Become an IDOL 70: Digital Learning that Makes Impact with David James from 360Learning

Guest: David James, Chief Learning Officer 

In this episode of Become an IDOL, I’ll be chatting with David James, Chief Learning Officer at 360 Learning. David has a wealth of information about our industry and he shares tips for creating digital learning that makes an impact. 

Listen to this episode below:

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Let me tell you a little bit about David:

David is Chief Learning Officer at 360Learning (formerly at Looop) and has been a People Development professional for more than 20 years, most notably as Director of Talent, Learning & OD for The Walt Disney Company across Europe, the Middle East & Africa.

David is host of The Learning & Development Podcast, a prominent writer and a conference speaker on topics around modern and digital L&D.

Connect with David: LinkedIn  | Website | Twitter | Podcast

Enjoy the Episode Transcript below:

Dr. Robin: Will you do a better job of introducing yourself and tell us a little bit about your background? 

David James: Yeah. Thanks Robin. It's a pleasure to be here. So you're right. I am a Chief Learning Officer at 360Learning who acquired my previous company Loop last year. Our whole thing was solving the problems with digital learning in organizations that I wish I'd had in my 15 years of in-house learning and development.

I spent eight years at Disney. I was Director of Learning Talent and Organizational Development for Europe, Middle Eastern Africa, across all the different divisions there based in the European headquarters in London. Prior to that, I was at NatWest Bank in the in the UK, Lloyd's Bank in the UK and Lehman Brothers…whatever happened to them. But I was only there for a year or so. But as I mentioned, my mission since leaving the corporate world of learning and development has been to do with technology. What I wish I had all of that time, because like so many people before and now, the thought of implementing and getting sustained engagement in learning tech, let alone impact, is still a huge challenge and one that I've dedicated the last seven or eight years of my career.

Dr. Robin: Well then that makes an easy transition, David. Let’s start with what makes it bad and then we could go to what are the things that we can do instead? So what are some of the things that you notice that are kind of like the biggest errors that we make.

David James: I think the biggest error that we make across the whole board is not taking account of the context of the people that we're seeking to influence, both organizationally, departmentally, role wise, and maturity within the organization. Largely, those things are ignored. Now when we think about when we as people need the most help in our organizations, it's as we transition into and through our organization. But it's not necessarily just the technical element. 

A lot of us are hired for our technical skills, but it's everything that stems from, how do I do that here? That is the stuff that people really struggle with in organizations and you see very talented people join organizations and I saw at Disney a lot. You've got these very smart people come in and immediately you see them in the first week and they're making mistakes culturally. At Disney, it was one that said that your currency was everything you needed to develop and maintain a profile, a strong network. And it was decision by consensus. Tall poppies got cut down at Disney. Now, if you didn't tell smart people, that's how it worked at a base level, then you were setting them up to fail.

So what we did is what a lot of organizations do. We tell 'em the mission, we get them excited. We show 'em the org chart. We teach them how to process their expenses, how to use the intranet, and then we send them on their way to do their compliance training. We don't teach them anything about how the organization actually works and how to use the organization.

So I'd say that the biggest mistake that we make is thinking we know what people need in order to succeed, but we don't actually know, and so we miss the mark by an enormous measure. And I'll give you probably the biggest example of how we get it wrong. If we buy a platform filled with 10 million bits of content and none of it relates to the context that I've already described, then you've already wasted your money.

But not only have you wasted your money, you've invested your time, resources, and currency into something that cannot make the difference required that your people need. 

Dr. Robin: Yeah, that's a huge mistake and I bet a lot of it too... And I mean, I'm just thinking about your example you gave about Disney, that tall poppies get cut down. It's almost kind of like, I bet there's some fear around telling the truth of a culture when it doesn't seem to line up exactly with what they say their culture is.

David James: Yeah, you're absolutely right. But there's a book called Disney Wars and I was given this when I first joined the organization. I would take it to one side and told Disney's really political. This is the history of its politics. 

And this will help you to both understand where it comes from, but how to navigate it now. I mean, how powerful is that? I mean, it's on the open market, this book Disney Wars. But imagine that every organization. Was as honest as that and said, “We are highly political.” But too often you get the idealized version.

