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  • Writer's pictureRyan Panzer

Training in Turbulence, Part Two: Instructional Design During a Recession

If training departments are going to affect positive change or build any meaningful capacity during a recession, they must do so with a commitment to lightweight implementation, or a focus on learning culture over training courses.

Potential 20% reductions in training resources, paired with drop-offs in available learning hours, create an uncertain future for large learning programs. Programs and courses will continue to help employees to develop new, role-required skills. I expect many companies will continue to prioritize their new hire onboarding programs, for example. Still, formal learning, with its hefty administrative burdens like scheduling, content maintenance, and ongoing SME engagement, cannot build a recession-ready workplace.

What we need instead are techniques that enable skill development by rapidly converting theory into practice, and practice into habits. We need a strategy that makes social learning work! Fortunately, these techniques are not unfamiliar to talent development professionals, though they may be peripheral to much of our past work.

By focusing on micro-learning, nudges, and communities of practice, trainers can form a recession-ready learning culture defined by efficiency and efficacy. These three instructional design techniques form a robust "triad" of organizational development in that they can develop skills with little administrative overhead.

The root of this triad is micro-learning, which provides a mechanism for the distribution of essential procedural and declarative knowledge. ATD defines micro-learning as that which “enhances learning and performance in the most efficient and effective manner possible through short pieces of content. Assets can usually be accessed on-demand when the learner needs them.”

Micro-learning is not new to a time of recession. Just before the pandemic, Donald Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey identified micro-learning as the sixth-hottest trend in L&D, indicating widespread interest in this emerging training tool. But what is new about micro-learning is that it will transition from a tangential measure deployed to support formal learning into a core strategy for the development of essential skills.

Nudges establish the middle note, or the third, of this triad. Whereas micro-learning involves actions to create and ship content, nudges involve actions that shape and optimize behaviors, thus turning theory into practice.

We can define a nudge as a "relatively subtle" action that encourages behaviors that are either individually beneficial or socially altruistic. Google's small cafeteria plates are a commonly cited example of a behavioral nudge. Google famously found that smaller plates lead employees to make more nutritious choices. As a former Google employee, I once shed over fifteen pounds by switching to Google's smaller plates and ensuring my lunches consisted primarily of vegetables served from the front of Google's buffet lines. While talent developers can use micro-learning to demonstrate essential skills for a time of uncertainty, nudges are needed to put skills into action and to ensure that social learning perpetuates skill development.

Communities of practice form the top note, or the fifth, of our triad. Harvard Business Review defines communities of practice as “groups of people informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise.” Communities of practice can exist online or offline, within an organization or with like-minded individuals across organizations. They can be broad in scope and complex in operations, such as an international trade organization or a multinational CEO peer group. Or they can be narrow in scope and easily maintained, such as a Slack channel for instructional designers or a group of podiatrists on WhatsApp.

Whether these groups gather virtually or physically, synchronously, or via social media, a community of practice facilitates two needed elements of adult skill development: peer-to-peer learning, and opportunities for reflection. Communities of practice are a powerful form of “social” learning - the third “hottest” global trend in Learning and Development in 2020.

Social learning provides 70% of workplace learning and is especially popular with Millennials and Generation Z. All communities of practice are social learning, though not all social learning rises to the level of a community of practice. The difference is that a community of practice involves a commitment to constancy. Many social learning opportunities are “one and done” - but one can always turn to their communities of practice to take full advantage of social learning. Moreover, in a time of disruption, companies may verbalize a commitment to social learning - when, in fact, their hidden commitment is to avoid investing in L&D! In upcoming blog posts, we’ll reimagine communities of practice as more targeted towards specific skills, more supported by talent developers, and more appealing to workers in uncertain times.

Until the pandemic ends and the recession dissipates, bulky training programs will achieve limited traction. Fortunately, the triad of micro-learning, nudges, and communities of practice provide an objectively better alternative! With these strategies in mind, let us turn in the next blog post to the skills that we must build if our organizations are to withstand these turbulent times.


@ryanpanzer is an instructional designer for Zendesk and a member of the board of directors for the Association for Talent Development Madison Area Chapter.

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