The high my learning team and I get when we make a difference in someone’s life is incredibly rewarding, even addictive at times. To get this result, however, solutions must address a real pain in that person’s life. And, straight from the school of hard-knocks, the first step toward a successful learning program is to get in the trenches and garner a truly deep understanding of that pain.

Learn Directly from the Learners
A few years ago, I passed a project to a newer developer. I shared the project documentation, aligned with him on the vision (or so I thought), then stepped out of his way. What I did not know was how little he knew about our learners’ needs. When a stakeholder boldly shifted the direction of the project, the learners were not viewed as a valuable resource and were not consulted. The result? Low uptake, low impact, and a lot of wasted time.

My mentor once challenged, “If you only listen to yourselves, then you’re not listening.” In this instance, we were not listening.

Start Collecting Voice of Learner (VOL)
Voice of Learner (VOL) stems from the concept of Voice-of-Customer, which is customer feedback, preferences, and requirements regarding your deliverable. In VOL, the “customer” is your learner.

To collect VOL, get in the trenches:

  • Interview the learners: use empathic listening to get an inside view of their pain—what caused it, what’s it like to live it, what could make it go away?
  • If possible, watch learners in action to see their pain first-hand (in Lean terminology, this is called going to the Gemba).

WARNING: Collecting real VOL can be powerful for
increasing the impact of learning programs.

Collecting VOL delivers a greater sense of empathy. It also provides real-world examples learners can relate to and even ideas for simple ways to reduce learners’ pain. Although these interactions can be time-consuming, they enable real problem solving (and perhaps keep you from wasting precious time).

The long and short: to exclude VOL from strategy sessions or a project needs assessment poses a significant project risk (or, at a minimum, a great deal of wasted opportunity).

Ask the Right Questions Up Front
A well-defined template for your project charter (scope document, needs assessment, etc.) can help you drive consistent VOL collection within your team. It can include a list of standard headers or questions such as the following:

  • “Problem Statements” from the business and the learner’s perspectives (both are essential elements)
  • “Learner Requirements” from interviews and observations, including critical success factors in the eyes of the learners
  • “Expected Impact of Project Deliverables,” which contains targets for improving business metrics and learner behaviors
  • “Subject Matter Experts and Learners to Involve,” both of whom will be necessary to include in the conversation throughout development
  • “Plan for Effective Reviews” by all critical players, including and especially the learners

IMPORTANT: The charter must speak to the business need and business metrics.
Luckily, however, to lessen the learners’ pain is often to positively affect the business.

Review the Plan—with Learners
Don’t stop at learning from the learner and drafting a charter that includes Voice-of-Learner. Learners are valuable for checking work. Does the program really address the pain? Have learners review the charter to catch an ineffective direction early, while the stakes are low.

With that said, when we’ve spent quality time in the trenches, we find that we rarely stumble upon an ineffective direction—and I expect you will find the same.

Questions to Fredrickson Learning & the learning community:

  • How do you collect Voice of Learner, and how does this play into your program development?
  • Who is the customer when you develop learning—the learner, the business, both?

2 Comments on “Get in the trenches: Voice of Learner speaks volumes and drives results

  1. Jay Kasdan

    Great article Katie – I’ll share my thoughts. As design is part science and art – I think everyone might have a different opinion on your questions.

    I always believe the business is the client as they pay the bills no matter if they are an internal client or an external client. The client pays our salaries. So it is important to remember our role in learning is to drive results for the company.

    For where you gather voice of learner. Definitely in the analysis, design, development, as well as measurement strategy. Often they aren’t considered at all. Your article does a great job of explaining why involving learners is important to both the learners and the business.

  2. Rebecca Kuhlman

    Fantastic post, Katie!

    I would say that at Fredrickson Learning, we strive to collect both learner and business perspectives. It’s hardest to involve learners in a project when they are geographically dispersed, travel most of the time, or are generally unavailable due to the nature of their work (e.g. working in a manufacturing or retail setting where they don’t have dedicated “desk time.”) A great discussion topic is how to address these types of learners during learning design.


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