In our first adventure in Insiders Insights, we speak with a learning expert who has seen the ins and outs of private, and public L&D. She has been part of the team, managed and also been a contractor.
Laura is a professional who represents one of the great ambitions many learning professionals have of not just setting off on their own but facing the challenge of establishing their own successful company.
1. The learning field is full of incredible professionals with a wide range of skills. What was your journey like getting into the learning field?
My journey into digital learning involved a bit of luck, some good timing, and a few useful and necessary failures along the way. It started when I did my degree in Applied Psychology and Computing at the turn of the Millenium. This was my foundation in the psychology of human-computer interaction, exploring how people use tech for interpersonal communication and learning. It was good timing because my Psychology degree was this particular ‘tech’ flavour and I started it in 1999, at the dawn of mass adoption of the internet and web 2.0, the content of which today is even more relevant than ever – who knew?! After this, I followed my interest in how people learn in Education and trained to be a secondary ICT teacher, but I was a terrible teacher, and I’m so thankful now that I failed to get any of the teaching jobs I applied for! My failure to make the impact I wanted as a teacher in the classroom, and instead follow my interest in pedagogy and technology, led me into the closely related field of e-learning and quite honestly, I’ve never looked back.
I did a contract in the NHS implementing a Learning Management System and managing e-learning solutions across several Trusts. This was without doubt, the single best sidestep that I could have taken out of Education, and which gave me my first exposure to the field of Learning & Development in a work setting, and helped develop my skills in project management, multi-disciplinary consultancy, learning platform configuration and implementation, learning design, and adult training delivery.
After this I got snapped up by the vendor of the LMS I was implementing which was Kallidus (called e2train back then which is certainly a sign of the times) and went to work for the ‘dark side’ as some of my colleagues joked at the time. Kallidus was much smaller then than it is now, which meant I gained so much experience and breadth of skills as for a while I was the only Learning Consultant delivering all of the client-facing professional services on all their LMS implementations across the UK and Europe. I literally wore all the hats; project manager, learning consultant, trainer, and even designed all their client-facing Admin training programmes from the ground up, as well as establishing and putting into place a set of standardised LMS implementation project processes. It was an experience that would be hard to replicate now with so many vendors being much more compartmentalised in their internal structure.
Since then, I’ve worked both vendor and client side in all things project management and digital learning, and even ran a managed learning service for some major hospitality brands at one point, and then 5 years ago I started my own independent digital learning consultancy, which is very much “platform agnostic”. I recognised that all organisations are on a journey of digital transformation, that learning is at the heart of all progress and growth, and the world of digital learning is confusing, saturated, and extremely hard to navigate. So, I started Learn Fox, which is a straight-talking digital learning consultancy that helps organisations develop their digital learning strategy, select the right tools and platforms to deploy their strategy, and learning design to ensure it delivers the necessary impact.
2. Looking at that journey and the 17+ years of experience you have; how does that shape what you do at Learn Fox?
My experience fuses together skills and knowledge across Psychology, Education and Technology, gained through formal learning and qualifications, but most importantly experientially, through hundreds of projects in the field which I believe is quite a unique combination. This has had a huge influence on shaping my holistic approach at Learn Fox, which considers the three key components of People, Content, and Technology when developing a digital learning strategy or designing learning experiences.
The People component is about really understanding the psychology of your audience/s and stakeholders. Who are they? What problems are you trying to solve for them and what really makes them tick? What’s their learning culture? How can you differentiate them and define learning personas and detailed user stories to articulate what they need?
The Content component is about getting to grips with what your audiences need to know or do. What do people need to be upskilled in? Is there an existing skills taxonomy? What content already exists and in what formats? What’s missing and how are these gaps going to be plugged (through building, buying, or borrowing for example)?
The Technology component is then around what tech needs to be used to build, design, and deploy the learning solutions to your audiences? What learning tech or platform is going to be able to deliver the learning experience your audiences need, deliver the metrics your business requires, and empower your teams to build, curate, and deploy learning solutions easily?
These three components are discrete areas for consideration but are clearly interrelated. Understanding your audiences via a thorough needs analysis will help inform how the learning content needs to be designed and delivered, and the functionality required in the tech, tools, and platforms that need to be implemented. Likewise auditing your content and understanding the gaps will determine your content strategy and help inform the functionality required of the technology in a platform. This holistic approach really helps organisations choose the right technology to deliver learner-focused solutions that are effective, engaging, and ultimately sustainable.
3. From the top-down, instructional design looks like one cohesive industry but some would argue we are split between groupings of corporate, academic, government and non-profit approaches. Your work crosses all these groupings, so how does your approach, and process differ in these sectors?
I have worked across all sectors, from hospitality to healthcare and everything in-between. From large corporates to education, training organisations to charities, and across a variety of use cases, from the internal staff training use case owned by L&D, to extended enterprise, mixed internal/ external audiences, B2B and B2C training companies. The variety is extensive and one of the reasons I love my job!
But honestly, the process required to fully understand the requirements, do a thorough needs analysis, and design and deploy learning experiences that make the intended impact is the same for every organisation regardless of their size, industry, or use case. The holistic approach I adopt really does integrate the different strands and ensure a cohesive approach to any digital learning initiative regardless of sector.
