Human Experiences Learning Design, and Meaning in the Workplace

I thought in this article I’d explore the concept of human experiences, as they pertain to learning, and also how they connect to the broader people operations landscape.

In a previous article on Learning Experience Design, I mention that a human experience in the workplace can be interpreted as the product of both customer and employee experiences.

But what are Human Experiences? At first glance at the term it would seem almost ridiculously broad, you might as well be saying ‘everything in the realm of humanity’. Not exactly meaningful!

There’s a lot of buzz around this term in a number of fields at the moment, not just learning. But there’s two subtly different and distinct themes that I can identify, one being that we as ‘designers’ (in the broadest sense) need to put people at the center of what we do. The other is that as organisations we need to understand the intrinsic factors that drive human behaviours, ie: that people aren’t robots and we need to stop treating them as such and make work more humanised.

I named my company originally on the basis that I, for the last 15 years have been (in some form) a learning experience designer, and feel that this is an inherently human-oriented process, that aims to help people succeed, NOT businesses…[deep gasp!].

This might be a bit of a shocking statement for some. “But of course we’re in it for the business and to improve performance” I hear you cry. “Why else would we be here?”

Well stick with me for a minute!

I started working in this field originally to help people, and I believe (hope) this is also the main reason most L&D/HR/OD/Talent professionals got into the trade too. We’re not here just to further some obscure business agenda at the expense of everything else. That’s a camera obscura viewpoint., ie: Narrow and upside down.

Nobody gets up in the morning and says ‘I’m going to help further the company’s strategic agenda today!’. You’ll hear all over the industry the clarion call of ‘aligning learning with the business’s strategic objective’ . Of course, understanding the business’ strategic objective is critical to our success, but does it miss something?

So long as we only bang on that drum, we’ll only ever be dealing with a relatively obscure concept of what ‘the business’ wants, not what people IN the business want. That’s not good people and not good for business either. Look after your employees first, then they will look after your customers, and then your customers look after your bottom line.

Look after your employees first, they will then look after your customers, and then your customers look after your bottom line.

As Peter Senge says – a strategic or operational vision needs to be understood collectively by all those involved, not just in terms of dissemination. This applies not just to strategic vision, but also the nitty gritty of operational improvement and support too.

We can also look to the words of Dan Pink, who says there are three things which we need in the workplace, once we have ‘enough money to take money off the table’, namely:




It is these things that drive an organisation’s performance. And these things are people things. They exist around the generation of meaning at work, not abstract strategic business objectives. Learning, and an effective learning culture, is a key part in this in order to give people the autonomy, mastery and the purpose they deserve!

It comes as no surprise then, to say then that learning teams and people operations groups play a pivotal role in generating a collective understanding (that’s a predominantly pull thing btw. not push!). Think back – have you ever delivered content or worked on a campaign that you felt deep down wasn’t really going to be received well by an end audience, or perhaps wasn’t even in their best interest? I’ll raise my hand and say that I have, and I’ll also say that in many cases fought what seemed at times, to be an unwinnable battle to not do that, why? Well firstly because I felt it was wrong, but also in order to keep my own own work meaningful. Yes, we in the trade need our own slice of the meaning pie too!

For people operations, this means looking not just at objective ‘things’ to facilitate better performance, which deals with what people do or how they do it, but means going to a level of emotional engagement , which deals with why they do it.

Of course, there’s nothing ground shaking in what I’m saying, the Sinek trope of ‘start with why’ has been out there for a long time now, but I wonder if we are truly people driven sometimes, or if we are, only to the extent that it becomes an almost dogmatic exercise of ‘herding cattle’ towards a vision which, in some, or possibly many cases isn’t in alignment with the views, values and interests of the target audience.

From my personal view, it’s almost the core mission of people operations to engage with, and understand these underpinning ‘whys’ of the workforce. We are ideally placed to have deep and broad insight into this landscape.

But have we been chained by our traditional organisational constraints? Namely; processes, compliance and more recently technology? This is the operational machinery we’re used to, and of course they’re important!

But I think we can agree that these things don’t intrinsically generate or support meaning at work. When designing performance improvement interventions, I feel we need to try to start to piece together the affective factors of work. The research of Bloom and Krathwol suggests there are three domains of learning. Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor. Whilst the former is very well known in terms of Blooms taxonomy, the Affective domain is, in my experience is a hugely under addressed component, more on the affective factor here!

There’s no getting away from it. Organisations, on the whole, are for many an inherently unrelatable, fabricated construct. Particularly in larger organisations. In this sense we really don’t care about organisations in of themselves, and nor should we. If there was an meteorite due to hit the world tomorrow, people wouldn’t be running around going ‘oh no my organisation’s bottom line is in danger!’.

What we do care about, generally speaking, are other people & our relationships with them, our work as craft (this is work in it’s broadest, truest sense, not the narrow delimiter of role that becomes a contractual obligation to ‘turn up’). These things give us our sense of fulfillment in life and our environment (be it physical or social). These are the things that generate meaning at work, and these are the things we in people operations should foster, nurture, leverage and consider in order to deliver value to the business, or should I say the people in the business!?

The organisation needs a set of specialist teams (US!) to diagnose, interpret and converse around how people do their work, not just at the tacit level of ‘I need to know X to do Y better’ but at a ‘I feel like this is total nonsense’ or ‘This job is amazing I want to do more of it’. This is not just a warm fuzzy. This is really important to ensure what we do has an impact. Ultimately if people are disengaged, stressed, or upset, or simply don’t see the value in what’s being often forcibly pushed on them, learning and ultimately learning transfer will not happen.

Not only that but it’s a demoralising thing to be designing something that you don’t know for sure will have an impact, or even worse will have a negative one. That certainly doesn’t have any meaning!

Let’s keep sh** human!

What do you think of the above? Agree? Disagree?

I’d love to hear from you! Comment below, or email me

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