And we're looking in the wrong place for the answer.
The learning industry is right to be worried about engagement. It should be looking to increase engagement with good quality learning and developmental resources which enable an individual to increase their effectiveness, performance and happiness - both today and tomorrow.
Here’s the thing: we’ve been going about it all wrong by continually throwing out different incomparable metrics and definitions of measurements of engagement. Before we start to measure why don’t we first look to understand.
Before we look to define engagement as a metric, let’s think about what it actually means and describes.
To engage is to have a relationship. Engagement is driven through social values and trust. It's not an outcome of using technology. It’s an outcome of having a relationship with someone and receiving value from that person.
Why do we struggle to define and qualify engagement so much?
Why as an industry are we looking at engagement as the panacea of the learning ‘solution’?
What are we looking at?
In L&D we see and hear people talk about ‘engagement’ as different things - and defined in different ways:
Engagement with content (i.e. accessing it and returning to it)
Engagement with systems (access again, return, utilisation of functionality)
These measure action - in other words, the outcome of engagement.
But do they define the engagement?
And do they in any way explain what drives the behaviour which causes people to return to the system or to access another piece of content?
They simply don’t.
We're measuring the outcome without first understanding the actions that cause it [that outcome]. We're all looking at ‘engagement rates’ across the industry and not being able to agree on what these should look like, or be defined as. Nor can we say what is good or isn’t good because we're comparing apples and oranges.
Some people are looking at utilisation of courses, others of resources, some of events. Some people are defining return rates, and activation rates. Some are looking to apply metrics from social media and others are taking metrics from marketing.
We're all focused on measurement and not thinking about what we're trying to achieve and how this would influence what we measure.
To be useful to us as learning practitioners it's not enough to merely measure hit or activity rates. We need to deeply understand the causes of engagement and to support these. Otherwise all we're really doing is measuring something we aren’t really influencing. Others might argue we're therefore measuring chance.
People engage with people - not with technology.
Before we can settle upon how we measure something we first need to define what it is and what causes it. In other words, how it's catalysed and to what effect it has on the individual in relation to the behaviour.
The problem with access or return rates as the industry is looking at them right now is that it's only looking at the surface unit of the item being interacted with. Today we look at: type of resource, content of the resource, subject of the resource, length of time to complete, etc - descriptive data about the resource or item in question.
What we don’t look at is the most important factor on whether or not someone will utilise the resource - their relationship with the creator, or recommender. One could argue that this is because, often, the person simply doesn’t have a relationship with the content creator and so we don’t want to look to understand how this might influence someone engaging with something or not.
Take a step back and think about this for a moment.
Who or where do you turn when looking to learn something new or solve a problem?
Likely this will be someone you trust or someone who is recommended to you (likely by someone or people you trust). Or it will be content created by someone you trust or that someone you trust has recommended to you. We reach out and utilise resources created by people we trust or that our network and relationships trust.
Our decision as to what to choose to utilise, or not, is a social one. It's based upon our relationships and the prior value we have received from the author or recommending party.
If I want to learn about woodworking - I turn to my father, a man with many years experience and whose knowledge over many years I have learned to trust and take value in. Likewise if I want to learn a new technique in rock climbing, I will ask people in the gym to recommend me resources or to suggest who I should talk to - because I trust them and I can see they are better than I am, so I trust the resources they are going to suggest to me.
If we really want to understand the engagement with content - will a person engage with it or not, what will they likely take on board or apply or not - we need to look beyond the surface and understand the person's relationship with the author or the recommender of the content.
Evidence for engagement being socially motivated
Avon provides a compelling case for the impact of people relationships on learning engagement. Data pulled from the Fuse platform revealed an all-important ‘follow the leader’ effect whereby an almost carbon copy correlation was seen when sales leader engagement was mapped against that of beauty reps in the same market. In countries such as the UK and Italy where sales leaders were using the Fuse platform regularly, so were the beauty reps in those markets. It’s a discovery that further cements the importance of relationships in driving utilisation of learning platforms and resources.
