Learning Leader Journal

Dana Sednek on Emotional Objectives and Tips for Designing Digital-First Training Solutions


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In March, when offices shuttered and Zoom’s stock prices rose 100%, Dana Sednek was ready. A veteran of remote training, Dana’s spent the past 17 years helping companies navigate the world of digital learning, and she’s spent the past 15 working remotely.  

“I’ve spent much of my career helping teams do their best work when they can’t be in the same room, which sounds really ironic because now you literally can’t be in the same room,” said Dana, the head of Intuit’s newly formed Learning Enablement Center of Excellence.  

She joined our call from her tiny home office in her Denver backyard. A Tiffany blue interior decorated with family photos provided a fitting backdrop to the learning pro who advises homebound employees make an extra effort to connect on a personal level with remote colleagues.   

During our conversation in November, Dana shared Intuit’s philosophy on user-centered learning, advice for designing digital-first solutions, and ways to build strong workplace relationships from behind a screen. 

Given that you’ve worked in virtual learning for such a long time – and have worked remotely yourself for many years – how has this transition to remote impacted you?  

The switch to all remote has given us a lot of permission to advance some of our solutions that my team has been working on over the past 18 months. Last year we sought to transform Intuit’s learning capabilities from 15 years behind to three years ahead. We built a comprehensive plan to replace a very old, outdated LMS with a three-tiered learning stack. We knew that was going to take a lot of time, especially the capability building internally because a lot of our staff was still classroom based.   
People would come to me and be like, “Dana, have this great idea! I’m going to fly in everybody for a three-day classroom event.” And I’m like, no, let’s think differently about what great can really look like in a way that’s very learner centric. It seems really glamorous to fly to a place and have full attention for three days, but we don’t always have the luxury of that. And from a learning perspective, it isn’t always the best way to learn.  

It's been quite the journey -- we're in our second of three years that we've put together as our transformative time. And this second year is really all about internal behavior change, mindset shifts, and thinking about how we do stuff differently. 

What are some of the challenges you’ve seen when people think about transitioning live learning to a virtual setting? 

I think some of the mindset shifts are like, well, it's going to be less of an experience or I’m going to have to replicate the live event. You still have that mindset of how would I do this in the room, but you actually have to design digital first by leveraging some of the cool things that you can do in a virtual environment that you can’t do in a room.  

For example, you could crowdsource a group of 15 people and ask them, “What is one takeaway as a result of our time together?” and you can get them to chat.  Then, you can dig into two or three of those responses verbally. So instead of taking 20 minutes to go around the roomyou can do it in three minutes and then take the rest of that time to get to two or three layers of reflection. 

Do you have other tips for ensuring that a virtual event provides a sense of connection and engagement? 

Everybody starts with PowerPoints and I think it's hilarious. The first thing I do with a virtual experience – whether I’m converting something from live or making something new – is I ask two things: 

At the end of the program, what is it that you want your learners to know? The objective. 

Almost more importantly – and it’s the question I ask that takes the most time but also sets us up for the framework of thinking outside the box – is the emotional objective. How do you want your participants to feel at the end of this or as a result of this? Do you want them to feel excited? Do you want them to feel motivated? Do you want them to feel like the heat is on or they’ve built stronger relationships?  
The objectives are the things that you do, but the feelings guide the way you design the experiences.  

You've been working from home for many years now. What advice do you have for folks who want to build connections and grow in their organization in this virtual environment?  

You've got to make the informal things that you would normally get at work formalized or scheduled. Building relationships with people virtually takes more time. The way to do that is two-fold:  

One, schedule time to just hang out virtually. Schedule a lunch, schedule a coffee, don’t talk about work stuff, talk about personal stuff.  

Also, when you’re in a group setting, you have to balance relationship needs with practical outcomes. Include formalized ice breakers in the agenda that you would normally do when you’re waiting for everyone to arrive in the meeting room. That helps build trust and deepen relationships. 

There are people who I have built deep, trusting relationships with who I have never met in real life. They are part of my crew who I would bring in to save the world, and that only happens when you have these sidebar conversations and build personal relationships. 

Sometimes those things feel risky when they’re encoded and online, but do it! Share more about yourself because that helps people get to know you.  

What learning trends are you really tuning into this year? 

Flipping to be learner centered and learner driven. When you flip to an on-demand learning experience platform, there’s a lot that you can serve up and curate. When you think about the future of evaluating what’s important to your learners; there are two mindset shifts you have to think about: 

Your learners are responsible for knowing what it is that they need and want to learn. There’s this feeling of loss of control. The power to the learner is that they get to create their own skillset.  
If you really want to be learner centered, you have to be able to see learner behavior using new standards of reporting, like xAPI. Inquire about some of those key trends your learners are indicating, not that you think you need to know. 

It’s all about what is the emergent set of learner behavior data telling you, where can you identify gaps or trends. With virtual training you have an infinite amount of tracked behaviors that you can begin to mine for insights. That is incredibly powerful. As a learning professional being able to evaluate the efficacy of your learning program -- “Holy crap! Everyone is skipping module 2. Why?”  -- then you can iterate to make a more effective course. And in an aggregate, you can start to look a capability building. That’s powerful to me.  

Where we want to get to is predictive and adaptive learning, so we can deliver a personalized learning experience that will challenge the learner and not deliver content that they already know. 

Tell me more about how user-centered training is playing out at Intuit.  

It isn’t just “I’m going to learn what I’m going to learn.” It’s a crucial conversation between the learner and the company.  

Intuit learned very quickly that learners want direction and guidance from the company so they can decide what they want to go learn. It’s this dynamic conversation of “Give me direction through recommendations and endorsements of the people who have taken it before.” They look for wayfinding: “If I take this, what is the next thing I should take, and how does that connect to the capabilities and skills that you want of me?”   

There’s a little bit of give and take. Some of that is in the UX, and some of that is how the machine learning and social learning is constructed.