Oh, you know we really care for our people. Our people are our number one asset. We want you to be your brilliant, unique self. Bring your whole self to work. Robin, that's so rarely the case. Because what people want when they come in is, what I I say is like a map of the territory. You say, show me exactly how your organization works, what I need to look out for, what I need to amplify through myself, perhaps what I need to hold back.

What do I need to refine in order to be successful here? Give me a map of the territory, not a map that you've drawn and told me you wish the organization was like this. We do this again when learning and development decide that they would like to change the roles within organizations because it's best practice to and we've all seen managers as coaches.

There's one. It needs to fit into the culture because if learning and development determined that managers as coaches is the most appropriate way. But say for example, in finance, it's led by a tyrant and it's a dictatorship and he gets things done the way that he wants. That filters down the behaviors that are actually exhibited and then what is tacitly recognized as the expected and rewarded behaviors in terms of your career are far more powerful than somebody saying, well this brand new role that you've been part of is built around coaching. 

Now look and think. You're going back to your point as incongruent. That's just not true. So I think that learning and development a lot of the time will create the programs to try to encourage the culture that they want to impress upon rather than give them the map of the territory that helps people to be successful wherever they jump on in the organization. 

Dr. Robin: I mean, I know this is a little bit different, but I'm always thinking about how I can create the systems for my own business? And it's always creating those standard operating procedures, especially as a young business. I'm like, one of the first rules of creating an SOP is write down the process as it is, not as how you want it to be. And I think that that same kind of myth is carrying over into our learning development, right? Where you think like, Oh, well if I'm gonna write it down, then it should be perfect, and just the way that I want it to be and not how it really is to your point, and I get that right, so that we are basically ignoring their context in order to paint a different picture, to try to push people to the place that we want them to be, instead of accounting for where they really are and actually impacting them where they are.
So I bet that leads, David, into what are the ways that you can really be mindful of the context and kind of change our approach so that it's more impactful, keeping these things in mind? 

David James: First of all, I would say that the way I like to look at it is to look at it through a digital lens rather than the whole of learning and development. And I think that's never been more relevant than now because people work in hybrid workforces and so you can't see your workers. Managers can't see the workers. The learning and development team can rarely see them and so all we have really are indicators whether people engage or not is an indicator.

So the way that I see it is that we need to be solving the problems that people are experiencing within the organization rather than just providing learning experiences. And I like the term problem because if we are solving a pain point for somebody, they will engage if it's in the context of their role.

If it is speaking to them in the maturity within their role in the organization, they recognize it as a pain point. They're not able to do something efficiently or effectively, and you are with them to guide them and support them when they need the help. We are onto a winner. We can actually do something here.

It's when we start creating learning experiences to help them to reach some kind of role nirvana that we've determined in learning and development. My points is when it comes to the recognition of what we may have called a learning need before, but really should be a critical point of failure in the operation, then what we can do is we can explore that to understand whether it is a critical point of failure, what the experiences of the people who are expected to perform and get results and work with them in a partnership so they do more of the right stuff to achieve the results. 

Now that's so different from gathering a load of learning needs from across a business, aggregating them up to say a common level of pain…possibly say a common level of abstraction. So you take somebody's inability to manage their business as usual and projects to somebody who's overwhelmed within their job to somebody who's just been promoted to manage it for the first time. And a lot of that could be wrapped up in time management, right?

So all those needs go up to the top. They're aggregated at a certain level and standardized solutions are then brought down. And what they generally cover are some of the best practices or new thinking in time management. And the people who then open those up either on their desktops or attend a session, take a look, and we've all seen it a million times.

I dunno why I'm here.” And they don't know why they're here, it's because we are not addressing the issues that they are experiencing. So you've got learning needs on one. But I like to look at this like problems from a cohort perspective, but it has to start with a critical point of failure in your organization.

When I look at my time at Disney, there was one where Italy had a flourishing publishing business, but like this was in say 2011/2012 when digital publishing was taking over. But there was a huge problem because there wasn't a huge proliferation of smart devices within the team. The average tenure in the Italian office was 11 years, so we had to try to increase people's awareness of what digital publishing was, and then seed digital capability so that people performed a different job to achieve different ends.

