Creating a Well-Designed Learning Journey

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

A well-designed learning journey takes great content and structures it in a way that provides a fun, engaging, and culturally relevant experience for participants. That’s exactly what Brian O’Neill accomplished as director of learning and organizational development at Aimco—and it’s what won him and the company an ATD BEST Award for design. L&D professionals considering their own designs can pick up a couple of key tips by following O’Neill’s process.

From Best Practice to Next Practice

O’Neill realized there were several off-the-shelf training programs that offered best-practice skills training, but he wanted to take the best practice to the next practice. He knew that while the well-known leadership training programs offered valid content, they didn’t speak to the nuances of a company’s history, culture, vision, and values.

“We needed something that married and aligned content from the vendor with our own cultural pillars,” says O’Neill in a recent article outlining the process, “And we needed to be able to deliver it virtually to our leaders nationwide.”

O’Neill’s solution was to partner with his training vendor to create a customized program called Leading for Impact.

In the program, which has a mountain-climbing theme, participants begin the journey with an interactive webinar known as base camp. This is where they learn about the learning platform and the different content areas—called climbs—they will access during the course of their development. After base camp, leaders complete a 360-degree assessment that drives a conversation with their leader to determine the order and priority of climbs.

Initially, five climbs—based on Aimco’s five cultural pillars—are being offered monthly through the company’s LMS. The structure of climbs is similar: Participants attend a meetup webinar to join their teammates at the beginning of each climb and a summit webinar when they reach the end of the climb. They have access to online support tools, articles, and worksheets that can be used to refresh and review the content.


As O’Neill explains, “For example, we introduce SLII, from The Ken Blanchard Companies, but people don’t go to an SLII class. They go to an Owning It Climb, where the four handholds on the rock wall metaphor are leadership styles, setting SMART goals, diagnosing, and matching. We teach the concepts of SLII while focusing on our cultural pillars, so much of the content is within the context of owning our decisions, advocating for autonomy, putting decision making as close to the customer as possible, and so on.”

“The program design is very interactive and engaging. In addition to learning from the online content, we ask participants to describe themselves at each of development levels of SLII then post pictures to Yammer that depict what they are feeling. The sharing of information keeps people involved so it doesn’t feel like 100 percent self-study.”

O’Neill’s results have been impressive. The Leading for Impact program has enabled Aimco to get leadership skills to over three times more people than in past years. Even better has been the ability to do so while dramatically reducing the costs per learner.

O’Neill says that Aimco will monitor other areas in the future, such as promotion rates and high-potential scores. But for now, the main goal is to get everyone a core set of active leadership skills.


For leadership, learning, and talent development professionals considering an upgrade of their own learner journeys, O’Neill offers some advice.

“Any time an organization launches a new training initiative, it comes with a need for managing the change. I was surprised to hear some people’s concerns about training on a computer. And some people weren’t sure that they could find time for training during their regular work week even though we were only asking for 30 minutes.”

The key, says O’Neill, is to remind people that learning and development are as critical as any other element of their job for the end result of performance.

“Some will embrace concepts faster than others, so it is crucial to meet people where they are in the process and help them move forward. Changes like this require a shift in thinking for some people, but once they get on board, they become your biggest advocates.”

Congratulations to Brian O’Neill and the entire team at Aimco for a job well done. You can read a more detailed account of their design process in the article “Aligning Leadership Development to Corporate Culture.”

About the Author

Scott Blanchard is a principal and executive vice president of The Ken Blanchard Companies. He is also co-founder of Blanchard’s Coaching Services, which has coached more than 10,000 clients worldwide. Since joining Blanchard, he has held numerous roles, including trainer and organizational consultant. As a senior consulting partner, he led major training interventions at numerous Fortune 500 companies.

Blanchard is the author of several books, including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, co-authored with Madeleine Homan, Leading at a Higher Level, and is the co-author of the Blanchard Coaching Essentials training program.

He was educated at Cornell University and received his master’s degree in organizational development from American University in Washington D.C.

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