So what were the key factors that drove this ‘follow the leader’ effect?
By engaging with the Fuse platform themselves, in-country sales leaders were able to demonstrate its value to their beauty entrepreneurs as well as express a permission - and indeed, encouragement - for them to do the same.
Since Avon first began using the Fuse platform in early 2019, almost half (45%) of all learning content (circa 21k pieces) has been contributed by sales leaders. Crucially, these leaders are considered trustworthy subject matter experts amongst the beauty entrepreneur community, which provides a key driver for them to engage with the content - and keep coming back to it.
Learn more about how Avon managed to create positive and habitual learning behaviours at scale - with a direct impact on the bottom line. Watch this on-demand webinar with Andy Stamps, Avon’s Digital Experience Designer.
Vodafone retail witnessed the power of relationships and people expressly engaging with people they respect or have direct relationships with in a number of ways.
When Vodafone first launched Fuse, it did so around a new sales enablement programme. Rather than utilising learning and development trainers to be the ‘stars’ of the content, Vodafone utilised the ‘stars’ of the business. The top performers from the retail estate were captured explaining how they performed each stage of the sales process and giving their examples and the best practice that worked for them. Learners ‘knew’ these top performers from the business and so trusted the content and the examples; choosing to adopt the platform and engage with the content provided week after week. Vodafone quickly engaged 100% of their management population and 95% of their retail associate population on a weekly basis. Over 50% of this engagement happened outside of working hours.
This engagement with the best practice of the trusted individuals within the content led to Vodafone seeing marked business improvement: 14% improvement in the NPS of those people who consistently engaged with the content and platform. 13% improvement in these persons’ average transaction value.
There was a direct correlation between Fuse usage and tNPS performance and the swing is huge. A highly engaged colleague is averaging 86% on tNPS whereas a colleague not viewing content on Fuse has an average of 12%. Conclusion here is that when new starters engage with the onboarding process and view content on Fuse then their customer performance will be strong.
The power of the relationship within engagement was not just born out through the content but also through a person's decision to engage with the learning and communications in the first place. When a person's line manager engages with the content, their reportees’ behavior is role modelled and they follow suit, Vodafone reported; Managers who engage with Fuse see their teams use the platform more. When we look at our top 20% of managers who use Fuse we see that their teams use the platform 10% more than estate average.
In the most recent example from Vodafone Through the initial COVID-19 lockdown Regional managers were able to communicate daily with a huge proportion of the retail estate. These regional managers were able to communicate directly through their own content. The results of this were extraordinary with c80% of the retail population choosing to engage with these personally created leadership messages within 15 minutes of their publication.
Hilti understands the power of the subject matter expert and their relationships with the learners in catalysing engagement. The Hilti learning team have supported the development of over 1200 content producers from across their business who have created tens of thousands of pieces of learning content all contextualised to the Hilti business. Hilti currently engages c70% of their global learning population every month.
So if ‘engagement’ is a construct which is socially driven and mediated through our relationships with others what does this mean for the industry and for our choices on how we create courses and utilise technologies…
A few things
Question your AI - if recommendations are coming only from hit rates or surface descriptives then will people grow to trust them? Will people ever get things recommended to them which align to the recommendations they would receive from other trusted people in their network? AI needs to look at many more social metrics than it does right now if It's ever to replicate the effects of recommendation I would get from a friend or trusted peer…
We need to recommend from within - We can’t just be aggregating courses from around the web. People need to be able to have a relationship with the author and to trust this person. We need to know the experts and feel like we have access to a relationship with them.
Let go of the content - L&D should never ever create a course again. The learner doesn’t need a relationship with someone who doesn’t do the job. They need access to and a relationship with the subject matter expert. The role of learning is to facilitate this relationship; not to get in the way of it. Learning and development are the best wing-persons in the world… not a chaperone.
What can you do to improve ‘engagement’
Understand the relationships people have
Shrink the distance between the SME and the ‘learner’
Encourage dialogue and social expression
Give people the capability and opportunity to express themselves and build relationships