Robin, there wasn't a training course on Earth that we used for that. What we needed to do was understand what the future would look like. What does digital publishing in Italy look like now? You just look like a slightly more mature market. You help to articulate what that actually is. You show people what it looks like and then you build personalized paths towards to get it.

But largely it was mini accelerated apprenticeships. But it was a critical point of failure. Everybody was on board cuz it actually mattered. Now when you take a look at, say, gathering learning needs on the other side, when you're not addressing a critical point of failure, you might be looking at something as silly as courageous conversations, and I call that silly Robin.

Because we've been believing this nonsense for too long. We did this at Disney. We're gonna stop doing performance reviews and start having courageous conversations. I mean, you can convince any senior stakeholder that it's a good idea without relating to anyone's job. And where it falls down is when you get a load of season managers in a room and you say, “Right now we're gonna do courageous conversations.”

And they laugh. Because they don't need it. It's not, you know, it's a solution to the problems we're trying to conjure up. And that is so much to do with learning needs. So what I say is that a critical point of failure is being experienced by the people who want to influence learning needs are quite often manufactured, aggregated to a level of abstraction and then addressed with standardized content or programs that people rarely recognize their role.

Dr. Robin: I mean there's just so much that you've said here, David, but, that's true, right? Like just thinking about even the person who is like a project manager but you put them in a time management, right? And they're like, “Why do I need this? I'm a project manager, obviously I have all the time management skills that I need.”
And it's so interesting that it's almost as if we try to create false motivations through the final solution instead of, like you said, finding that critical problem that has motivation built in for people to actually want to learn because they want to be able to do their job or whatever else.
And I think that's a lot of what you're saying too, from what I understand. Right? We don't need to create courses to build motivation if we know what the true problem is and we know how to treat people in their context of where they are. 

David James: Yeah. And when they need the help, Robin. So I'd see this all the time. We’ve seen this in not just digital learning and eLearning over the last 20 or 30 years, but in face to face as well. The added bribe to try to convince people there might be value. Here we've seen it trying to save the world from boring eLearning with serious games and other gamification elements.

Pit people off against each other in leaderboards. Who's done the most learning, right? Learning and development has fallen for this bananas for decades, but the people who haven't are the employees, the smart employees who are seen as high, potentially your organization don't play that game. They play the getting challenges, overcoming those challenges, developing their profile and advancing their careers.

That's where they are. But all of this adding a bribe to try to get people in so they then see the value of our 10 million pieces of content is ridiculous, and it will always be ridiculous to counter that. It's really easy. You need to give people what they need in the context of their work and the maturity of their role.

So what's stopping them from achieving the expected and rewarded performance and the outcomes that come with when they actually need it. It's really simple, and if you don't believe me, there's been this really quite famous piece of research that's been done by these companies called Google and YouTube for over 15 years that prove that when people need help, when the concern emerges, to use Nick Shakelton-Jones' words, “then people are motivated to go find the help.”

Now, you do need to switch that around. When people join organizations or are new to a role, they don't know what they don't know, and so we can surface what they need based upon the experience of people who have been in their shoes already, are not too far ahead trying to solve the problems of new starters and new team members as they move into a particular team in organization.

When they reach a new level, say management or head of or senior exec, those problems are often the same and they're very rarely technical. People are butt up against the culture all the time. And I know this, I spent eight years at Disney meeting new people after new people. Level after level reading 360 feedback after 360 feedback.

It's always the same that people butt up against the culture with their different styles, and then they need to find their way and adjust. And I think that the data's there, the clue's there, the evidence is there. If we seek to understand what it is that people are trying to do in service of their own goals, aims, and objectives, when they actually need the help, we'll find that it's far more apparent and we can move at speed to address these, and we can do this with digital tools rather than necessarily just holding out for face to face events that are often too soon or too late to really make a difference.

Dr. Robin: So what are some of your go-to solutions for this way of thinking about how we solve these critical problems that come up in the business? You've mentioned that let's look through a digital lens. We can't really see exactly where people are cuz they're not in the office. And so what are some of the strategies that you use? Keeping all of this in mind? 

