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Shaking the Vending Machine: Becoming a Trusted Advisor

Once upon a time, I was sure I’d grow up to work in a vending machine. (That’s right; I thought there were people inside.) I loved the idea of translating keypad codes into icy beverages and crackling bags of snacks.

For L&D professionals, the idea of taking orders doesn’t feel quite so magical. We’re supposed to be trusted advisors, but too often, we find ourselves developing learning reactively, under pressure of product launches, quarterly compliance requirements, and other crunches. How can we reset when we get stuck in this cycle? How can we become a trusted advisor again?

Start by considering the following questions:

What am I ultimately selling?

Is it a product, such as an app or platform? Or is it intangible, such as consulting services or recommendations?

If what you’re selling is your expertise, you have the luxury—and the challenge—of being a comparison shopper. You can use your knowledge of your client’s business to make agnostic recommendations independent of a single brand or platform. You have the liberty to recommend an ecosystem of tools and approaches, and the responsibility to weigh the potential drawbacks of each.

If you’re selling a product, your incentive is to recruit licensees and add users. That’s an honest motivation, too! There’s nothing wrong with having something to sell—and selling it to the right people, for the right use case. Your value lies in asking the questions to determine how your product can help deliver results that matter to the client. Your ability to be frank when it’s not a good fit will earn you credibility: Think of yourself as a matchmaker, not a vendor.

Once you’ve made a good match, ask yourself:

Am I selling a panacea?

The correct answer is always no. There are a lot of interesting tools, but too many are labeled “AI-enabled” or “LX platform” based upon a couple of tenuous characteristics. Too many vendors, ingenuously or otherwise, overstate the ranges and use cases of their solutions. To use a cliché, there are a lot of hammer purveyors trying to convince prospects that their problems are nails.

It’s exciting to discover ways your product or expertise intersects with client needs and interests. But even the most expertly designed learning path or tool with the most exquisite UI isn’t for everyone and everything. Overpromising may win the contract in the short term, but it sets us up for failure down the line when business results don’t follow.

If there’s a certain segment or client you haven’t been able to sell but would like to pursue, change the conversation to a fact-finding one rather than a sales pitch. You might uncover some user needs that will inspire an entirely new tool or approach.

After your reality check is complete, ask:

How can I simplify my recommendations?

Rather than starting with the shiniest object and designing your program around it, find the simplest way to offer learners the learning content. Some of the most profound learning takes place in settings with nearly zero technology. For example, observing a high-performing peer is one of the most effective onboarding practices—and the only resource it requires is another person.

That’s not to say that high-tech solutions are never called for. But balance the rosy vision of the problems solved by the technology with a thorough exploration of the new problems it might create. A client who wishes to bring the benefits of peer coaching to a geographically disparate team might want to use a video-coaching platform. Though the platform remedies the distance problem, it exponentially increases file-storage needs—and, potentially, personnel hours—to ensure that learners receive prompt feedback and responses. That’s not to say that you should necessarily advise against the platform; it may well be worth the investment. But ensure that it’s the simplest solution before advocating for it.

As you develop your recommendations, think about learners’ work environments and how to reach them there. If you can’t visualize the learners or their spaces, ask the client for permission to interview some of their learners. These interviews don’t need to become a full-fledged design-thinking initiative—unless your client is open to it—but listening to learners talk about their needs, in their own spaces, is incredibly powerful, and helps you along the way to becoming a trusted advisor again.

Above all, begin with the minimally invasive. Learning and performance support solutions shouldn’t require lots of different apps to be downloaded and systems to be logged into. It’s healthier for learners to select from a simple menu of staples than load up on isolated single servings. A very real part of our value as professionals lies in steering our clients away from shiny objects—and empty calories.

About the Authors

Tiffany Vojnovski
The idea that school could be different first came to me—as did most risky ideas—through fiction, specifically Notes on the Hauter Experiment, a futuristic novel set in an automated boarding school. Screens replaced teachers, and flashing lights cued students to move to their next class. Those who disobeyed were punished with grating alarms and foul odors. Whether the author, Bernice Grohskopf, had a background in instructional design or simply excelled at reimagining the boarding-school bildungsroman, one thing was clear: school was ripe for an LX intervention. I didn’t revisit the idea until I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program; but this time, I was the teacher instead of the reader. Via a fast track to certification, I was charged with teaching in one of the highest-needs schools in the country. My challenge was to boost students’ achievement by several grade levels while adding rigor and interest to the high-school English curriculum. After a lot of trial, error, and reflection, I learned how to help my students succeed. However, I never felt comfortable enforcing the poorly thought-out procedures and meaningless paperwork our school leadership imposed upon students. I believed in the value of knowledge, and to organizations devoted to learning and exploration. What I wasn’t sure I believed in were the virtues of going through the system in a single “right” way. If anything positive came out of my complicity with the school’s—and district’s—lamentable LX, it was the empathy I developed for my students. If their job was to learn and follow the rules, my job was to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Any procedure that caused confusion about what to do when they entered class, where to find learning resources, or how to turn in completed work needed to be redesigned. When students arrived in a classroom designed for professional learning, they acted—surprise!—like professional learners. My commitment to LX has been the link between my teaching and instructional design practices. Rather than despair that learners aren’t who we want them to be—more literate, more professional, more successful in whatever way we value—we should design learning tools that make these ends accessible. Learners themselves can teach us how: thanks to the design thinking model, we have a series of steps for engaging learners in empathy interviews and quickly prototyping solutions that might help them. It’s easy to view the learner as a faceless cipher sitting at the other end of an eLearning module. However, once you meet someone face to face, you can’t help but care about their experience. Not every learner is skilled in metacognition or speaks the language of academia, but all learners can tell us, in their own idiom, about the obstacles and fears that trouble them—and the interventions that would improve their lives. Learning is more than a system of rewards, punishments, and behavioral cues meted out by machines. My commitment is to maintain an open mind and to treat every learner as a sympathetic character.

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