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I’ve been in this industry a long time (over twenty years, in fact) and in that time I’ve seen many influencers come and go. Some have stood the test of time, with theories and ideas which have resonated across decades. But recent reading on social media from industry ‘gurus’ around the state of learning and indeed that it should never be ‘fun’ has left me tired and frustrated.

Firstly: if we’re being really pedantic, the official adjective definition of fun is: amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable. Why, oh WHY would we want to make our training entertaining or, god forbid *gasp* enjoyable.

Some of these key influencers are not evolving; their ideas are stuck in the past and their intransigent ways aren’t helping us move forward. Of course, there are some really fantastic trailblazers in the Learning Technologies industry. The likes of Nick Shackleton-Jones, Juliette Denney, Adam Harwood, Tim Roberts, Lori Niles-Hofman, Matt Ash, Craig Weiss, and Steve Dineen are working tirelessly in helping to innovate, inspire and drive creative new ways to solve our problems. These new ways can mean new products (such as migrating away from the traditional, academic constraints of the LMS) or indeed different approaches and ways of thinking.

However, there are some which remain obstinate and steadfast in their outdated learning theories – and I wonder whether this is holding us back. So I ask you, is it time to throw out the old to make space for the new?

Are we following the path of least resistance because it’s easy?

I have had the pleasure of riding the wave of many buzzwords in learning tech (mobile learning/mLearning, gamification, rapid elearning and MOOCs, to name a few). Some, like our favourable influencers, have proven their worth and remain a key component in any L&D strategy. Others have not.

What made those which have remained stand out? Continued context and ongoing requirements from the learner, that’s what. Even still now, for example, there are times when gamification is the most effective way to deliver learning. But that doesn’t mean every single piece of learning needs to be a game of whack’a’mole or Monopoly.

We do, of course, have to be mindful that more sensitive subjects won’t suit game environments – but the reason these ‘fun’ environments have been created in the first place is to solve certain problems around employee engagement. A clear learner need. Saying learning shouldn’t be fun is missing the point; learning should be engaging and instil a desire to learn, rather than a burning desire to just click through to get to the end (which we know many, many learners are guilty of doing). Fun interactions have a way of doing that and forming positive habits that dull, dry content never can.

The decay of knowledge and known truths

You don’t need me to tell you the world is changing. The internet of things, smartphones and the ever-growing potential permutations of technology have made sure of that. And that’s just the landscape outside of work; corporate environments are also experiencing a gravitational shift in technology, digital transformation and changing cultures.

That means that our approaches have to change in L&D too. The reality is, we are getting more and more Millennials in senior, decision making roles (an estimated 46% of the working population by 2020 in fact) and these digital natives do things differently. They’re extremely tech-minded, culturally diverse and have grown up with knowledge and instant gratification at their fingertips. And they’re eager for things to change.

But change is hard, we all know that. It often requires breaking mindsets, fragmenting theories and discarding known truths which have proven to be ‘untrue’ overtime. The half-life of knowledge is a well-known theory; we know that our knowledge will decay. So why aren’t we trying to discover new pillars of truth in this ever-changing learning landscape? Is it time for new ideas and new thought-leaders to replace those which are now proving ineffective?

Not all ideas are created equal

One vein in our new innovators’ messaging that stands out to me is all around the human experience: treating our employees like grown-ups and giving them a human, relatable and relevant experience whenever possible. Terms I see them use a lot include personalisation, employee engagement, trust, user-generated content and more.

Although not ‘fun’ in the gamification guise of the word, these elements clearly are facets of modern training strategies (or, at the very least, pipedreams) because they are effective at connecting and creating coherence and engagement with employees in a way which says: “We understand you and are working really hard to meet your needs.” Perhaps this is an ongoing argument about language semantics, but to me, this is more to do with old-school mindsets and seeing ‘fun’ as a distractor to the “real” task at hand: learning.

In fact, the training being engaging (read: enjoyable) has a much wider impact than just improvements in knowledge retention. According to our research, it also leads to increases in positive sentiments towards the business, namely whether the employee trusts their employer. We discovered that learners who found training engaging were also much more likely to trust their employer. Conversely, content which disengaged learners lead to a much wider lack of trust amongst that group, with 15% of disengaged learners completely mistrusting their employer, vs that of just 2% for engaged learners.

We’re still humans who need other humans

The point for me is some of these outdated theorists and thought-leaders appear to be approaching organisational training from a stance which negates fundamental human needs. Technology is great. It really is. But no amount of chatbots, AI or Slack conversations are going to replace good old human interaction.

In spite of all our technology, our research shows 78% of learners would still prefer to communicate face-to-face. Because of these findings, I’ve ensured things like our ‘meet for a coffee and chat’ feature (which ironically started as a chat over coffee) has become a fundamental feature in phase one of our learner experience platform.

For me, this human element is the lynchpin of it all: humans still need human interaction. How we provide that interaction is up for debate, sure, but in terms of learning and development we should be committing ourselves to embedding a culture of engagement and trust, rather than just pondering and postulating over the meaning of words like ‘fun’.

The new way of working (and thinking)

That trust element is vital for our survival as L&D professionals. That’s why the likes of the social LMS and LXPs are becoming more popular; they empower employees and allow them to feel entrusted to own their learning within a workplace environment. Self-driven environments and modern learning content (such as videos, screencasts and even other web content) maybe aren’t ‘fun’ but they certainly are more enjoyable than a 100 slide, hour long module on a subject no one cares about. I know which one I’d choose, even at my age.

These consumer-grade experiences, which our learners most certainly expect, are not being accepted and embraced by many of our old hat thought leaders. They’re not listening to what learners are shouting out from the rooftops (maybe they’re not yelling it out, but they’re showing their dissatisfaction through disengagement, high turnover and general apathy towards the business and learning). It’s time to open our eyes and ears to what the new wave of decision makers and innovators are saying.

There’s a reason why I have a team of directors at Thrive with an average age of 32 – because I know that some of my ways of working, my ways of thinking, are just not the way it needs to be. I’m not saying you need to completely discard these older thought-leaders, but what I am saying is start expanding your horizons. Stop looking beyond the norm and add some new flavour and thoughts into the content you consume from our industry. You won’t regret it.

I’ve mentioned our Learner Engagement Report and research with OnePoll through this article – it gave us a lot insight into the direction of our product development and enabled us to better understand key pain points of learners. You’re welcome to download it using the link below.

Thrive Learning - Learning Engagement Report call to action image

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