The Business of Learning - learning ecosystems

As an instructional designer, I spend a good deal of time thinking about stories when working on a learning project. My primary goal during my early meetings with a client is to determine the overarching story that will structure the learning event. Then I gather as many anecdotes as possible from subject matter experts so that I can provide context for concepts, illustrate technical points and generally keep the learner engaged.

Listening to subject matter experts tell their stories has always been one of my favorite moments in the design process, not only because the tales from the front enrich and enliven a learning event, but also because the stories interest me and sometimes move me in unexpected ways. I’ve laughed out loud learning the creative ways employees have misinterpreted a policy and been moved to tears while listening to a nurse explain how she saved the life of a teenage girl through an impromptu training session in the middle of a night. But it was only recently that I realized how important the act of storytelling itself was to a project’s ultimate success. In telling their stories, the subject matter experts weren’t just providing me with useful material, they were bringing me into their world, showing me who they were and thereby establishing connections.

In reflecting on the power of the subject matter experts’ stories, I came to realize that I didn’t just use stories to demonstrate a successful learning strategy or illustrate my expertise with a certain tool. Telling stories helped me establish connections as well. Because I don’t work directly with subject matter experts, I can’t draw from shared experiences to inspire trust. What I can do, however, is share stories to help my partners understand who I am and how I work. A story may not be worth 1000 hours spent in meetings, conference calls and side-by-sides, but it can help strengthen a working relationship.

My newfound recognition of a story’s power to build partnerships led me to think about the stories I’ve shared in the past with subject matter experts. Which stories seemed to break through barriers? And which ones created them? What I discovered was that the more honest a story, the more effective it was, even if meant exposing mistakes or weaknesses. In fact, I realized that, more often than not, it was my willingness to show my vulnerability, rather than a demonstration of my strength, which enabled a connection with my partners. When I explained the reason for an instructional design choice by describing a mistake I made, the client didn’t run away. Instead, they listened more closely to what I had to say and ended up opening up to me as well.

Even though I acknowledge that the power of honest stories can expose vulnerability and strengthen relationships, I don’t think I am brave enough to share my mistakes and flaws with clients on a regular basis. And I certainly don’t recommend exposing weaknesses as a business strategy. However, I believe that a willingness to share such stories when relevant and appropriate can and does strengthen partnerships. Since I know that strong partnerships result in successful learning solutions, I think exposing my own vulnerabilities can be worth the risk.

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