This blog is about how we brought a new learning approach to a global engineering company - based on storytelling. If you want to learn more about our approach to digital learning, check out our Digital content outsourcing services.
Stories and digital learning for grown-ups
Once upon a time there was an Instructional Designer called Niamh. One day, Niamh's boss sent her to visit a client and told her that she must use her magic powers to convince them that a story-based approach was best idea for their project...
Ok so it wasn't exactly like that, but not far off. The client was a global engineering firm and the scepticism was palpable in early meetings. To their credit, they agreed to the idea and put their faith in us, despite the obvious departure from the training norm.
Knowing versus changing
On the surface, the course was to provide 'an awareness of' a new managerial concept. And, as you may know from previous blogs on our site, that's a real eLearning room 101 phrase with us.
'But why do you want them to be aware of this? What are they going to do differently?' These are always the toughest answers to get. After some probing, we realised that really this course was about culture change; doing things in a better and more holistic way.
If we'd stuck with the idea of awareness-raising, we could have produced a short course or even explainer animation that would give learners an overview of the new concepts. We could even have done a short quiz to prove that they now had 'an awareness of' the concepts. The client might have been happy and my job would certainly have been a lot easier, but would it have changed anything? I doubt it very much. Staff would have complained - I'm an adult, get me out of this eLearning!
Raising awareness is like studying for an exam. You remember what you need to know to pass the test then, generally, promptly forget it all and carry on as normal. To effectively change habits and change a company's culture, you need to challenge people's perceptions and make them question how they do things. You can't just tell people to change; you need to make new concepts relevant and integrated into their everyday working lives. The culture can only change if the individual does.
"Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."
Why use a story?
The art of storytelling is as old as people. Stories have been used in cultures and religions across the world to convey memorable messages to people; think of The Bible or Aesop's Fables. We like stories and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that they're more memorable than facts alone.
Stories, especially if well-written, allow you to engage with the characters and to care about what happens to them. We can witness a character making a mistake, and we can learn from that without having to make the mistake ourselves or admit that we would have made the same mistake.
“While we are all often resistant to the idea of being told what to do, we are very susceptible to agreeing
Our story for the engineers
So back to changing the culture of an engineering organisation. Knowing what we know about the power of story-telling, we were sure that this would be the best way to convey the new concepts in a meaningful way and, crucially, embed them in everyday life.
Using modern Instructional design techniques and working with the subject matter experts (SMEs), we came up with a course outline that followed the story of a project from start to finish. The story was divided into seven scenes, with each scene covering one or two key teaching points. While there were some nuggets of theory, the story was the main vehicle for conveying and reinforcing those messages.
We devised the story by having a range of characters represent each role in the project – we introduced each character at the relevant point in the story as the project evolved. Each character demonstrated through their actions and conversations, how the new managerial concepts could be applied in their role, without ever mentioning the concepts. This helped the realism but also the digestibility and ‘stickiness’ of the content.
Conversations between characters had decision points where the learner had to decide what the best answer or action would be. In this way, learners were encouraged to think about the content and consider how they would act in a similar situation. Rather than just tell them the theory, we helped them apply that theory to realistic project situations; and then demonstrated the consequences of those choices.
"If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating useability of knowledge about a subject."
Psychologist, Jerome Bruner
The content of each scene was further reinforced with video and PDF case studies from real projects, similar to the examples and situations shown in the story.
The challenges of devising an interesting story for training
For all its merit, I'm not going to pretend that it was a painless process to construct a realistic story for this particular training challenge. Here are some of the challenges we faced:
- Stories for grown-ups can be a hard sell.
- We had to rely heavily on the SMEs to provide the detail of the examples. If examples aren't realistic, the story won't ring true to learners.
- SMEs questioned why we couldn't do a quick 'awareness raising' course that would be less time-consuming for them.
- Writing realistic conversations is much more difficult than writing theory.
- Writing thought-provoking scenarios and branching decision-points is more difficult than writing a multi-choice theory question.
A good client relationship is key to working through challenges. Encourage SMEs to voice concerns and respond to them so they don't lose faith in the process. Remind them of the end goal and the importance of this training in affecting change in their organisation. Help them wherever you can by providing clear tasks, deadlines, gentle reminders and any templates or other assistance you can give. For the writing challenges, I relied on the help and input of colleagues. Two, or three, heads are better than one.
The result of pushing through the storytelling challenge
Bearing all that in mind, was it worth it? Thankfully, the answer is definitely yes. The final course has been very well received by all the key stakeholders in the company and, more importantly, by the learners themselves.
Here's some feedback we've received
In a follow-up survey of learners who completed the course, over 90% said they were now
Stories are powerful tools and are appropriate for any target audience. At Logicearth, we pride ourselves on our storytelling abilities. Maybe next time, we can tell yours.
Stories for behaviour and culture change
We are specialists in helping organisations with culture and behavioural change – through stories, scenarios and other digital learning techniques like gamification, animation or drama-based learning. Check out our Content development services - we provide a range of innovative techniques, just like those mentioned in this blog.