amount of work you want to put in everyday; choosing from:
– Casual (10 XP per day)
– Regular (20 XP per day)
– Serious (30 XP per day)
– Insane (50 XP per day)

(XP, or experience points, are awarded to you for completing lessons.) I chose casual, which meant I would have to spend 5-10 minutes a day, completing a single lesson each day.

When you reach your goal a few days in a row, you get a streak, which you have to work to maintain. For example, if you miss a couple of days’ lessons, your streak goes down. Streak basically refers to your knowledge of words in that lesson, and if you don’t keep up, it means you are forgetting those words, therefore your streak weakens to indicate that. Makes perfect sense. Did I hear someone say forgetting curve :-)?

Duolingo sends regular reminders to meet your daily goal, encouraging you to reach longer learning streaks. These reminders are fun and personalized, suggesting what you will be learning next, and motivating you to keep practicing.


As you complete lessons and gain XP, you level up, earning lingots. Lingot is a virtual currency that allows you to buy various things from a store, right from dressing up your owl (the Duolingo mascot), to power ups and extra lessons. Currently none of these ‘items on display’ sound interesting to me, so I haven’t ventured into any shopping as yet.


Progress indicators are all over the place in Duolingo. The lessons are arranged based on a virtual skill tree, and keep coloring as you advance. Within each lesson, you get to see how many more questions you have to answer, as well as how many you got right in a row.


I haven’t practiced for more than a week now, and here’s what my progress looks like.


Duolingo is highly social. You can comment on and discuss specific questions from lessons, and get answers from others in the community. I’ve found this feature to be especially useful, in the absence of ‘why this works the way it works’ explanations from Duolingo.


You can add friends from your networks, and have a leaderboard comparing your score (XP) with theirs. You can also see what they’ve been up to, including their latest comments, who they are following and who is following them, as well as levels gained.

Cross a certain level, and you get a badge, which you can share on your social network. For the record, I’m 7% fluent in Spanish as I’m writing this post.

A much-touted feature is the Immersion area, which asks you to translate some text in a collaborative space, thereby helping you practice your language skills even more, and awarding you XP incentives for participation and contribution.

The lessons themselves are designed really well. No theory, no grammar rules, just a multi-modal learning system which uses visual and auditory cues to help you learn new words.

You start on the lower end of a skill tree, learning really simple words first, and then naturally and effortlessly progress towards more complex terms and constructs.

Repetition, a huge factor for success of any learning, language learning especially, has been used very effectively in Duolingo. Words and phrases you learned in Lesson 1 reappear in Lesson 3, in newer avatars, and in new constructs. Unconsciously you begin internalizing them.

Having said all that, the app is not without its flaws. My biggest gripe, from a learning design perspective, is the blatant implausibility of distractors. Many a time, the correct answer is a dead giveaway, either due to the construct, or some silly reason like punctuation. Check out the screenshot below.

  1. Looking at the choices, I’m pretty sure the sentence has to start with ‘No’ because that is the only word which is in title case. (In this case, the word is obvious, in others, it’s not.)
  2. When I’ve dragged four words to form a sentence, it’s way too obvious that the fifth word is ‘cook’, since that is the only verb, amongst the remaining options.


But despite such shortcomings, Duolingo is one fantastic language learning experience, neatly wrapped in a ‘gamified’ package. I hope and crave for more learning experiences to be designed so well.

¡Buen trabajo Duolingo! ¡Seguid así!

Rich Learner. Poor Learner.


Evan, Laura, and Allen work in the L&D department of a large company. One morning, their manager Helen calls them into her cabin. She says “Congrats! You’re going to DevLearn in Vegas!”

Celebrations ensue, and the three excitedly get ready for the journey. Before leaving, they individually make plans for the trip. Here’s what each of their plans looks like:


At the end of the trip, I’d like to:

  • Come away with at least three ideas for improving my learning design
  • Connect with people who blog on learning, especially those who talk about social learning and community management
  • Attend at least four sessions on mobile learning (two of them possibly Clark Quinn’s and Nick Floro’s???)
  • Visit Aunt Maurice

Before leaving:

  • Buy formal shoes


At the conference:

  • Attend at least 9 concurrent sessions; squeeze in 12 if possible
  • Make notes and consolidate for later reference

In Vegas:

  • Go shopping


  • 3 days of conference
  • Wed Evening: Dinner with friends
  • Thurs Evening: Relax in the room
  • Friday Evening: Gambling at The Venetian!
  • Saturday: Grand Canyon
  • Sunday: Flight back

After coming back, Helen asks each of them to present their experiences from the trip.

