Who would have thought a bucket of ice water could be so hot? It was for four straight months during the summer of 2014 when just about everybody was on camera, dousing themselves with freezing water. The outpouring of attention was all in the name of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
According to Facebook, in the phenomenon’s first three months, more than 17 million videos related to the Ice Bucket Challenge where uploaded to the social media platform and viewed more than 10 billion times by more than 440 million people. The cause — Lou Gehrig’s disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS — at times got lost in the frenzy, but the ultimate impact was unprecedented, earning more than $220 million in global support for research, according to the ALS Association. The Ice Bucket Challenge was a viral success.
Substitute learning for any number of ideas or causes an organization is trying to sell, and it’s easy to chuckle at the thought of something like, say, an operations management course ever breaking the internet. But the premium on making an impact through learning is high. It gives companies a competitive advantage, improves employee retention and drives business performance.
Crafting a ‘Hit’
When something “goes viral,” the content has achieved an incredibly rapid rate of views and shares within a short amount of time — such as a 48-hour window, said Kerry Jones, associate marketing director at content marketing agency Fractl. She offered feminine hygiene brand Always’ 2015 #LikeAGirl ad campaign as an example of content gone viral — the minimalist yet evocative commercials cast an unforgiving light on persistent stereotypes about girls’ abilities has drawn tens of millions views.
The emotional power behind the videos is among the reasons #LikeAGirl has been so successful. The campaign incorporates some key components that line up well against organizational behavior and change gurus Chip and Dan Heath’s SUCCESs framework, which Fractl uses to judge a marketing campaign’s ability to stay with the audience and be spread to others. When it comes to determining how “sticky” an idea or message is, its simplicity, unexpectedness and credibility are among the things that matter, Jones said.
By incorporating these and other characteristics into learning, Jones said organizations can increase the likelihood employees will remember what they’re taught. “Better yet, it will be so compelling they’ll want to tell others about it.”
Over the past decade, American Public University System’s Melissa Layne has seen several learning experiences attempt to depart from the “sage on stage” mold but fall short of achieving viral success. While the learning delivery method was new and innovative, the experiences were instructionally designed and executed around the traditional lecture-based format, said Layne, APUS’s director of research methodology. These learning experiences were often delivered through video conferences, PowerPoint presentations and online discussion boards, she said by email.
But for learning to be so exciting and memorable — shareworthy — it has to break free from more traditional methods. Learning experiences that have viral potential are devoid of mundane, static, linear or text-based materials. “They are truly student-focused, socially-based, competency-driven and most importantly, relevant and applicable,” Layne said.
What’s more, such experiences are developed outside the confines of time and space. “Seat time” requirements don’t bode well for today’s learners, Layne wrote. Many learners value microlearning where the information is comprehensive but delivered in short, consumable bites. Developed around on-demand or self-paced courses, these learning experiences allow students to gain knowledge and skills while giving them more control in managing their learning.
At StratX Simulations, for example, delivering a high-impact learning experience has a great deal to do with putting learners to work, said StratX Director Sebastien Lamiaux. About 90 percent of the programs the company develops for clients use simulation — “it’s not role-play, it’s computer-based simulation,” Lamiaux explained — focusing on functional areas like marketing and sales as well as building leadership skills. The programs are also team-based, often with four or five people working together to manage a fictitious company. The group gets information and data to come up with a strategy, just like in the real world. “Then they have to make decisions, and they have to live with the results of their decisions,” Lamiaux said.
The process can be strenuous, as it often is in the real world, but he said “through that decision-making experience and through the discussion of the team, and the fact that you repeat the process over five, six, seven simulated years … that’s how you accelerate the learning and that’s what makes the learning actionable and action-oriented, instead of us preaching from 9 to 5 for eight hours in front of people. Because people do remember.” Therefore, the learning experience is more likely to be memorable for employees and to have an impact on their work.
More than a One-Hit Wonder
Layne said well-known insights about adult learning are key to creating effective, engaging, shareable learning. Learning experiences have to be relevant and applicable, experiences in which learners develop skills that help them be successful in their current or future professions, she wrote.
Pragmatic adult learners want learning that makes them better at the things they value at work, at home and in their communities, said Raymond Wlodkowski, a professor emeritus of psychology at Regis University. Wlodkowski, along with Margery Ginsberg, developed a four-dimension framework to teach and enhance adult learning called the Motivational Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching. The Framework underscores how inclusion, attitude, meaning and competence are critical to creating a motivational learning environment for adults where the information sticks and employees are even excited to share it with others. The dimensions are based on 40 years of research in motivation and adult learning.
“We design our courses as a whole motivationally,” said Ginsberg, a former professor for aspiring leaders at the University of Washington at Seattle turned author and independent consultant. “We design what we do each session motivationally, and we design all the activities within each session motivationally.”
Of all the areas that work together to create an ideal learning environment, Ginsberg said organizations often struggle the most to build inclusion into learning. This is partly due to the time-limited environments in which learning often takes place — building a community takes time — and partly to do with society’s understanding of inclusion. “Some people have associated inclusion with what used to be called sort of a feel good kind of approach to teaching, and I don’t think that in the past we did a very good job to debunk that or to really teach what its significance is,” she said.
“Its significance,” Ginsberg explained, “is a cognitive issue.”
If the learning function is going to create environments where people are comfortable taking the risks inherent to learning — exploring new issues and problems — the learning environment has to be a fundamentally safe and inclusive one. Further, Wlodkowski emphasized the need for the four dimensions to work exhaustively together in a motivational learning environment. “When you create those four conditions as an instructor with learners — this is something that has to be co-constructed — you have the best chance for optimal performance on the part of the learners.” Infusing some of the key characteristics Fractl’s Jones discussed into such an environment will drive engagement and inspire action — that viral shareability.
Ginsberg said that in an online space learning leaders could ask people to post a photo of themselves or something that’s significant about their lives. Perhaps ask students to write a paragraph in a discussion or blog format about what brought them to the course to begin with. The instructor would do well to pair learners so that everyone has someone to turn to when they’re confused about something, or need clarity or support. And to build the right attitude, instructors should give learners the opportunity to choose how they’re going to explore particular content.
Laying out of what success looks like when creating this intrinsically motivating learning environment is also important. “You don’t have competence unless you have clear criteria for success,” Ginsberg said. Online that might include instructors sharing students’ work who’ve previously taken the course, for instance.
Whether crafting content for high-view, high-share success or to enhance worker performance, knowing the intended audience well is key. This pre-work might involve advance surveys where, with the help of some thoughtful questions, students can share some things important to their learning experience that might not come out otherwise, Ginsberg said.
When it comes to delivering engaging content that is compelling enough to share, Jones said, “if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a million. The medium is ideal for getting to the point in a visually pleasing way.” But learning leaders shouldn’t feel relegated to video. Layne said that when picking a delivery method, learning organizations should think critically about learners’ unique needs and not about what’s trending.
Regardless of the delivery mode, throwing a bucket of frigid water into the mix might not hurt.
Bravetta Hassell is a Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.