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ATD Blog

It's Not Peanut Butter Training

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Some years ago, I was brought into a C-suite meeting to hear about the next training program the leaders wanted. This discussion was different from most. The CEO said, “I don’t want peanut butter training.” Quizzical looks ensued. “You know, the kind of training that is spread like peanut butter on bread from edge to edge, across everyone, whether they need it or not.”

In today’s digital age, our training can be more targeted. If we break apart our massive, agglomerated target audience into several learner personas, we can provide people with learning assets that are pertinent to them, in their context, and in their moments of learning need. That’s how to get started on designing a learning cluster for modern learning.

Target audience descriptions are compilations of demographics that are common to the learners who will be taking the training. The description helps us design for the average learner. However, learners aren’t averages—especially in our increasingly diverse and inclusive workplace. Here’s an example of a group of learners who are being trained to implement a new quality assurance program:

Target audience: 250 quality assurance (QA) auditors who have been with the company for five to 20 years, work in manufacturing sites, and have a college education.

Learner Persona 1 (70 percent of target learners)

  • College educated (four to six years)
  • 10 to 20 years with company
  • New to QA
  • Typically transferred from line manager or the engineering group

Learner Persona 2 (10 percent of target learners)

  • College educated (four years)
  • One to five years with company
  • Hired into the QA role
  • Familiar with QA (either by degree or experience)

Learner Persona 3 (20 percent of target learners)

  • Technical education (technical school or two-year associate degree)
  • 10-20 years with company
  • New to QA
  • Transferred from the laboratory

If we use the peanut butter approach to training, we will create a program that’s focused on persona 1 and a standard target audience description. In this scenario, persona 2 would have to sit through basic QA training that they could probably teach, and persona 3 would likely be intimidated by the language, expectations, and responsibilities.

A better method would be to create a learning cluster of assets to train people in this new role. This allows us to teach them only what they don’t already know, and provide additional resources to those who need it.


Here’s one of many forms that this learning cluster could take, all of which is stored in the LMS or on a dedicated website.


The Benefits

A learning cluster can deliver benefits that peanut butter training isn’t designed to provide. A learning cluster can save learners time by focusing on what they don’t know, not on what they already know. It can drive learner engagement by allowing them self-direction. Learning clusters can also improve knowledge retention by using spaced learning and smaller learning bites. And designing a learning cluster can actually be easier for instructional designers because we no longer have to squeeze so much content into one learning asset. We can even deploy training faster by designing the most critical learning assets first and adding assets over time and as new learning needs emerge.

Using Learner Personas Where You Work

Think of the differences among learners in your target audiences. How can you use these differences to define your primary learner personas and deliver learning assets when, where, and how they need to learn. Here’s a few idea starters:

  • Where are learners when they want or need to learn? At home? On public transportation during a commute? In their workspace? In an area designated for learning that is away from distractions?
  • When will learners need to learn? Before meeting customers, teammates, or clients? When they run into problems? In a time-critical situation? When something changes?
  • How do learners need to learn? On devices? In a safe, simulated environment? In writing or online with lots of notes? With videos? In face-to-face classes? From peers or experts?

Let’s stop designing one-size-fits-all peanut butter training. Let’s start designing learning clusters with assets that meet the needs of our learner personas.

About the Author

Lisa M.D. Owens is a learning expert who applies learning sciences to create training programs that move businesses forward. She designs training for the in-person and virtual classrooms and the web. Lisa founded Training Design Strategies LLC in 2012 to help companies achieve their goals through the power of training. Beyond her current client work, she is an instructor for Ohio University’s instructional design graduate program and on GC-ASTD’s Executive Advisory Board. She is co-author of the college textbook Your Career: How to Make It Happen, the books Leaders as Teachers Action Guide and Lo start-up di una Corporate University, and a series of articles for CorpU on creating corporate universities. Lisa holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in education.

About the Author

Crystal Kadakia is a two-time TEDx speaker, author, and consultant on Millennials and the modern workplace. Her company, Invati Consulting, champions what she calls “talent-driven organization design” to modernize the workplace through speaking, training, and consulting solutions. Her mission is to enable organizations and talent to work together to revolutionize the workplace for today’s digital world. She reshapes the conversation on Millennials by providing a strong Millennial voice in a sea of Boomer and Gen X perspectives. She is the creator of the acclaimed virtual blended training program on generations, Generation University, and the Modern Culture Assessment, which drives organizations to strategically shift culture for the needs of modern employees. Crystal was named One to Watch by the Association for Talent Development and is a co-author of Your Career: How to Make It Happen. Before starting Invati Consulting, Crystal led multiple multimillion-dollar projects as a chemical engineer at Procter & Gamble. She transitioned successfully to training and development and led multiple global programs, including renewing the new hire technical university training program and standardizing onboarding globally. Today, she has given more than 50 talks and has influenced more than 1,000 leaders to shift their paradigm on the modern workplace. She is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and the Human Capital Institute.

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I appreciate the explicitness of the article. It really helps you to see the benefits of designing learning assets for different personas.
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Very insightful article. So true that there is now a need to develop learning activities/programs with increased personalization and not a one-size-fits-all approach. I would be curious to hear more about any insights or correlations discovered between tailored programs and engagement levels. Any significant metrics to consider?
Great! Thank you for the information.
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Net Promoter Score is a great way to see if tailored programs are feeling like they are "for me" (a central concept in the LCD model). Also, qualitative metrics shouldn't be discounted - they often tell the story that quantitative metrics miss out on. Monitoring how conversations and language shift, questions that are being asked, or other expressions can be powerful.
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