Human-Centered Instruction

The way many companies approach Learning and Development (L&D) today is ineffective. In an attempt to bring development to the workplace, L&D and human resource teams frequently apply generic training in the form of offsite programs and seminars. These outdated methods of instruction are hurting companies. Employees retain less than half of all instruction and training they receive, and in engineering, where I focus my training efforts, retention is even worse.

Over the years, I've found that there are three distinct reasons for low retention and failed training.

First, there is little attention paid to the relevance of materials. When materials are not rooted in the company's culture and norms, employees assume that the materials were not intended for them. Second, materials are rarely real or based on pragmatic examples. When content is abstract, it not only has lower relevance but it frequently contains no practical examples or situations to which learners can relate. Finally, instruction is not designed to be repeated. Many companies create training only to perform it once, failing to do additional training as new employees join the company.

It's proven that when training isn't relevant, real, or repeatable, it is less effective. Companies that have invested in modern Learning & Development strategies have discovered an alternative approach to building instruction.

That approach is called human-centered instruction, and it optimizes for a high signal-to-noise ratio, crafting content specifically to learner needs.

Human-centered instruction (HCN), developed in 2015, uses cognitive theory and adult learning principles in a three-phase approach to create high-relevance training materials. Through the three phases of Exploration, Creation, and Integration, HCN strives to make corporate training relevant, real, and repeatable. As shown in the following examples from LinkedIn, Nav Inc, and Google, the value HCN provides at every step of training development results in more effective instruction.

Exploration: Creating Relevance with HCN at LinkedIn

Building relevant instruction begins with understanding both the desired outcomes for the company and the needs and goals of the learners. Conducting interviews, involving subject matter experts, and understanding company culture are necessary steps to creating relevant training that learners can relate to. LinkedIn's Human Resources and Learning & Development teams discovered a consistent trait in their management team. In a survey of their engineers, employees pointed to their manager's inability to adapt to individuals in the team whose personalities didn't align with the manager's personal style. This behavior resulted in several instances where extroverted managers unintentionally silenced team members and employees felt less valued.

In interviewing these managers, LinkedIn discovered that leaders were unaware that their actions were problematic. LinkedIn developed a program called ManageIn around this central behavior in order to educate first-time managers about their new role. As Pat Wadors, former VP of Talent, describes the results, managers who went into the training "were better prepared and eager to change. They recognized that diversity of thought and creating a high performing, engaged team was critical to all of our success." By asking the right questions at the outset, LinkedIn was able to craft their training around a single management behavior and create a program that was relevant to their specific context.

As the ManageIn training program grew, LinkedIn's L&D group identified another need. New engineering managers who had completed the training continued to struggle with the fundamentals of management. Focusing specifically on the engineering organization and employing the same strategies used to develop ManageIn, LinkedIn discovered that as the more general ManageIn program grew, the influx of non-engineering managers into the program was making it difficult for engineers to talk candidly about problems specific to managing engineers.

In response, LinkedIn collaborated with their engineering team and created the Apprentice Management Program, a cohort-based model that focused uniquely on engineering management issues based on interviews conducted by L&D with engineering managers. Engineering managers who completed the program described it as "transformational," "the best training I've been in," and "all the stuff I wish ManageIn could have taught me."

By caring deeply about the learner's needs, LinkedIn was able to create two new training programs that really met those needs. The company saw more than an eight percent increase in how highly employees rated their engineering managers. Over time, this has directly resulted in higher retention and longer tenure among employees.

Creation: Real Instruction with HCN at Nav

Human-centered instruction goes beyond the creation of a simple slide deck. Based on the learnings gained during the Exploration phase, a slide-based presentation (or even getting the team together for in-person training) may not be the right kind of instruction. Modern workforces are increasingly relying on "snackable" videos and putting skills into practice as a form of homework. Remote workforces make traditional instructional styles difficult. Building the right instruction requires an iterative approach.

As participants begin learning and new understandings emerge, training must evolve to meet those emerging needs. By adapting the material and the delivery methods in concert with these changes, training can remain relevant and grounded in the current company culture and values.

