Learning Analysis, Learner Profiles, and Unconscious Bias

When I was in graduate school, a professor told our class that he had read a book describing racial bias and had come to the conclusion that he was a racist.  He meant that he was operating with negative stereotypes about other ethnic groups which he had merely assumed or subsumed at some point in his life. For the students in the class–more than thirty years ago–this was a stunning revelation. None of us had ever heard a faculty member say anything like this.  The professor was moved to tears by the revelation and vowed to change his thinking and behavior. 

For several years I thought about his statement. When I ran into him a few years later, I reminded him of the moment and asked if he had made any progress. He said that he had, but only some. He described it as an “active project,” one he believed would continue for the rest of his life. 

Bias is hard to eradicate, even when we are aware of it. Unconscious bias, for obvious reasons, is even more insidious. 

In the corporate learning setting there exists the possibility of bias, especially in multinational, multilingual organizations. The tendency is to choose learning styles, approaches, examples, visuals, and other graphic elements closest to the culture of the learning team and headquarters. It is what the people building the learning experience are used to. Their choices reflect their bias, even if they themselves are not aware of it.

Let’s look at three important questions related to analysis, learner profiles, and bias.

Who Are Your Learners?

Not an easy question to answer even when they all share the same location. Despite the fact that all might be in the same space, not everyone is motivated by the same things. They react differently to the same situation or information. 

How do you answer the question when your learners are spread all over the planet? Most multinational companies have some version of the same map on their website: a 2D map of the world with little pins in their various locations. Coca-Cola’s map does not list nations, just the continents where their twenty-one global offices are located. For Google’s map, you have to first pick the continent and then you can see specific locations. Pfizer has more than seventy global sites. 

Knowing learners in multinational companies is not a problem limited to only a handful of companies. There are more than sixty thousand companies that operate in more than one nation. Those sixty thousand companies control more than five hundred thousand subsidiaries. If you are reading this article, chances are you are someone facing this challenge. 

To begin to grasp the nature of learners in a multinational company, you need relationships and experience. Getting to know company leaders in your various locations is vital. It is time-consuming and requires an open mind, but the effort is worth it. The people who lead teams in other countries will be a wealth of information. Asking them to describe their learners provides the best possible information because no one knows them better. Spend some time interviewing people. A survey can be helpful, but nothing beats a conversation. 

You will never get to know every learner on a personal level but you can begin to understand what it is like to live, work, and learn in another culture. That, of course, begs the question: What actually is culture?

What Is Culture?

Culture is a shared mental framework that characterizes people in a given group based on shared beliefs, common values, and perceptions. If you have traveled outside of your home country, you likely immediately felt “other.” Depending on how different that culture is from your own, you sense that you have entered a world strange and new to you. What you are sensing is culture. For those with open minds and hearts, this is one of the great learning experiences of travel.

Those reading carefully will immediately recognize the opportunity for bias–conscious and unconscious–to shape cultural understanding based on assumptions that are most likely wrong and even damaging to the people in that culture. One’s own understanding of another culture calls for constant re-evaluation. It needs to be checked by conversing with people from that culture, seeking to understand, asking questions, and, if possible, spending time with them. 

What Motivates Your Learners?

While there are many aspects to culture, let’s consider just one: Motivation. Learning professionals know that to gain the attention of learners, it is important to understand what motivates them to learn. To put it bluntly, why would a learner care about the learning experiences you are creating? Bias supports the idea that every learner is motivated by the same thing. And chances are, the assumption is that everyone is motivated by the same thing as you. This, of course, would be wrong.

Some cultures are primarily motivated by a sense of duty. Someone asked them to do something and they will likely do it without requiring a lot of explanation. Others will be more engaged if it is clear how the activity will benefit their community. Some cultures are highly motivated by competition while others find it uncouth and unpleasant. Cultures can welcome risk or be risk-avoidant. Some prefer individualism while others are more collectivist. 

Let’s make this practical. You and your learning team decide to gamify a learning experience. Will learners be villains or heroes? Will they work to the good of their community or for themselves and against their fellow learners? Will they be rewarded for taking risks or avoiding mistakes? 

The approach chosen should depend on the culture in which the game will be played. This does not necessarily mean that a separate version of the game needs to be developed for each culture. It does mean an understanding of the learners and their cultures should inform how the game is built and played. 

One final note. There is a version of bias that happens even when someone works hard to understand a culture different than their own. They build solid relationships, do some research, have meaningful conversations, listen to music, read some books, and so on. They truly seek to understand. Bias enters in if they assume that everyone from a specific culture shares the same traits and mental framework as everyone else from that culture. 

This is the challenge of building learning in large organizations. Even when we work to understand, we still cannot know everyone and we cannot build a specific learning experience for every individual in every culture and language. There are limitations, but that does not mean the effort is not worth it.