Choice In The Face Of Scarcity: Consumer Science In Virtual Training
This article is part of a series on overcoming remote working challenges by building learning experiences that are based on solid learning science. What you are about to read is a fable. The company, AshCom, is fictional, but the learning challenges faced by Kathryn, AshCom’s CLO, and her team are real and commonly shared by learning teams in large organizations. It is our hope that you will be able to connect with the characters, their challenges, and the solutions they discover. We also invite you to read the first eBook in the series.
Passion For Learning Strategies
Αmy was used to presenting in front of learning teams. She began her career working on the learning team of a large pharmaceutical company located in southwest Michigan. She was a solid teacher and instructional designer. But her real passion was learning strategy, something she honed in her time at her first employer, paying careful attention to how the chief learning officer thought through tough challenges.
After five years in that intense environment, Amy’s husband took a job in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a large bank that would provide more than enough finances for Amy to try something different. The decision to move was not an easy one that could provide a new opportunity. Once relocated, she started her own consulting company to help large companies and non-profits think through their learning strategy. Starting her own company was a risk given that she was new to the area, but her resume at a large pharma company gave her new clients confidence in her abilities.
In the nearly 20 years since making that decision, Amy’s business took off. She was one of the most sought-after advisors in the corporate learning world. She was frequently asked to give speeches at some of the best-known learning conferences in the world and had spoken to thousands of people over the years. Her clients were some of the largest companies in the world, but she also served some small non-profits for whom she had a passion.
Kathryn, the CLO of AshCom, was one of Amy’s primary clients. Kathryn hired her because Amy knew the latest trends in learning. She had dozens of clients that served as benchmarks for what Kathryn and her team were doing. Amy helped Kathryn stay current on best practices and new technologies. What started as a business relationship developed into a friendship between the two women. They trusted each other.
When Kathryn asked Amy to present to the AshCom learning team on the topic of virtual learning and consumer science, Kathryn knew her insights would be invaluable to the team. She also knew Amy was likely to do something different in her presentation. She wasn’t the kind of person to talk for 45 minutes and then take a few questions.
Kathryn was not disappointed. As the AshCom team gathered in the conference room for the lunch-and-learn session, they were met with something they had not seen before.
In the middle of the large conference table were ten rolls of paper towels, still in their wrappers. Amy stood behind them with a large grin on her face.
“Are you anticipating someone is going to spill?” asked Michael, a former college professor and administrator who had joined the AshCom team several years earlier.
“Nope,” said Amy. “I’d like each of you to grab your lunch and get settled so we can do a little experiment.” The boxed lunches were labeled, so in a minute or two everyone had found theirs and was seated at the table with their food.
“Rather than describe consumer science,” said Amy, “I thought it would be more interesting to get up and move around a little. I could tell you, but I would prefer to show you what we are going to talk about.”
This was exactly the kind of thing Kathryn expected her to do.
Amy continued, “I purchased all ten paper towel rolls. They are all different. You will see that each one has a price tag on it. That is the price I actually paid for each. There is a pretty good range of prices here. I also want you to read each label carefully. Pay attention to its claims. Look for features that might be unique to that brand. I’m going to ask you to take some notes on each.” With that, Amy handed out small note pads.
“You have five minutes to do your examination. I will set a timer,” said Amy.
“What are we looking for?” asked Alishia, the youngest member of the team.
“That will come later,” replied Amy. “For now, please remain seated and pass them around, making notes on each roll. Whatever comes to your mind as you touch them, maybe smell them, and read their labels. How absorbent are they? How thick? Some are brands familiar to you. Some are generic. They all have different images on the package. My only request is that you do not remove the plastic wrapping.”
Consumer Science In Action
While the learning team members ate their lunches, they did as Amy requested. She watched them handle each roll. Some did indeed smell. Others squeezed the rolls. Some were squinting to read the fine print on the labels.
When the timer went off, Amy handed out a single sticky note. She explained, “Now you have to choose. Don’t look at what others have chosen. Look at your notes and decide which paper towel roll is the right one for you. When everyone is done making their choice, please put your sticky note in front of the brand you’ve chosen.”
When the sticky notes were all placed, Alishia proclaimed, “My choice won! Is that what we were trying to do? See which one got the most votes?”
“Not really,” said Amy, “but I’m glad other people agreed with your choice. It is really the choice each of you made that is the focus of what I want to talk about. What we just did is really a very small experiment related to Consumer Science.”
“And how does this connect to virtual learning?” asked Darryl, one of the more matter-of-fact members of the learning team.
“I’ll come to that,” replied Amy as she walked to the whiteboard, “but first, some basics of Consumer Science. At its most basic level, Consumer Science studies the choices people make in the face of scarcity. For this experiment to work, you needed a lot of choices. I gave you ten options for paper toweling. There also had to be scarcity, so each of you were allowed only a single choice. If I had given you ten choices, you probably would have chosen all ten. But you only had a single option. I also gave you some time so you could make informed decisions rather than just glancing at the package and choosing the one with the most appealing image on the plastic wrapping.”
“I do like bears,” said Kathryn as everyone smiled.
“But is that the choice you made?” asked Amy.
“Actually, no. It wasn’t,” replied Kathryn.