Can you guess what would have happened?

You’re right! Evan had a clear set of takeaways to present from the conference, while Laura, though a bit scattered, did have a few points to talk about. Allen, unfortunately, had nothing substantial to present. What he did learn at the conference had quickly evaporated, thanks to his lack of goals and focus on learning.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Isn’t this something we encounter all the time? Learners, without as much as an explanation of what to expect, being pushed to attend a day-long training event on compliance (or code of conduct, or communication, or some other topic). Or being forced to take a bunch of long and context-less e-learning courses.

So, unless the learner is in ‘receptive’ mode (by that I mean they are emotionally and intellectually ready to receive the content), it is highly unlikely that a learning event is going to be of any benefit to them. This was exactly what we saw happening with Evan, Laura and Allen above. Despite attending the same conference, and probably sitting through the same sessions and meeting the same bunch of people, the amount of learning that each of them got what was directly proportionate to how ‘receptive’ they were.

So, how do we ensure this? How do we make sure that learners are ‘receptive’ to the learning experience that we’ve so painstakingly put together? Here are a few ideas:

1. Tell them the why and the how

This is the ‘What’s In It For Me’, or WIIFM, for the learner. It answers two key questions:

a. Why is this topic important? Not to the business, not to the organization, but to me, the learner, as an individual.
b. How is it going to help me in my life / work?

WIIFM features prominently in Instructional Design discussions, but gets missed out, or gets improperly implemented in many cases.

But get this one right, and we can have learners hanging on to every word in the course.

2. Make an emotional connect

There is a reason that people love stories. And it’s for the same reason that they are addicted to movies and games.

Joy, sorrow, challenge, competition, surprise, suspense, fear, anger, trust… these are just some of the emotions we can draw upon in our courses to keep learners coming back for more.

3. Address a need

Ultimately, the course needs to help the learner get better at something useful. Specifically, it should deliver what it promised to deliver in the WIIFM stage above.

A classic example of this is YouTube videos. It doesn’t matter how good or bad a video is. If it addresses my need of the moment, say ‘how to fix my washing machine’, I would still watch it over and over until I get the information right.

4. Make it byte sized

No one has the time or the inclination to go through a long-winded course that covers every little obscure detail of the policy you’re trying to cover. Make it to the point, and learners are much more likely to be receptive to the experience.

5. Make it optional

This has long remained a pet peeve of mine. Forcibly making learners sit through a class and having them switch off their cell phones does NOT equate to their minds being open to what the class is offering. Same goes for locking down the Next button in the hope that they will read and absorb every little piece of information presented on the screen.

In fact, these strategies have the opposite effect. An individual (especially an adult) who does not feel in control of their circumstances is very unlikely to have an open, receptive mind that is conducive for learning.

Explain the benefits, sell them the idea, and leave it to them to decide whether or not to take the course.

So what have I missed? What other ideas can we use to help learners become ready to receive the content? I would love to hear from you.

5 Ways To Avoid Overwhelming Learners

overwhelmed_learnerThe deluge is upon us! Run for cover!

Well, I’m not talking about an invasion or a natural calamity. I’m talking about the stuff that we are faced with every minute of every day – the torrent of information that keeps hitting us, threatening to sweep us off our feet and drown us, if we’re not careful.

Ah, the curse of social media, which constantly bombards us with information from all directions. Combine this with a heady dose of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and we can be sure to get inundated in the oncoming flood, without retaining much that is useful.

I have a fairly simple practice for handling social media. There are a select few in the industry who I really respect and admire, and I therefore want to listen to their opinions. Over the years, I’ve ruthlessly eliminated any kind of distraction, which basically is any information that is not from this select few. Of course, I keep editing and pruning this list.

My challenge is, this ‘select few’ runs into a few dozens, if not more. So, what for many is typically a barrage of irrelevant information concealing a few precious gems, I have a steady stream of high quality, valuable content, which of course I don’t want to miss out on (this is real FOMO in action, you see).

Okay, having said that, this post is not about how I handle social media. It’s about we can ensure that learners don’t get washed away in a similar onslaught of information in the courses we design.

How many times do we end up having to include way more than the average individual can digest in a one hour course, or in a day’s workshop? Because the SME insisted “they have to know this”. Or the unit manager said “this part is mandatory”. We see their point, so we end up adding that piece of content.

A drop here, and a drop there. And slowly but surely, the drops add up to form the deluge.

