Back to the Future: Maslow and Learning Technology
Over the last year or so I’ve read a few articles on motivation in learning, there are great ones out there that reference a number of theories… but one; Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a classic) really stood out to me. Recently I was presented with the following statement by a client;
“We need to be more innovative, we need to use more technology in our learning!” When I asked why I was told “Because our learners aren’t motivated enough”
Recognise that question?
Although it wasn’t word for word this is how I responded:
Let’s face it… all the innovation in the world is not much use without learner motivation. You can have the most innovative intervention your organisation has ever launched, but it will be nothing without the motivation of the learner to engage with it.
And that’s a serious point…
L&D has long been asked to identify its contribution to the business, “What’s the ROI on this initiative” or “What difference is this going to make” those types of questions have had Learning Professionals scratching their heads for many an hour; arguably it’s even more important in the current economic climate to demonstrate Return on Investment. But, how do we maximise our return? One way is to make sure we maximise the motivation of our learners to engage with the learning we provide.
As training professionals we use a number of ‘tricks’ to try and motivate our learners: relevance, interactivity, learning styles, varied delivery methods… to name a few. Many people have written about Learning and motivation, but what about Learning Technology?
What happens if we look at basic motivating factors, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, (we’ll first need to consider learning in general) and then apply that to Learning Technology?
The following are the five levels of need (from highest to lowest) in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, along with ways you could address each level for your learners. As Maslow stressed, the fundamental needs must be fulfilled before any other level can be reached because the first level involves basic ‘survival’ issues that need to be met.
One of Maslow’s key points was that people have basic needs that must be fulfilled before more complex motivators become a factor. For example if you don’t have the necessary food, clothing, water, shelter, and other crucial elements you need to survive, then you’re not likely to be too concerned about your appearance or how well thought of you are in your team at work. Most of us can relate to the family camping trip where, showers become less frequent, mirrors are non-existent and where after a day in the rain the simplest meals taste better that can be explained by their ingredients.
In a training environment L&D professionals have long been addressing basic motivation needs by providing food and water throughout a session, allowing breaks, and providing a good lunch break with good quality food. For right or wrong, many organisation collate level 1 feedback based on food and environment based questions. (The merits of this is best saved for another post)
They can also build training programmes and class content that adds value and that will help learners maintain their current jobs and ultimately move on to higher paying ones, which will increase the amount of money they have available to satisfy basic needs.
But how does that apply to the world of Learning Technology? What are the basics we need to get right before we can move on to more complex motivational factors?
For Learning Technology perhaps, as practitioners, we need to think about the basic ‘comfort’ factors in the context of the learner’s role. How easy is it to access the materials? What blockers are there to accessing the learning; technological, time-based, physical restrictions, comfort and affinity with technology, skills and capabilities…. And what about concentration levels?
Just as with the standard model we need to satisfy these basic needs before we can move on to the rest of the hierarchy. Consider LMS systems from 5-10 years ago; in the early days users might need to make 8-10 decisions and move through the same number of ‘levels’ before they reached their learning. Today, the best in class offers make sure learners reach what they need in 2-3 ‘clicks’, imitating the online retail world that is developing at breakneck speed - just one example of satisfying a basic need and removing the barrier to effective learning. Another example might be seen in the shift from ‘courses’ to ‘resources’ removing the potential barrier to motivation of a formal course in favor of easily accessible nuggets of knowledge that can be accessed quickly and efficiently when needed.
Safety or Security
Once the basics are covered then it’s time to focus on the next level; Safety/Security. To address this level of the hierarchy, you need to consider physical as well as psychological safety and security.
As a trainer you can do common sense things like make sure that the delivery environment doesn’t contain any safety hazards, such as cables from the projector that aren’t taped down, your course materials and resources that could cause a tripping hazard, or equipment that might fall and injure someone. You can also provide psychological security by explaining how the course will help learners by addressing the ‘what’s in it for me’ question. - helping to reinforce their position in the company, support them in achieving their objectives and helping them feel like a knowledgeable, skilled employee or individual who is valued.
For Learning Technology, safety and security can be translated into comfort and familiarity. In order to be effective, the design of Learning Technology driven interventions needs to have an element of familiarity and simplicity. This allows learners to feel comfortable with the delivery medium and focus on the learning activity. Without this ‘security’ the delivery mechanism can become a barrier to learning.
