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Four Easy Tactics to Engage Your Passive Learners
Friday, June 14, 2013

For anyone who has been in the learning profession for any amount of time, it will come as no shock that only 10% of your organization are active learners—people who learn with the intention of changing and improving their behaviors.  The sad truth is that 60% of your organization are passive learners, who will “participate” and say all the right things to make you think they’ve learned what they were supposed to, but actually have no intention of leaving your learning events, activities, etc. and ever changing their behavior as a result. For all the time and money we invest in learning and development efforts, 10% of changed behavior as a result is just not an ROI that I or any other business leader should be comfortable with.

So what can we do to help increase the percentage of our workforce that learns actively and will use learning to improve their performance? How do we engage and motivate our employees when it comes to learning? How do we improve the ROI of our L&D/HR investments as well as equip our companies with higher performing, more agile employee populations?

Here are some suggestions and steps that you can take to help your employees move from the passive end of the learning spectrum to the active end.

1. Tap into motivation.  Identify what motivates people innately and then align your learning opportunities and systems with people’s motivations.  Meet learners on their terms, because most people will resist “company-mandated” learning. So instead of saying, “Hey, learn [insert skill, topic, etc.],” let learners decide what they have an interest in learning themselves. You may actually find that individuals are quite good at identifying their own skill deficiencies and taking self-directed action against remedying them.  When it comes to learning, put the employee in the decision-making seat so that the learning they engage in has more personal meaning and is more likely to change their behavior.  If an employee wants to get promoted but knows that they need to improve on x,y,z skills before that can happen, let them take charge of their own development and learn these self-identified skills.  That way, not only are they engaged in learning that will help them be more successful in their current role, but they also feel personally involved in and motivated by their learning.  If employees have skin in the game of their own learning, they are more likely to learn with the intention of changing and improving their behavior.


2. Make learning human. Let your employees learn from one another.  Instead of consulting a training manual or eLearning module, let your employees connect with other employees who can help them improve and grow.  Active learning will only increase by adding a human element to the learning equation.  People may not feel accountable to a training session or video, but they will feel the need to act on advice and recommendations from other human beings who are taking the time to advise and share highly personalized knowledge and experience with them.

3. Social learning technology is your friend.  Leverage the power of connecting an entire workforce for the purpose of accountable and active learning, and see a much larger impact as a result.  When I suggest using social technology, let me be clear and suggest that you connect your workforce for more than just friending, following and information blasting, which is what most social business systems provide.  These type of systems will only encourage more passive behavior, where people will lurk around posted information but never take an active role in the conversation. While these systems have a place in corporate communications, be sure to bring in a social system that facilitates learning, like River, where participation means taking an active role in the learning conversation.

4. Create a culture of learning.  Yes, this is a lofty goal, and it does require much work from all levels of the organization to realize it.  That said, there are absolutely things that you can act on today that will help you build a culture of open and active learning.  As a business leader, start by sharing your own knowledge with those around you, and then encourage others to follow suit. Maybe you do this in an internal webinar or a podcast, but let the learning and sharing start at the top and trickle down. Also, as mentioned above, let employees have a say about what they’d like to learn in order to increase active and engaged learning.  But don’t stop there, put in place reward mechanisms for people who actively contribute in learning activities and help others engage in learning. Humana does this by giving participants in their social learning software “wellness points,” which are points they can use to buy a gym membership, see a massage therapist, or participate in other “healthy” activities.  Reinforcing and rewarding those who contribute in active learning engagements will encourage others to also contribute and organically grow your organization’s level of active learning.

Note: This article is cross-posted on the blog at

About the Author
Randy Emelo is the founder and chief strategist at River, a Denver-based company that builds mentoring and social learning software. He has more than 25 years of experience in management, training, and leadership development, and is a prolific author, speaker, and thought leader on topics related to collaboration, mentoring, social learning, and talent development.

Throughout the years, Randy has embarked on a military career with the U.S. Navy, led leadership development work with nonprofits in the Americas, and helped Fortune 500 companies build mentoring and learning cultures in their organizations.

Randy holds a master’s degree in organizational design and effectiveness from Fielding Graduate University (formerly The Fielding Institute) in Santa Barbara, CA. Randy’s book, Modern Mentoring, is available now from ATD Press. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter @remelo.

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