We don’t of course want to overwhelm learners with too much information. Because we know that an overwhelmed mind is ill-equipped for learning. Scientists and researchers have time and again proved that cognitive overload (the situation when we’re faced with more info than we can handle) is actually detrimental to the learning process.

So what can we do to avoid putting learners in such a situation? Here are a few approaches I can think of:

1. Break up the information into smaller, byte-sized pieces

Content chunked into digestible units can go a long way in helping learners absorb the information easily, without feeling overwhelmed. We should, of course, take care to ensure that this is done well, and that the chunks are not too interdependent.

2. Distribute the information over a period of time

If it is not critical that the audience should consume the entire content in a short time (applicable for instructor-led courses where traveling is involved), it would help to deliver the content piecemeal over a stretched duration. Referred to as spaced practice, this approach has been seen to have tremendous benefits for learning and retention.

3. Create information loops

Chunking and spaced practice can only work well if sufficient repetition is built in to allow for absorption into long term memory. Therefore, whatever strategies are adopted, make sure to create these information loops, which are basically about summarizing and repeating content at varied intervals.

4. Cover each point in greater depth, or provide context

In a recent project, we were required to help learners recall safety precautions they had to take before undertaking any maintenance work. Learners had gone through in-depth training on these safety precautions, and the client insisted that it would be sufficient if we added a line mentioning this, along with a generic image indicating safety. We did, but in addition, we added a couple of lines containing a super quick overview of the safety precautions, and provided a link to the original course if they wished to review it. Result: the overview and the link helped learners better recall what they had learned in the original training.

5. Increase the duration of the course, if required

Implementing any or all of the above approaches might mean an increase in the duration of the course… which is okay, in my opinion. Ultimately, what counts is that learners have understood the content well enough that they are able to translate it back in their workplace.

What do you think? What other approaches can we use to make sure that we don’t end up overwhelming learners? I look forward to your comments.

There Ain’t No Better Teacher Than A Mistake

… as long as it leads to a lesson learned.

learning_from_mistakesIt was a series of online sessions on instructional design that I was facilitating. The audience was a smart group, comprising mostly of people from HR and talent development. Needless to say, the session was very interactive, and as I had come to expect during the series, they were questioning me and challenging me at every juncture.

I was extolling the virtues of well-designed multiple choice questions, and to make the point about options which are grammatically incorrect and aren’t parallel with each other, I had used a question from Cathy Moore’s blog post on MCQs, by giving full credit to Cathy, of course. Here’s how the question read, along with the options.

We can confuse learners when we:
a. fail to actually complete the sentence we started in the question.
b. inconsistent grammar in the options.
c. sometimes we veer off into another idea entirely.
d. wombats.

One of the participants asked me what word ‘wombats’ means, and I confidently replied that the word doesn’t exist. He accepted my response, and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the question, and later that night, I thought I’d google it, just in case, to see if it had any meaning. And, to my surprise, I learned that wombats are short four-legged creatures which are native to Australia.

Caught off guard and a bit embarrassed, I nevertheless decided to share my newfound knowledge with participants. Here’s what I wrote in the designated discussion forum:

In Session 3, I had used a Multiple Choice Question borrowed from Cathy Moore’s blog, in which one of the options she had listed was ‘Wombats’. The point that Cathy (and I) was trying to make was that sometimes the options are so obviously incorrect that learners have no trouble guessing the right answer, thereby passing the test without understanding the topic or having to think about it.

One of you asked what is the meaning of ‘Wombats’, and I confidently replied “it’s not a word”. My confidence came from the understanding that Cathy frequently uses fictional names, places and situations. But I wanted to double check this, and when I did, to my surprise I found that Wombats are short-legged animals that are native to Australia.

Apologies for the confusion caused because of this.

Lesson learned: Do not assume anything.

It was a mistake I’d made, and my realization and subsequent sharing of the same with participants sparked a discussion unlike any other thread in the entire forum.

This got me thinking: So what can we do to leverage mistakes in the courses we design? How can we make it possible for the learner to ‘stumble upon’ mistakes, and glean lessons from them? Because after all, mistakes are seldom made randomly. They represent manifestations of long-held beliefs or misconceptions. We don’t want to frustrate learners of course, but their moment of realization can turn out to be a huge learning point for them.

Here are a few possible ideas:

1. Use them as options in scenarios, and provide detailed feedback. While the options can reflect the common misconceptions, extensive feedback against each of the incorrect options can help explain why the option is wrong, and what would work better in that scenario. Note that such feedback against the correct option would also work well, to consolidate the learner’s understanding of why that option is correct.

