As companies plan their path to recovery, corporate learning will play a prominent and visible role. Learning organizations are faced with a dual challenge: first, how to quickly develop the individual and organizational capabilities needed to emerge from the economic crisis, and second, how to deliver the cultural change required for inclusive work environments where diversity can thrive.

Social justice has rightfully driven societal conversation recently, and the disruptions caused by the ongoing pandemic exposed additional aspects of diversity and revealed gaps of inclusion as work became more distributed and remote. Such considerations include the realities of people’s life experiences as they juggle work with other responsibilities; unequal access to technology; and the different cultures that make up the modern, global organization.

The result is that issues of diversity and inclusion (D&I) are coming to the fore, not just in specific D&I initiatives but across organizational development programs in general. For inclusivity to stick, workplace learning experiences must be aligned with a company’s overall purpose, be tailored to its culture and support the needs of diverse learners. To achieve these goals, learning and development (L&D) professionals can leverage three design principles to put diversity and inclusion at the core of learning at work.

1. Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience means developing a deep understanding of learners as well as the culture of the organization before designing and rolling out new training initiatives. At the learner level, it means following the basic principles of learner-centric design — knowing:

    • Who learners are.
    • What their experience with learning is.
    • What they already know.
    • How, when and where they access learning.
    • What has been successful in the past.

At the organizational level, knowing your audience means careful consideration of the organizational context in which the learning will happen. Are there desired cultural changes or specific values the company wants to promote? In the current atmosphere of uncertainty, it is especially important for employees to understand how a company envisions the future.

2. Design for Authenticity

When designing learning experiences with diversity and inclusion at the core, carefully consider the resources and assessments to include in the program to ensure the experiences are authentic. Authentic learning experiences address real-world problems and fit into an organization’s work and culture.

For content, consider whether generic, off-the-shelf resources will meet the needs of learners and support the desired organizational outcomes. Sometimes, objectives might be better met through the use of internal resources and leaders who can convey messages with more impact than actors. Pay careful attention to the faces, scenarios and cultures portrayed in the learning experience. When including images, use photos of diverse people in authentic work situations. Use a variety of cultures when naming people in your scenarios, but be careful not to associate diverse names with problems and negative behaviors and “white” American names as model examples. Carelessness here can be just as bad as never using diverse names or images — and possibly worse.

Assessments also need to be authentic. Authentic assessments provide learners with opportunities to learn in the context of real work. If the goal is to shift mindsets and behaviors, does the learning experience provide opportunities for practice and application? Reflections and role-plays, for example, can help learners understand how to apply learning to their job within the context of the organization.

Finally, consider whether one size fits all. Depending on the audience and the objectives, in some cases, the answer will be “yes.” Others, depending on the needs of the learner and the context, may require differentiated experiences. Learners may benefit from connecting with peers through affinity groups, and you may need to introduce coaches and mentors to the learning experience to provide support and reinforcement.

3. Use Technology Wisely

Learning, just like work itself, is dependent on technology in today’s distributed work environment. The great experiment of remote work during the pandemic has demonstrated the possibility of remaining connected. At the same time, challenges have emerged around knowing which technology to use for which activity, how to achieve engagement and psychological safety online, and how to accommodate the technical and life difficulties of working from home. These challenges are mirrored — and even enhanced — when designing inclusive learning programs.

Use videoconferencing judiciously. While it is great to see people’s faces, it can be hard to maintain engagement over extended periods of time, especially as inevitable technical glitches interrupt the flow of the experience. For learning to be inclusive, learners must be seen and heard. This can be difficult when interruptions move the camera focus, awkward pauses stall the conversation or a bad connection garbles a comment. To overcome these challenges, establish protocols and expectations for the learning experience.

Inclusive learning experiences are fundamentally collaborative and create connections between learners and with the organization. However, collaborative experiences do not necessarily depend on having people together in a room or on a video-conference at the same time. Asynchronous learning models can help by providing flexible access to learning that is independent of time and location while enabling increased reflection and more engagement with other learners — all with less pressure than a live event.

Charting the Path to Inclusion

As organizations strive to develop more inclusive cultures that value the contributions of diverse voices, L&D will play a critical role in driving sustainable change. Every organization is unique, and every learner is unique. By focusing on learners’ needs and understanding the culture of an organization, designing authentic learning experiences, and using technology wisely, L&D can go beyond delivering information about diversity and inclusion and produce learning experiences that change mindsets and behavior and, ultimately, create cultural change.