Every company approaches diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) differently. Learning programs are an invaluable way to influence company culture and foster new ways of thinking. Learning and development (L&D) and DEI have invaluable insights to share with one another and will become increasingly collaborative as time goes on.

Typically, instructional designers collaborate with subject matter experts (SMEs) to gather and structure learning content, but DEI requires a little more. The topics and issues DEI addresses are not typically openly discussed and require deep understanding, research, open-mindedness, empathy and compassion for all humans.

The Role of an Instructional Designer

Instructional designers (IDs) are the learning architects that apply adult learning theories, mental models and a plethora of other principles to make content conducive for an engaging learning experience with a desired outcome and goal in mind. The goal is normally to expand one’s knowledge or skill set — or change their attitude. They work to meet the needs and objectives of the organization as well as the learner.

The role of an instructional designer goes beyond shaping the content: They shape the culture of their workplace, cultivate new mindsets, develop and change behaviors and drive strategic initiatives. Their role is pivotal in supporting the business, employees, partners and customers, as well as driving training outcomes.

Why? Because before any employee can succeed in their role, they must understand the vision, mission and values of the organization and be onboarded to its culture and operating team. Every role has learning and development at its core and as its main touchpoint.

When examining some of the main responsibilities of an instructional designer, being a researcher is the first prerequisite. In some instances, IDs must research the organization to develop a better understanding of its function and operational strategy. They have to research and understand who they are creating the content for, as well as the information related to the training topic, and, at times, develop the content from scratch.

From ID to DEI

Now, how does all that transfer to DEI?

First, let’s consider their responsibility to research and understand the organization, the learner and the content. When it comes to DEI, research is prominent and required throughout the entire process to ensure the information provided is accurate and coming from a reputable source — but also to ensure its alignment with the messaging of their organization. Before diving into scholarly articles about bias, the first place to research is what the organization says about DEI internally and externally. This is where IDs can start transferring their skills and put their detective hats on.

The ID should research any articles written about DEI from their organization and research what their CEO and C-suite are saying, what’s on the company’s website, as well as what’s on their internal website and portal and review all of the existing learning material and programs provided by the DEI department or employee resource groups. After the foundation is set in what the company thinks about DEI, they can research what other DEI departments in other companies in similar industries are offering. It is always good to learn about what other companies are doing to create a competitive and comparative analysis and learn from other industry leaders.

While in research, IDs must utilize content from reputable DEI experts and scholars. Scholarly articles provide research-backed information that has been tested with proven results to confirm theories and strengthens the confidence of the learner.

IDs also analyze the audience, need, current environment and goals of an organization or business. Through a series of interviews, focus groups and/or surveys, they are able to ask purposeful questions that uncover the underlying issue the training will address and create goals that solidify the impact the training will have. The analyzing phase of the learning process for DEI will be ongoing. It starts with understanding the current learning environment for the learner and how they are learning new content. It’s important to understand their pain points, what motivates them and what learning solution has worked in the past and should be improved. For DEI, information can be gathered by attending employee resource group meetings, listening to company-wide open forums, concerns raised to HR and business partners and even facilitating an email inbox to address any concerns and act as a safe place to discuss their experiences with the DEI team.

IDs can perfectly align the overall organizational goals with the learning solution and the goals of the learner. Here are some questions to consider for alignment:

  • How do the DEI goals align with high-level goals of the organization?
  • How would a learning goal connect with the goals the organization wants to meet in the years to come?
  • How would the learning solutions align with the goals of the learner and where they want to take their career?

DEI goals not only contribute to the operations of an organization but can also change how their workforce live their lives outside of work. It’s paramount to ensure that the organization is truly aligned with the DEI learning initiatives and this is communicated with an accountable strategy.

Lastly, IDs are magicians that bring a learning strategy to life. After researching and obtaining key data points about the audience and the organization, the ID can construct learning objectives that will be guiding points for the structure of the custom learning initiatives. From understanding what motivates the learners, knowing how they learn and what the end goal should be, they are able to design and develop creative learning experiences that set the tone for real change in DEI.

The Key to Making a Measurable Impact for DEI

IDs already have the skills that can transfer to the development of DEI learning content, but it takes everyone to make a measurable impact and change. Change starts from the top down with support from the bottom up. Ensuring the executives are on board for the change initiative shows how important DEI is to the company. The workforce will take notice when the messages are coming from the executives. And when learners are involved in the conversation with their managers and input is welcome and considered, it changes the dynamic of the company.

Bringing everyone in the huddle and working with the employee resources groups and DEI experts confirms to the workforce that everyone has a voice and should be represented. When the leaders from all the groups can provide their insight and review on the learning initiatives, their communities will be able to see themselves in the solutions that are provided and know that their views and feelings were considered.

DEI will thrive if the organization is strategic and allows it to be embedded into the infrastructure. Outside of providing learning solutions, DEI must be involved in recruiting initiatives, hiring, performance reviews and evaluations, leadership development, succession planning, leadership and new manager development, and employee engagement and relations reporting. The employees can be trained on DEI but need the right tools to carry it out and ensure that biases are addressed — and people are held accountable for their actions.

With the skills IDs can transfer to DEI, they are able to contribute to the impact by creating a blended learning solution that includes workshops, virtual forums, eLearning courses, toolkits and resources for managers and team members on a suite of topics such as unconscious bias, microaggressions, debiasing feedback, performance review, inclusive goal setting and practicing thoughtful allyship.

In Summary

There is a clear connection between L&D and DEI and a learning professional like an instructional designer already possesses the transferable skills to produce dynamic learning solutions for DEI.

Some of the main responsibilities of an ID are to research and get to know the organization, learner and subject matter. They analyze the data and information they gather to align it to the overall goals of the business or organization. Lastly, they will construct and develop engaging learning experiences.

In the case of DEI, everyone has a role to play to ensure it makes a measurable impact, from the CEO to the entry-level employee. Everyone’s voice should be heard and represented.

Tackling DEI at any organization isn’t an easy feat. But by applying existing skills, utilizing research, working with experts and leading with compassion and empathy, it can be life-changing to the organization and everyone that is associated with them.