2. Where possible, have them justify their choice of options. So if a question reads “What is the beverage that has highest consumption in the world?”, no matter what their choice, have them answer a follow-up question which reads something like “Why do you think so?”. This can help them think through their answer, and possibly even correct their original choice.

3. Provide an option for learners to correct their mistakes and redo the scenario. This can help address any frustrations with early failure.

4. Run a scenario and make learners point out mistakes. This is very similar to the scenario in the first point above, except that here the learner doesn’t make the decisions. Instead, they get to point out the mistakes that another character in the scenario is making, a nice relief from the decision-making scenario, and another great way to learn.

5. Tell failure stories. We often get enamored in success stories, but they don’t always give the full picture, nor do they tell anything about the struggles that went into the process. Failure stories, on the other hand, can teach as well as inspire, and give a helping hand to students who make similar mistakes.

6. And last but not the least, it is not a bad idea to include them as part of your explanation. As in, call out a mistake that’s commonly made, and say “DON’T DO THAT!”.

Finally, it’s important for any learning event to emphasize a growth mindset so that learners do not associate mistakes with shame, and view them instead as learning opportunities. Of course, a single learning event would be hard-pressed to do something like this on its own, but we can always try, right?

What other strategies can you think of to lead learners from their moment of ‘oops’ to ‘ah-a’?

Learning Designers! Boring Bullets are NOT Your Worst Enemy!

Congratulations! You can now play games at work!

This was the underlying theme of a compliance course that I recently had the opportunity to review. Designed as a highly engaging game, the course set you off on a hunt for clues to find an elusive parrot, traveling to various cities and learning about compliance along the way. As you unearthed a clue, a slice of compliance information got revealed, followed by a short quiz on the information. Your performance in the quiz earned you gadgets that helped you in your search for more clues.

As a game, the piece struck all the right notes. I got involved right from the word ‘go’. I wanted to find more clues. I wanted to collect more gadgets. I wanted to win.


Throughout the experience, I kept thinking “but what about learning?”. Because nowhere on my quest did I ever get to think about compliance. My main focus in answering the quiz questions was to earn gadgets on the way to unearthing my next clue.

This was probably because the core content was still presented as just that – content. The quiz was tarted up to be engaging, as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.

And, though the course told me at the beginning that “finding more clues will give you access to more compliance information”, I kept asking “why?”. Nowhere during the experience could I connect with why the compliance information was important to me, or how it was going to help me do my job better. Neither the content nor the quiz questions had anything to do with application. Written in typical legal-speak, the content portion of the course explained the ‘what’, while entirely missing the ‘why’ and the ‘how’.


Now, this is typically what Cathy Moore calls “putting lipstick on a pig”. If a course is not intrinsically interesting, then adding bells and whistles in the form of games and adventures can only serve to improve its cosmetic value. The core content remains in the same state – boring and ineffective.

I can understand why this happens. The word ‘compliance’ can conjure up images of boring, banal courses that spew out bullet point after bullet point of lackluster content. And, it’s exciting to think about making the course game-like, to add colors and audio and video, and challenges and what not, just to make it more ‘engaging’.


Cammy Bean refers to this as “clicky-clicky bling-bling” – a course that ranks high on the ‘bling’ thing, but fails to address its basic mandate of learning and performance improvement.

Bling is not a bad thing, per se. It’s like great packaging. Who isn’t attracted to products that are packaged well? But when applied to a bad product (one that doesn’t work as intended), it becomes “clicky-clicky bling-bling”.


What can we do to steer clear of “clicky-clicky bling-bling”, and make sure the course addresses the primary need it was commissioned to address? Here are some strategies I think we can follow:

1. Start by defining the goal, or the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the business. This is what will help us justify why the course needs to exist in the first place, and align the course design with what the business needs.

2. In addition to the ‘what’, make sure to amply address the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ for learners. This will help them understand that the game (or concept) exists to support the course, and not the other way around.

3. Put the learners in a context that closely mirrors real life, and have them make the decisions that they would have to make in real life.

4. Make each of the choices (the decisions that they would have to make in the scenario / context above) plausible, ensuring that they think before making a choice.

5. Let the scenarios and choices challenge learners the right way. Have them think hard about the situation and the consequences that they would have to face as a result of their decisions, not about the sentence construct and what it might mean before making a choice. Which leads me to my next point…

6. Write the content, and the quiz, in plain English. For example:

“When you see a violation, please report using the third-party hotline. You can do so confidentially and anonymously, which means you don’t have to fear retaliation.”

