Contextual Learning in Organisations – Why and How?

Many organisations, both large and small, often express their challenges in delivering learning content. Due to this need to rapidly put out fires by pushing content to each and every direction, the L&D teams can easily lose sight of perhaps an even more important thing – context. Here’s why context and contextual learning should be much higher up organisations’ priority lists.

Why context matters in corporate learning

Context is incredibly important in workplace learning for multiple reasons. Firstly, a lot of adult learning happens through scaffolding and building on experiences and prior knowledge. If we can’t connect the dots between what is being taught now, and what the people already know, we’re up for some challenges.

Secondly, contextualisation of learning is important for another highly individual reason. While we do learn at workplaces, learning is rarely the end goal of the employees. Rather, they’re learning to position themselves better professionally, move up the career ladder and unlock new opportunities. Learning is just the way of getting there, and the learning done should serve those goals. If it doesn’t, it gets “mentally thrown out” quite easily.

Thirdly, organisations don’t really learn for the sake of learning either. Rather, L&D functions exist to improve and nurture performance. Learning is again only a medium of intervention, and should certainly not be the only solution. Fundamentally, it’s about helping people succeed in their jobs and roles to help the organisation carry out its mission. If we disregard that context, and deliver learning on an abstract level, without addressing the specifics and peculiarities of actually doing it on the job, we’re unlikely to see an impact on performance.

Finally, the big challenge in corporate learning is not in the delivery phase. We can “get people information” just fine. The challenge is in learning transfer. People have to actually retain the knowledge, and then take it back to their jobs and put it into practice. Often, however, we deliver learning on an abstract level and leave it up to the employees to figure out how to put it into practice (and then they don’t). That’s a model deemed to fail.

How can we deliver more contextual learning?

In essence, high context learning requires you to understand your people and organisation. It’s about designing impactful activities that resemble real situations, are applicable to the learners’ jobs and come with opportunities to practice. Therefore, instead of focusing on building content, you should focus on building context. The following activities or questions can get you closer. So, for every learning activity you put out, consider the following.

  • Who is learning this? What do they already know (learning analytics might help here)? How can we relate the activity to what they already know?
  • What are they doing when they’re accessing this learning? How are they accessing it? What do they need?
  • What motivates our learners? How can we align this learning with their aspirations?
  • How does this learning help our people do their jobs better? What kind of barriers might prevent them from applying the learning?
  • How can we build a safe environment to practice the learnt immediately, to ensure that a higher portion of it is retained and transferred in the long term?

As you might see from reading the questions, it’s really about understanding the people. Now, on practical level that might involve use of analytics, interviews or even job shadowing. Also, something important to address (that we even didn’t manage to yet) is the social context. Cultures of teams or business units, influence and power dynamics often come into play especially when introducing transformational learning initiatives.

Final words

Nowadays, we are drowning in content. Learning content libraries and the amount of available resources is greater than ever before. Yet, we have barely started to overcome the old challenges. Learning is still not being retained or applied (or even consumed!) to a great extent. Most of it just seems to go in from one ear and out the other (perhaps ticking a compliance check list item along the way). So, it’s about time to start approaching the problem differently and putting context above content. Less can sometimes be more too.