I’ve been thinking (and worrying) a lot about learner motivation in the last several weeks.
As we continue to rediscover the power and impact of informal learning, we have to remember that the power therein is activated by learner motivation. If a person is truly motivated to learn something, he or she will seek out any and all means to do so – whether formal or informal.
In our organizations, we can really support learners by making access to informal learning easier – by building a learning suite, for example, or by compiling some kind of expert database that helps link people to each other. In my organization, we are also building a learning portal that has valuable “push” technology that will allow us to send new courseware and informal materials to the people who we think may be interested based on their profiles (in a certain job, completed a given course, expressed interest in a topic).
These are important advances in how we support learning in organizations. But they depend on the learner to engage. While I’m not keen on comparing learners to horses, the old saying goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” So while we’re getting better at providing informal learning resources, how can we be sure that employees will actually use them to learn?
The textbook way to promote learner motivation is to set performance expectations and provide guidance and feedback that helps employees know where their learning opportunities are. We don’t always know what we don’t know… and our peers and supervisors can be helpful in gently pointing this out and letting us know how we can be more effective if we develop certain knowledge bases or skills. We have to remember, though, that we can’t actually motivate someone else – motivation comes from within. The effectiveness of performance goals as a prompt for learning depends on how motivated an individual is to perform well and how well-linked performance is to what the employee values as a consequence of that performance.
Another way to ensure our learners use the materials we so carefully provide is to be sure we are responding to needs that already exist. Do we know what our learners are really interested in learning? I suspect we make a lot of assumptions in this regard, and many of them are on target. But some of them are not. As a result we risk creating or compiling a lot of resources and courses that our audiences won’t use. If, on the other hand, we take the time to uncover the learners’ needs from the learners’ perspectives, then we’re more likely to be quenching a thirst.
And if we take the extra step to help learners identify their own learning needs and strategize how they are going to satisfy them, we can actually create the thirst for learning. As learning professionals, we likely think about learning all the time, but most people do not. We should be learning coaches and diagnosticians in our organizations as well as designers and facilitators.
If we want to achieve success with an informal learning strategy, we need to be sure our audience is motivated to learn and motivated to apply their learning. We have to think more about how to tap into existing motivation and how to inspire motivation if such a thing is possible. I still worry that our fabulous suites and portals might be rivers of resources rushing by learners who have no desire to drink…