…is a lot simpler and sounds way better than:

“No employee will be retaliated against for reporting any known or suspected compliance violation. The organization makes reporting violations easy by utilizing an unbiased third-party vendor who receives Hotline calls. These calls are taken both confidentially and anonymously.”

7. Allow people a way out. I can’t overstate the importance of this. As learning designers, we might find a game or a concept very interesting, but it’s possible that learners consider it a dud. Don’t make them suffer through it. Allow them to take a well-designed assessment, and if they want to review information, let them go through a PDF with all the content. Because at the end of the day, what matters is that they learn and can perform better, not that they win the game.

What other strategies can you think of to avoid clicky-clicky bling-bling?

Beyond Effective E-Learning – Changing Habits, Not Just Behaviors

We absolutely nailed it! Folks are loving this!” exclaims Terry.

Reporting rates have increased… incidents have gone down… people are really using strong passwords! Management couldn’t be happier.” chips in Janet.

Terry and Janet, both learning designers in the corporate world, are discussing their freshly-launched security course, and how it has become an overnight sensation. They have every reason to be happy… learners and management have been singing its praise ever since it was ‘released’.

And why not? Terry and Janet have done their homework, diligently working with stakeholders to design a meaningful course. It is chock full of practice activities, and does a good job of both explaining the ‘how’, and convincing learners of the ‘why’. They have also spent considerable effort to ensure that it’s produced well, with all its associated bells and whistles, hence the learner love they are currently basking in.

Let’s fast forward a few months and see what happens. After all, the success of any initiative has to be measured by long-term adoption, and not just immediate outcomes, right?

Six months down the line, the number of security lapses has increased. Drastically. People seem to have reverted to their old ways.

Janet walks by a section of the office she rarely visits, and is dismayed to find passwords written on post-it notes stuck to computer screens. She calls up the IT department contact she was in touch with while developing the course, and he informs her that average password strength has dropped to ‘moderately weak’ from last month’s ‘reasonably strong’.

What just happened?

When the course was newly launched, it was so impactful that it motivated people to immediately go back and make their passwords stronger. And also to proactively look for any seeming lapses in security and report them. Hence the initial spike in the number of lapses being proactively reported, and the reduction in security incidents.

This continued for a while, until the effects of the course ‘wore off’. And in the absence of a system of checks and balances to keep people continuing to exhibit these behaviors, they started to slowly revert to their older habits, purely because they lacked the motivation to continue. It was simply too much effort.

The course, in the form of a single event, was a humungous success in convincing people of the need for better security, and providing them with the knowledge and skills for the purpose. Therefore, it was able to get people to demonstrate the desired behaviors. However, commitment faltered in the face of day-to-day work pressures, as happens when priority assigned to something ‘non-trivial’ goes down. And since there was no ongoing campaign to convert the new behavior into a long-term habit, the initiative failed in the long run.

So, how does an organization ensure that newly learnt behaviors become sticky enough to turn into habits? Here are a few pointers we can keep in mind:

1. Get started

Experts advise that the first step to habit formation is to just get started. Terry and Janet have already achieved this with a well-designed, engaging course that targets the right behaviors. Employees were motivated enough to strengthen their passwords, and to voluntarily come forward and report what they thought were security lapses.

2. Provide constant reinforcement

This can be done using both intrinsic and extrinsic elements.

Intrinsically, people can be reminded at regular intervals of the need for better security, and how it indirectly impacts them as individuals, and the organization as a whole. Case studies, stories, quizzes, etc. can work well in this regard.

On an extrinsic note, employees can be rewarded for having the ‘strongest password of the month’ or for reporting the ‘highest number of lapses’.

All of this can be done online or offline, or a combination of both, which should keep people motivated to continue the streak, and keep security on top of their minds.

3. Use social proofing for validation

Identify secret ‘champions’ of security, to further the cause… who are given specific tasks, such as discreetly starting a conversation on security at the watercooler, or on the company’s Intranet portal. Or sharing a security incident in another company which led to major losses.

Establish an online system where employees can display a ‘Security’ badge, which their colleagues can vote for. The employee who gets the maximum votes will have the strongest badge, and so on.

4. Design the environment for stickiness

Make it impossible, or at least difficult, to have weak passwords. Design the system in such a way that it does not accept passwords below a certain level of strength. Display posters at every work area, or possibly on every desk, constantly reminding people of the need for better security.

Ultimately, while a well-designed course can achieve needed behavior change, for the change to sustain over a period of time, what we need is habit change.

What other factors can we consider for achieving habit change in the long run? I welcome your inputs.