David James: Well, I advocate strongly for data and evidence based practice. I think it's the cornerstone. I think it's at least 50% of the work because if you can recognize a specific problem and your work in partnership with the people who are responsible for the work, you are a long way towards finding something you can try to make a difference. So data and evidence based practice requires us taking training needs or observing training needs or learning needs as simply assumptions. That is all they are. They may come as a request, and if they come as a request, they're simply a call for help.You want my help? Brillant. Explain to me what the problem is. So they might say, “We need some middle management training.” Brilliant. It's an assumption, but let's just dig. So you might ask yourself what you need to see to prove or disprove this assumption. Okay, brilliant. So what's not happening because you need a middle management training?

Well, the middle managers can't do this. So again, it is just that these are presenting problems. You might just dig down further. So what is it that you need them to achieve? So,we could talk about the training. Love to do your training for you. What will they do differently? You're just seek it here, right?

So they would stop communication bottlenecking, and then not getting down to the bottom. We're still getting to an assumption. What is the impact that this is having? So say, Well, our teams aren't as productive as they should be. Then when you get down to a certain level of specificity, brilliant, show me the data.

If there is a real problem, there is data. There's data in any given organization now, and that might emerge as unhappy customers, service level, agreements not being hit, talented people leaving. There's all sorts of things, but you have to get to a level where there is a problem being experienced. By a group of people that is leading to people not achieving the goals or the organization not achieving it.

And that's your data. A lot of levels, a lot of examples. There'll be no data. And Robin, if there's no data, there's likely no problem. So that's when you actually decide that either you try to apply as little attention and money as you possibly can, cuz sometimes senior stakeholders just want something done.

I use the example that I've got an eight year old daughter and sometimes she falls over and she gets a bruise and she's in tears and she tells me that she wants a plaster. And you know what? I'm a caring dad and I'll give her a plaster. And we both know it's gonna make no difference, but she feels better.

And that's your stakeholder over there who just wants training and there isn't any data. But when there is data and you can see that there is a problem, service level agreements not being hit, customer satisfaction not being at the right level, losing customers, unhappy clients, top people leaving, all of that good stuff…then you go to the people responsible for actually achieving that. You show them the data and say, “What's your experience that you are not doing the thing that you are here to do? What is it that you are experiencing? That means that you are ineffective or inefficient at doing that?” And then you have a conversation with your stakeholder next to you, and you talk about everything that's getting in the way.

And there's gonna be systems, processes, relationships, there's gonna be a lack of currency within the team. All of that stuff. And when you keep it, carry on, shaking, there'll be some capability and skill stuff as well, and you do that little bit. Your stakeholder knows that you have nothing to do with the communication, the processes, the system…they know all of that stuff.

They're not asking you to do it, but you need to have that conversation about everything. But you shape the tree, you catch your apples, and then you help you run small experiments to see whether giving people information know how or insights can actually help. But they tell you what they think they need, and that's how you build it out.

We stop building and buying huge suites of content and thinking that because there's 10 million bits of content and only a hundred thousand employees, then there must be something for everybody cuz it doesn't work like that. What we need to do is work. We work from critical points of failure, which means that people in our organization aren't able to do the things that they're meant to do, which is costing the organization money, customers, or opportunity.

And then we zero in. We find out from their perspective what they need, what's actually missing, and then we look to just add little bits rather than providing the abundance of moving on. And everybody within the learning and development team benefits. First of all, your evaluation people or your data and analytics people–they know what to measure because you knew what ground zero was. Your designers, your instructional designers know because they don't have to read the book on project management. They need to simply understand the context and what's stopping those people. Like when you mentioned earlier about project management, Robin, it really made me laugh.

At Disney I had these requests all the time. I wanna attend Prince2 training and you're looking going, but, but people don't want, they don't do Prince2 projects here. There is decision by consensus, there is leading without authority and all of that great stuff, but you are able to solve the problem in the context of the organization and not necessarily just build academically robust project managers who probably still wouldn't be able to get the right stuff done within our organization. So it just makes everybody's job easier if we are data and evidence based rather than simply looking to build solutions that we think are robust from a learning theory perspective, but missed the mark, because they just don't have the context of the people that we are seeking to influence.

Dr. Robin: I am right there with you, David. So just from the starting point, if we just change how we look at the starting point as more of a critical problem. We're looking at the data. We're looking at, is there data that indicates that there's a real problem? What are these obstacles that they are experiencing in the context of their role?
And then you start to find solutions from there. Are there any type of solutions that look different from what we build now, but it's more about the starting point that's different? Or does the end solution look different as well?