“Let’s talk about that,” said Amy. “Some of you may have made your choice by price alone. I saw several of you smelling the roll. Maybe you don’t like paper products with heavy perfume smells. Others might have chosen one because you use that brand at home and you are familiar with it. Or maybe you chose based on claims of absorbency.”
“The point,” continued Amy, “is that you made choices. Ten things calling for you to purchase them. You could choose only one.”
Darryl, with a friendly smirk, asked, “Is this the part where we get to virtual learning for remote workers?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Amy, “it is. Think about it for a minute. AshCom’s learners all make choices related to their learning. Some learning experiences might be assigned, and participation is mandatory and tracked, but that does not mean they have decided to engage with the learning. Sometimes we count participation as engagement, and we shouldn’t. They are two different things.”
Limited Time, Energy, Attention, And Resources
“Consumer Science tells us that people have limited time, energy, attention, and resources,” continued Amy. “And we are competing for them. There are many other things competing for the time and attention of our learners. They have so many choices of where to spend their attention and energy. While smartphones have opened entire new worlds to us in an incredibly miniature way, they have also greatly increased the number of things competing for our attention.”
“That’s why I hate talking to someone who is checking their phone every time it beeps with a new text message,” said Darryl.
“That beep is no accident,” said Amy.
“Some phones vibrate. Some flash. Every app competes for the attention of the person. That attention is a precious and valuable commodity. Now think about the remote worker sitting in her home office. She is a new employee at AshCom. She may have been at the plant once for an interview. Or maybe never. She is going through a virtual onboarding session. Just think about all the distractions. Think of all the things competing for her attention.”
“This is one of my primary concerns,” said Kathryn.
“Her family,” said Amy. “Things in her home she knows she needs to do but hasn’t done yet not related to work. Dinner. Package delivery. Photographs. Her phone chiming every few minutes. Sports schedules for kids. Work-related things she knows she needs to do like filling out the forms required for new employees.”
People were nodding.
“And,” continued Amy, “in the middle of it are the learning experiences created by this team competing for that most important real estate, the mind. Her attention. Her focus.”
“Are we into marketing?” asked Michael.
“In a way, yes,” said Amy. “I know that most of the learning teams I work with short sell marketing. They don’t give it much thought. They create learning experiences and release them. But little consideration is given to all the competition for the attention of the learner.”
“And this is much more difficult when the learner is a remote worker learning virtually,” said Kathryn.
Considering The Competition For Attention
“I know the word ‘marketing’ might hit some of you as odd,” said Amy, “but I want to encourage you to think about your competition for attention. Learners make buying choices just like you did with the paper towel rolls. They can’t pay attention to everything that presents itself and so they must and do make choices. They can’t focus on everything and so they decide. What will make them decide to choose to give their focus and attention to your learning experience?”
This last question seemed to strike a nerve. The faces in the room got more serious and the silence hung for several moments.
“This is user experience, isn’t it,” said Darryl. His words were more of a statement than a question.
“Yes!” said Amy. “That is where I was hoping we would land. I think we will win focus and attention with robust user experiences. Some of the things we are competing against are powerful, like a text that vibrates your phone but is unread. For some people, this is on the edge of overpowering them.”
“We need to think differently,” said Darryl. “Beyond just the learner’s needs. We need to think about their motivations and competition in the attention space.”
“And we need to think more broadly,” said Alishia.
“What do you mean by that?” asked Amy.
“Sorry. That wasn’t clear,” replied Alishia. “If we need to think like marketers, we need to think about how we build anticipation for the learning experience. And we need to think about how we follow up so that we recapture their attention and reinforce what they learned.”
“I want to come back to user experience,” said Amy. “For people on-site, we are able to give them a lot of variety of learning experiences. Hands-on. Field trips. Job shadowing. Classroom. Virtual. Just-in-time. And so on. But for remote workers learning virtually, we have less variety. A learner might be willing to accept a lower quality experience because of an immediate need, like a poorly filmed video that, nevertheless, gives you the information you need at the moment you need it. But they won’t tolerate that for long. Their expectations will increase, and if we fail to meet those expectations, we will fail to get their attention.
“I have to say,” said Kathryn, “in this whole series of lunch-and-learns, this might be the one that causes me the most anxiety. I’ve never really thought of learning competing with so many other things for the attention of the learner. We need to give this some serious thought.”
“I’m not here to resolve all the issues related to learning and consumer science,” said Amy. “That wasn’t how I understood my assignment.”
“I agree with that,” said Kathryn.
“My goal was to raise awareness and dig into how consumer science can help us design the best learning experiences possible while knowing that we are in competition.”
The room was silent for a moment. Several people looked at their watches.
Noticing this, Kathryn said, “I know we are ten minutes past our promised hard stop. But this is an important conversation, and I’m sure we aren’t done with it yet. This competition for attention needs to be one of the key themes as we develop this virtual learning platform. Can we all agree to that?”
Everyone said yes. With that, Kathryn dismissed the group and went back to her office, feeling somewhere between challenged and discouraged. She knew her team needed more time to think through this. She also knew she needed to keep this topic in front of them.
Download the eBook Embracing Remote Working Challenges: How To Launch Learning Experiences Built On Solid Learning Science to discover how you can overcome obstacles with targeted solutions backed by learning psychology and proven methodologies. You can also join the webinar to discover which scientific principles are relevant for remote workforce training.