Learners want to know “what’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). It is a common method to share what participants will learn at the beginning of a learning program to garner connection between the learner and the topic. However, as learners’ expectations evolve, learning and development (L&D) professionals need to think differently to meet these new expectations.

Learners want to become part of the learning ecosystem — not simply bystanders or recipients of the learning. They want to be part of the learning. Therefore, the opening WIIFM slide listing what they will learn no longer hits the mark. It is critical to look at the bigger picture and broader purpose of learners’ intent and motivations.

For L&D professionals, this means assisting learners in finding content that can be pulled apart and customized based on functions, levels, geography and more. Learners want content to be personalized, immediate and impactful, so L&D teams need to ensure that the full spectrum and complexity of the modern learner’s needs are met.

Key Motivators of the Modern Learner

Delivering learning activities and programs that meet the needs of learners, keeps their attention and produces behavioral change requires a better understanding of the learner. The fast-paced, ever-changing work environment learners operate in changes from week to week and month to month, creating a need for learning that directly addresses not only their motivators but also their barriers.

The modern learner may be busy, but they are hungry to learn. This intrinsic drive fuels their sense of purpose and passion, motivates them to engage their innate curiosity in the pursuit (and application) of new knowledge. They want to move from dependency to autonomy, and to do that they strive to make their own decisions about learning, which is the key to unlocking purpose.

Along with the hunger to learn, modern learners are curious and driven by inquiry. A combination of curiosity and exposure increases the development of skills. According to a paper on states of curiosity and the hippocampus published in Neuron magazine, “People are better at learning information that they are curious about … Memory for material presented during curious states is enhanced.”

Lastly, the modern learner is social and strongly believes in the value of relationships. They are empowered by the ease with which they can now share their ideas and get feedback from others. Modern learners need the opportunity to connect real ideas in a world outside the limits of the learning program. According to LinkedIn Learning’s 2021 Workplace Learning Report, “Learners who used social features spent 30x more hours learning than those who didn’t.” Modern learners want to share and receive ideas and feedback from others and find learning from others to be highly beneficial.

Human-centered Design: Best Practices for Real-world Applicability

Wrapped into the heart of any learning experience or program is human-centered design. Learners are not passive in their learning, so understanding the context of their work is critical in delivering impactful learning experiences.

Start with Empathy

Design thinking starts with empathy, which is a vital skill for learning experience design. ADDIE and other traditional instructional design theories focus on fact-based audience analysis. However, design thinking associates the feeling with the tasks, adding empathy and perspective to create a more holistic view.

The broader view of audience analysis requires the creation of learner personas. To accomplish this, consider how learners access learning resources, how they solve real problems and how they get better at their jobs. Understanding the unique day-to-day environment and challenges of our learners is critical.

Another consideration for this phase is creating an empathy map. In terms of learner audience analysis, the empathy map complements the work done to build personas. The empathy map, borrowed from user experience design, is a tool for going deeper into the world of employees in an organization’s ecosystem to show how learners experience their world.

The added importance of learner personas and empathy maps is to help learners find their purpose. When employees can tie their learning to a bigger purpose, they will be more engaged in the experience and more motivated to keep their learning journey going. This is about making sure the learning is applicable to the learner, making it clear how they will use the knowledge in their roles back on the job and connect to the bigger picture of the organization and business strategy.

Create a Sense of Purpose

The next step is to take the learning lessons from the empathize stage and turn them into action, so that what emerges from the process is a sense of purpose that propels the learner forward. This is where the humanization of the research insights comes into play.

Part of that process is thinking through the learning journey and how that relates to the five moments of learning need to meet the learner where they are. Gottfredson and Mosher’s Five Moments of Learning Need forces us to think holistically about a learner’s journey.

For instance, there is a difference when people are learning how to do something for the first time versus when they need to learn a new way of doing something that has already been deeply ingrained into their daily practice.

  1. New: Learning something new through formal learning to understand concepts, context, process, procedures and details.
  2. More: Expanding knowledge through experiential learning by doing the task through simulations, games or practicing with someone who is observing and providing feedback.
  3. Apply: Putting the learning into practice through informal learning, finding things out independently through performance support tools that help with application on the job like digital adoption platforms, job aids or quick reference guides, available at the point of need.
  4. Solve: When things do not go as planned, lean on social learning to problem solve, learn best practices, share new ideas through communities of practice, open Q&A forums, mentors and coaches.
  5. Change: Learning a new way of doing something that has already been deeply ingrained into mindsets and work practices requires a variety of learning options.

As Gottfredson and Mosher write, “If organizations are interested in advancing employee performance, they must understand the moments when employees need access to learning and in what modality works best.”

Figure 1 represents this concept aligned with the learning modalities to create a simple map, but how the pieces are put together will vary by topic and audience. For learners to find their purpose, enable them to do their best work in the moments that matter.

Figure 1.

Create Connections to Learning Using Social and Emotional Tie-ins

Modern learners are empowered by connections and building relationships during and after their learning, and they find value in those interactions. An employee survey by Gartner and ReimagineHR found that 41% of respondents don’t feel connected to colleagues while working remotely, so be extremely intentional about creating social connections for learners.

Focus on putting the humans in the learning by encouraging discussion and cultivating a knowledge sharing culture. Studies have shown that knowledge sharing in the workplace can improve task efficiency and organizational performance.

Social technologies provide an opportunity for instantaneous access to the collective wisdom within — and beyond — the organization. Collaboration and knowledge sharing, learning from (and with) others is natural and highly effective. We are used to turning to others for advice in the workplace and this is now easier and more widely available through social networking tools. Consider adding points of collaboration into your learning journeys: Breakout/discussion groups, communities of practice, cohorts, peer coaching, mentoring, observing, role-play or simulations/labs.

Moving Forward

To be an effective learning organization that designs learning with purpose in mind, it is important to have empathy, to listen and engage with learners to provide learning that matters and adds value. L&D should be out in the trenches learning how to support and develop people and teams. This involves learning how people get better at their jobs, how they solve problems and creating hyper-personalized learning experiences at the learner’s point of need. Our job is enabling learners to explore in moments of inquiry and curiosity to fuel their passion and create true moments of purpose.