David James: Yeah, the end solution is so much smaller. It's laser focused. We find that we are not building 45 minute pieces of content because people don't have a tolerance for that.

We don't do that in our real lives. We look for the answer to get us from not knowing to doing in the shortest amount of time. We put the guardrails up. We're not gonna ask a complete novice to take one piece of information and then go apply it. They'll still need some context, but in solving real problems, we'll break it down to the questions, the challenges, and the unfamiliar situations people find themselves in, and then guide them and then support them to doing more of the right stuff.

In corporate learning and development, it's much less about education and much more about guiding and supporting performance. So yes, the solutions, whilst they still might be text. They might still be a video recording. There might still be some animation. They are laser focused on the unfamiliar situations and challenges people find themselves in rather than broad to encapsulate so much more that a topic might offer because we go big on a topic because we don't know the context. If we understand the context, we zero in. 

Dr. Robin: To your YouTube example, like when I wanted to fix my own garbage disposal, I didn't go look for a history of garbage disposals or how they work. I just wanted to know how to fix it, right? So you just go find like the one video that’s like “How to fix your garbage disposal.”
And if they spend too little time talking about garbage disposal, let's stop the video for me. Right? It's like, no, just show me how to fix it.

David James: Yeah. It's the same. It's the same for new managers in organizations, Robin. We say that we can't develop skills with digital solutions, but the problem is, it's harder to make a lasting memory when you've got dull, click next, eLearning that doesn't understand the job. But if you are answering the questions as people butt up against the culture about what it means to be a new manager here in sales at Company X, so many people have already experienced that. And then you get to the real nitty gritty and it's not trying to create, again, academically robust managers. It's about equipping people with enough confidence and competence to do more of the right stuff, exhibiting the expected and rewarded behaviors more consistently in order to get some results because a lot of the time, what I'm describing doesn't replace good eLearning or good programs.

This replaces people fumbling along and it's making the same mistakes that have already been made thousands of times in your organization. So adding some predictability and reliability and gathering the collective knowhow that already exists within your organization to guide and support people who need the help as they transition into and through your organization.

Dr. Robin: I just love what you said about how most people are butting up against the culture and their organization because I just think back to even my corporate days and all the troubles that I had in my corporate days was culture. I mean, I went from higher education to a large corporate cubicle situation and I just, I had no clue.
No clue about when I should be emailing, how often I should be emailing, how I should come off less subversive or whatever to my boss. None of it. I had no clue. And I even had my boss at one time bring me in and say,“I don't wanna fire you because of any of the usual reasons. I wanna fire you because of your style.”
He's like, “You meet your deadlines and you do great work, but I just don't like your style.” And I didn't know what that meant. And so, I just bring it up because it's so much to your point that that's exactly where people are. They're like how am I a manager? How am I XYZ in this company? And even, I'm just thinking about all the transitioning teachers that come from a classroom to a corporate situation as an instructional designer, even them. I'm sure that they're probably thinking like, Yeah, and I've heard it from my students who weigh those shots.
I just got zero training on how to navigate the culture. And so yeah, I think what you're saying is just so important. Just so important just to keep in mind. And so I know that I am kind of coming to the end, David, but I do wanna hear what is your best and final advice for those that are looking to become an IDOL, those new instructional designers, based on what we've talked about, what would you tell them?

David James: I would say data and evidence based practice like so based on what you are going to build on, what people are not able to do efficiently or effectively. Don't try to educate them on everything around a particular topic that's not helpful. And you can largely Google that stuff. But if you can help people to navigate the culture and exhibit the expected and rewarded behaviors, they'll keep coming back.

You won't have to worry about getting people motivated to engage in your content. They will, because you're solving the most important problems for them. 

Dr. Robin: David, thank you so much. I know that you've just brought a lot of clarity to so many people that listen to this podcast, so I really appreciate you taking the time to come on today.

David James: You're welcome. It's been a pleasure. Thanks, Robin. 

Thank you so much for reading the show notes for this episode.  If you enjoyed this episode, you may like:

Become an IDOL 31: Data and Analytics in Learning with Anja Hartleb-Parson

Become an IDOL 12: Learning Experience Design (LXD) with Matthew Daniel

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