At Nav Inc, the company was migrating from Angular to React. To prepare junior engineers for the transition, the company created time for employees to learn the new framework through blogs, video presentations, and the online learning site As the migration progressed, junior engineers continued to struggle with migrating and managing code in transition.

When I created custom technical training modules for Nav, we believed from interviews and code samples that the learner problem was rooted in a lack of understanding about why the organization was moving from Angular to React. To test this theory, the first instructional module of React Ready focused on the history of React and the unique approach that the framework took to solving UI problems.

By the end of the first session of React Ready, it was clear that the problem was more complex than what was discovered in the original Exploration phase. During workshops, junior engineers struggled to create working code specifically within the Nav environment. A series of conversations and evaluations after the first training pointed to the next hurdle: proprietary code built by senior engineers to ease the transition from Angular to React.

Without an iterative approach to instruction, the second training module would have focused exclusively on extending the knowledge of the React ecosystem, and it would not have met with much success. Instead, we adapted the training.

In place of workshop instruction, individual one-to-one training was used to reinforce React fundamentals and ensure that all engineers had a shared understanding of the original framework before modification.

Once a baseline understanding was reached, the second workshop focused on the reality of the Nav codebase. Checking out code from git and applying it to their branches, junior engineers followed the same integration steps that ultimately led to the proprietary code that the senior engineers had created.

The final result, a training course called React Ready, taught the theory of React and Redux, provided hands-on workshops for applying React to the existing codebase, and prepared the organization to complete their conversion to React with confidence. While slides were valuable for context, the majority of learning and education occurred in workshop pods where developers paired up to implement code and follow the path taken by senior engineering.

Integration: Repeatable Training with HCN at Google

Instruction that ends when the training session is over holds little value for most organizations. The process of learning is evergreen, and the educator must not only work to train the organization but must also "train the trainers", increasing the number of in-house instructors available to the organization. This is the only way instruction can be sustainable, adaptable, and scalable. Scaling requires subsequent iterations of training programs, allowing them to both grow and more deeply address learners' needs.

There is perhaps no better example of scaling instruction than Google's re:Work project. Started in 2008 under the name Project Oxygen, Google undertook one of the most extensive Exploration phases imaginable. The goal was to understand what engineers wanted from their managers. Using data from over 10,000 employees, Google arrived at a series of key behaviors shared by all strong Google managers.

In the Creation phase, Google followed a path similar to LinkedIn by creating their own New Manager Program. When the program launched, Google saw similar improvements to employee satisfaction, retention, and growth. Unlike LinkedIn's approach, when scaling up presented a relevancy problem to engineers, Google did something unique to Google's culture.

Instead of creating a separate training custom-tailored to the needs of the engineering organization, Google opted to equip senior employees with the skills they needed to conduct the training themselves. Provided through the company's unique Googler to Googler sessions, instructors were given latitude to adapt and evolve the company's training materials to their learners.

By combining formal and informal courses, as well as formal and informal teachers, Google was able to train many more engineering managers at a quicker rate than they could have otherwise. To scale the training further, Google formalized the tools and materials for teaching Google's unique style of management and leadership. Released as "re:Work", Google made it possible for other companies to leverage the work of Google and create their own customized training experiences.

More than a half dozen companies have shared their re:Work stories, applying their own unique Exploration and Creation steps and leveraging Google's fantastic Integration work.

Bringing HCN to Your Company

While the stories of human-centered instruction shared here focus on larger organizations, technology behemoths like LinkedIn and Google do not hold a monopoly on excellent training. Nav Technologies, the company I highlighted above, has 25 folks in engineering. At all sizes, getting engineering teams aligned helps companies move quickly and deliver value.

Size isn't a barrier to great training and developing talent. Any company can create training that is relevant, real, and repeatable. When training is "relevant", retention is higher. Training that is "real" will adapt with the needs of the learners and changes in the company. "Repeatable" training ensures that anything built can continue to grow, adapt, and scale to the company.

The three facets of human-centered instruction, Exploration, Creation, and Integration, map directly to the goal of creating relevant, real, and repeatable instruction. The result is a more effective way to approach Learning & Development at any company. Whether you do this with your in-house L&D team or with a consultancy that specializes in human-centered instruction, applying these principles will improve your training programs and transform your employees for the better.