Are we balancing risks?

This is a question we should be asking ourselves as we work with stakeholders to understand the required behaviour change and learning need. It’s a question we must ask before we design appropriate solutions. Are we stopping to ask the question though; are we asking how we’re balancing risk?

What risks are we even balancing? Are we balancing the risk of the activity or job task, with the risk of the learning solution? As learning and development professionals we could suggest we have developed an innate sense of the risk of a learning solution; but what about those beginning their L&D career? Or our stakeholders who don’t necessarily understand the risks?

We need to be orisk-1945683_1920utlining to them the magic formula for why we’re recommending the learning solutions we do. It’s often a way of helping some of our stakeholders buy in to the solution, and of educating the next genereation of L&D.

What do we need to balance? As L&D professionals, we need to balance the risks associated with the:

  • task or activity, and
  • learning solution.

Balancing the task or activity to be learned

From an organisational perspective, considering the task or activity can help us understand the ramifications if a risk is realised. Ramifications from the worker/staff view and the risk to an organisation’s reputation. This is where a risk management model can help.

Let’s take a basic model of risk management. Yes there are lots to choose from, but for the purposes of this exercise we’ll use something simple, like this:

  1. Identify
  2. Assess
  3. Treat or control
  4. Monitor

Now let’s put this into a context by thinking about a common task such as manual handling, it’s a simple and immediately relatable example. The risk of the activity could be extreme, with personal injury the result if manual handling activities aren’t performed correctly. In a catastrophic case, it may even result in death. businessman-2108029_1920

We understand this assessment of risk easily as we’re able to do a quick analysis based on likelihood of something happening and the consequences if it does. From this assessment we can put in place controls, including whether a learning intervention is needed and how we stress the key learning and behaviour messages.

So far we’ve completed steps 1, 2 and 3. However, in relation to treat or control (3), we’ve only determined that a control, in the form of learning, is necessary. 

Balancing the learning solution

Do we stop to balance the risk of the learning solution? A broad statement, maybe a contentious one: the majority of us are considering risk in a project context and to some degree in the impact of the learning solution, but we could be doing it better. 

Put aside the content, the activity or task we’re designing learning for; now think about the solution or learning approach being proposed. What is the likelihood of learners enrolling or engaging in it and what are the consequences of that? How will we work through the four step risk management process in this context?

There’s no doubt we can all recall a bad example of learning that we’ve either participated in or come across. Let’s continue using the manual handling content from the last example and suggest that the learning approach is face-to-face, instructor led.

The likelihood of learner engagement could be quite low, with the consequence disengagement and no transfer of learning, therefore no behaviour change (as would likely be gathered through metrics such as near miss and accident reporting).

The engagement is assessed as low in this example for two reasons: nature of content and mediocre instruction we’ve witnessed on these topics before. If our trainer/instructor was of high calibre and engaging, we may see a different result. So we could propose another approach with very high levels of likelihood of engagement and low consequences.

This risk assessment of the learning approach starts to help us define the treatment or control. And whilst there are a range of learning treatments available to us, this assessment narrows the list to those that are meaningful and will be more successful in comparison to others.

Balancing the two together

What if we considered all these risks together – in balance? The risks of the activity or task define the learning approach to be taken. We can easily do this by categorising learning approaches based on push (organisationally led) or pull (learner led) and marrying these with the likelihood and consequence of the activity/task. Confused? Hopefully this makes sense. The higher the assessment of risk for either task the greater the control of learning approach is required. The diagram below tries to illustrate.

01_Images - Shortcut.lnk
Higher the risk, the tighter the learning control

Let’s try and bring it all together in the risk management process:

  1. Identify
    • risks associated with the task/activity to the individual, external or organisation
    • risk of not having or having a learning intervention
    • what are the risks if learners aren’t mandated to complete the learning option?
  2. Assess
    • what is the likelihood versus consequence associated with the task/activity? What is the likelihood of it not being performed correctly?
    • what is the likelihood versus consequence of learner engagement and learning transfer?
    • How critical is it that learning is organisationally led (push) versus learner led (pull)?
    • what is the level of risk if learners don’t engage in the learning approach?
  3. Treat or control
    • what learning solution will best mitigate the risk of learner engagement?
    • which solution is best – push or pull – based on both assessments of risk (task and learning approach)?
  4. Monitor
    • how will the learning approach be monitored to ensure it addresses all risks?
    • can it be adjusted in an agile way if the treatment isn’t working? How will that occur?

We can’t think about the task/activity and learning solution as separate items. We need to ensure holistic assessment of risk to help ensure learners and organisations benefit from the investment of time and money in learning.

In summary……

identifying and assessing the risks of a task/activity and learning approach together, will help define the best learning treatment for everyone.


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