4. Technology is a key aspect of our role and can be a defining factor in the success of some programs. Can you talk to some of the technology, tools, and platforms that you find work?
The Technology component in my holistic approach is really the key enabler to deliver the learning strategies and solutions. It’s certainly not the only factor in determining the success or failure of landing a new initiative in the business (for example you’ve got activation and comms as a key component, not to mention good learning experience design) but it’s pretty critical. With the technology, firstly you’ve got the learning platform itself, and I have done dozens of client LMS selection and vendor screening processes. The key here is to do a really thorough needs analysis and map your user stories and business needs to the functional, admin, and technical requirements for your platform search and then prioritise them. This will help you identify your key differentiating ‘Must haves’, which will then allow you to draw up a targeted longlist of potential platforms that cater well for your particular use case. There’s well over 800 learning platforms on the market, some more well known and/or established than others, but many with a different set of USPs to consider and match to your unique requirements. So, it's hard to mention some as I’ve reviewed, used, and selected many different ones.
You’ve then got content tools to consider. You might have in-built authoring capability in your learning platform, but these could include external content authoring tools to allow to build in-house (like Articulate Rise, Adapt Builder, Gomo, Elucidat, Evolve etc.), content curation and aggregation tools like Anders Pink, and other tools to add to your in-house toolkit to create engaging visuals such as Canva (a must in my opinion).
5. For new starters in the field, it can be difficult to know what skills to focus on first. What would you consider some key indicators of a good instructional designer?
Definitely start with being needs focused rather than solution-focused. It’s not just about storyboarding some learning to be developed in an e-learning authoring tool, even if that’s the brief your client has given you. Always take a step back and ensure the needs analysis has been done. It might not be part of your role in a project to do this piece of work yourself, in which case always ask the challenging questions and don’t be afraid to raise things that might challenge the current thinking.
Don’t get focused on wearing one hat as a learning designer – you might start out with skills with a particular design approach or a particular tool, but broaden your skillset into other areas wherever your interests take you such as Project Management, Product Development, Agile Delivery, and Consulting. These other areas will boost what you have to offer and help you add more value to the teams and organisations you work in and with.
Always be curious to learn and develop, building on current skills and be aware of the human-centred skills you can add to boost the value you bring.
6. As you’ve said, there are a lot of skills and knowledge that goes into getting a product completed. But what is the best approach for launching a new online training product?
Being agile! Start small and get an initial minimum viable product (MVP) out there, then iterate, refine, and keep improving on it. The biggest mistake is trying to ‘eat the elephant’. If you wait for your product to be completely ‘ready’ it never will be, because the requirements and solutions designed to fulfil them will constantly evolve. So, take the time to establish what can bring the smallest amount of value to your customers (or end-users) to solve their existing problem and get it into their hands as soon as possible so you can start benefiting from their feedback, and tweaking and evolving it.
7. You’ve had experience as a freelance consultant and now work as your own boss in a consultancy firm. That must be exciting but very demanding. What would you say are some of the biggest challenges of leading your own firm?
The biggest challenge is juggling being business focused and developing and maintaining the pipeline, whilst also keeping fresh and relevant and ‘in the know’ on understanding my stakeholders needs and challenges and what the latest tech is offering. I find doing regular contracts and stints being embedded in the L&D functions of big organisations like Unilever (who are quite pioneering with their future-fit skills agenda) keeps me up to speed with what’s actually going on in the field, working closely with some of my long-term clients like a coaching business I’m helping to develop and launch new training products, and building my own online academy to practice what I preach keeps my experience of being in my client’s shoes up-to-date.
Another challenge is making the time to collaborate with peers and business partners. You learn so much experientially through working with others and sharing expertise. I have to actively seek out my own opportunities for this as I’m running my own business, and not on the receiving end of my employer’s L&D initiatives.
8. This industry is constantly changing due to emerging research and innovative technologies. How do you keep yourself up to date and what practices can new designers take on board to help them do the same?
I’ve been lucky that part and parcel of my role means that I’m supporting many platform selections and get to screen a lot of vendors, so I review a lot of new technologies all the time. This is usually done through the lens of a particular client or use case, but this year I’ve started doing promotional product reviews for vendors and suppliers as guest Analytst published on Learning Light, and for me this is such an excellent way of keeping my product knowledge up-to-date and being informed of the latest innovations in the industry to share with my clients.
I would say for learning designers who aren’t so hands-on with the technology, seek out the opportunities to get under the hood of the tech that your customers are using so you understand the whole user experience (how the learning solutions you’re designing are delivered or surfaced to the end-users), try and see product demos when possible, sign up to vendor webinars and definitely go along to Learning Technologies and attend the free seminars for a flavour of what’s going on.
9. Lastly, are there any other professionals that you follow or influence your practice?
I think we can all learn something from everyone we work with in one way or another. I follow lots of thought leaders and companies that interest me on LinkedIn and love connecting with and collaborating with other professionals that inspire me. Here are a few that I’d call out - Alison Jones (Learning Rebel at Unilever), Michelle Parry-Slater (Kairos Learning), Mark Bethelmey, David Patterson (Learning Light), Shane Traill (First Media), Monique Snijder and Sophie Michielse who have both done associate learning design for Learn Fox.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Laura and for being the first in our series!
You can find out more about Laura's practice and her amazing company here.
(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).