A level of standardisation, perhaps in the user interface or design approach as well as the look and feel of your interventions can all help to provide a balance with the innovation that is also needed to maintain motivation.
This level of Maslow’s theory deals with love, acceptance, friendship, and companionship. So how does that map across to learning in general?
At this level it’s about generating a feeling of social community or of belonging to a cohort. Many universities do this through the collegiate house system, giving first year students and immediate sense of belonging. At a smaller scale we can do that in numerous ways in the workplace, including group exercises, Communities of Practice, networking sessions, ‘show and tell’ case studies, facilitating collaboration sessions and much more.
Importantly this is an area where Learning Technology can really shine. (Excuse the pun)
Learning Technology has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to really personalise learning and facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing. Blogs, wikis, social collaboration platforms for the enterprise, ranking resources based on usefulness/’likes’ and user generated content are just some of the examples of how technology can support these basic needs and reinforce the learning.
The recent emergence of the ‘Tin Can API’ has accelerated the ability of organisations to not only provide these features but also to track and record many more types of interaction. That data can then be used to leverage the final two needs, Esteem and Self-Actualisation.
Not only can these elements (and others like them) help increase motivation they can also support other pedagogic principals (such as recency) by preceding or following interventions to help reinforce learning.
When people are at this point of Maslow’s hierarchy they are focused on what others think of them, self-respect, achievement, and receiving recognition. It’s a fairly universal motivating factor, after all, most people want to be respected and appreciated by others.
At a simple level you can also build in little rewards during training in which participants recognise/celebrate the efforts of someone who accomplishes something, offers a solution, or otherwise does something worthy of group recognition. At this level simply acknowledging the contribution can be enough to fulfill this need.
In a more complex learning environment, you can address this need by deferring to people’s expertise or knowledge (perhaps by allowing those who have proven their ability, the chance to be mentors for newer learners), by recognising accomplishments, and otherwise providing an environment where learners can feel the satisfaction of being recognised publicly.
With Learning Technology there are a multitude of opportunities to appeal to this type of need. From overt leaderboards (perhaps for a sales population with strong esteem needs) to ask the expert facilities, through to ‘most active’ contributor status on user generated contents or forums. Learning Technology provides us with great ways to speak to people’s self-esteem needs.
This final level of the hierarchy revolves around achievement. It’s about the individual reaching their maximum potential and being comfortable/comforted by that. To this end, as L&D professionals, we need to identify with learners goals - what do they want to achieve from a given programme, course or session? Once we know we need to help them get there. This can be done through instruction, coaching, mentoring, and providing tools and resources to allow them to succeed. What is key in this level of the hierarchy is that the learner enters a virtuous circle of reinforcement where implementing what they have learned on the job helps cement their achievement.
Again Learning Technology can really help us here. Whether it is the on-screen demonstration of a learning journey with an individual’s progress mapped, or an academy structure that is represented within a particular colleague community that allows them to see the steps needed to become competent and move up the ‘ladder’ to the next role, self-actualisation is key once the basic building blocks are in place.
From existing business metrics through to bespoke 360 degree online reviews of transfer of knowledge to work, the virtuous circle can be enabled in many ways using Learning Technology
The key to successfully applying Maslow’s theory or any other motivation concepts is to remember that what motivates one person does not necessarily motivate another. In fact, what is considered a motivator by one learner might actually be viewed as a de-motivator by another.
It goes without saying that we need to consider all learners/audiences when designing and using strategies in our interventions. And that we ensure we provide a wide spectrum of rewards, incentives, and opportunities so that we appeal to all levels of learning need. Just because it’s widely accepted best practice doesn’t make it any less valuable and it applies no less to technology-led solutions than it does to any other learning.
So far 2013 has seen a marked increase in the centralisation of all of these elements into ‘learning zones’ that are a one stop shop for learners. If that trend is to continue and develop, then surely as practitioners we have a responsibility to ensure that we pay attention to Maslow, we need to look back to the past in order to plan for the future. After all, if we do, then engagement and motivation through innovation are surely one step closer?
As the Vice Chair at the eLearning Network and Strategic learning consultant at Capita Knowledgepool I'm passionate about effective Learning Technology.
Contact me at [email protected]