Using Action Mapping To Motivate Your Learners
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How To Use Action Mapping To Motivate Your Learners

Action mapping, developed by Cathy Moore in 2008, is a framework for supporting the Instructional Design of all modalities of training, including eLearning. In my view, action mapping is refreshingly different from a lot of the more traditional Instructional Design frameworks, in that it:

  • Does not assume that information needs to precede skill development, or that information is inherently useful beyond supporting skill development. Instead of inundating employees with information and then tacking on a quiz or evaluative scenario at the end, action mapping "throws learners into the deep end" by focusing on immersive branching scenarios that allow learners to develop skills by making choices and experiencing the consequences of their actions.
  • Does not consider training to be a panacea for all business performance problems. Poor motivation and/or environmental factors can influence business performance, and the solutions for those issues may not require a training approach.

Earlier this year, Cathy led a webinar titled "3 Ways to Motivate" that focused on ways to motivate learners within the context of online training. The discussion was informed by Self-Determination Theory, a theory from the psychology field that considers behavior a function of motivation to engage in that behavior. This motivation can either be internal ("I will engage in this behavior because it seems interesting to me and I would like to develop this skill") or external ("I will engage in this behavior because I will get in trouble if I don’t"). Ideally, we want learners to engage with the content we develop because they find it intrinsically interesting, not simply because it is a required for their job. The webinar itself focused on ways to design training that intrinsically motivated learners to complete the training, by considering how the design influences a learner’s autonomy (need to be in control of one’s actions), competence (need to be challenged and experience mastery), and relatedness (need to interact and relate to others).

However, as mentioned above, motivation is not only an important determinant of whether a user will complete a training, but also an important determinant of the performance problem that you are trying to solve! Within the action mapping framework, knowledge, skills, the environment, and motivation are all factors that can contribute to the performance problem (i.e., why workers aren’t engaged in the target behaviors or there is a behavioral gap). Beyond motivating the learner to complete the training, how can we motivate the learner to engage in the target behaviors that will address the performance problem? What role can training play in this process?

In the remainder of this article, I will discuss some evidence-based strategies to consider during the Instructional Design process that will motivate your learners to apply what they have learned in practice.

To answer this question, let’s look to the world of Implementation Science, a subfield within Public Health that explores the factors that influence the uptake of evidence-based practice into a routine, "real world" practice. The types of questions asked by researchers in this field include, "Who are the employees that change their behavior to reflect evidence-based practice when it becomes available?", or "If a new program will improve the performance of an organization, why isn’t it always implemented?". In my role as a student and researcher, I am heavily involved in this field, but this line of research has also helped me to become a better Instructional Designer. Over a couple of decades of research, the field has identified some important factors on the staff and organizational levels that influence whether initiatives to address performance problems are actually implemented. Knowledge, skills, and motivation are all important factors on the staff level, while the broader organizational environment is also a critical determinant of change; it seems as if the experiences that led Cathy Moore to develop action mapping are consistent with what is in the literature!

Although Implementation Science identifies staff motivation to engage in the target behavior as an important determinant of actually engaging in that behavior, we already knew that, didn’t we? It is already positioned prominently in the action mapping framework. What we want to know is, what are the factors that affect staff motivation, and how can we influence these factors through Instructional Design? Well, Implementation Science has us covered here too. There have been many research studies that have asked this question, and it looks like there are a few major determinants of motivation that are relevant here:

1. The Perceived Need For The Change

As is clearly stated in the action mapping framework, any change in behavior (i.e., identifying and closing a behavioral gap) should be in response to a performance problem. As such, it is important that employees think that the performance problem is actually a problem. Because Cathy often uses widgets as a subject for her examples, I’ll adopt that here too. Imagine management of a widget factory become concerned because they have received some complaints about the quality of 3 of their widgets, the Blue WidgetTM, Green WidgetTM,  and Red WidgetTM. They conduct an audit of the quality control process for each of their widgets and find that workers on the Quality Assurance team are only completing half of the steps that are laid out in the quality assurance manual. Distraught, management requests that the QA team be retrained in the protocol.

As an astute member of the training team, you suggest that it might be helpful to talk with the QA staff before creating the training. It becomes clear to you that many of the workers on the team have forgotten some of the steps in the protocol, so retraining is a good option for addressing this performance issue. However, knowing that there are other factors that can affect performance other than knowledge and skill, you keep asking the team questions. First, you ask about the Blue Widget. It turns out that, because the Blue Widget is the smallest and most basic widget (and thus is very easy to assemble), the QA staff don’t think it needs to be looked over again. They believe the widget is so easy to assemble that mistakes aren’t made. If training were developed and delivered to these workers, do you think they would be motivated to complete the training or implement what they have learned? Probably not, because they don’t think the introduction of a quality assurance protocol is necessary for the Blue Widget.

Research has shown that a new program or initiative is implemented more successfully when employees believe that the initiative addresses an important need in the organization. In the Public Health field, take the example of a new protocol for identifying sexually transmitted diseases among patients in a community health center. If the healthcare professionals at the center don’t believe that sexually transmitted diseases are an important need in the community that needs to be addressed, they will be less likely to reliably use the protocol when with their patients. In this case, the QA team doesn’t believe that the quality assurance protocol addresses an important need with respect to the Blue Widget, because they don’t think the Blue Widget is ever assembled incorrectly. Because the company has been receiving complaints about the Blue Widget, it is apparent that there are mistakes being made that the QA team should catch. Consider how the Instructional Design of the training could address this erroneous belief and motivate the QA team to actually implement the protocol when working with the Blue Widgets. You could develop an animated video that explains the QA protocol is needed because there are sometimes mistakes made when assembling all the widgets, including the Blue Widget. This video could serve as the introduction for the online training, preceding any scenarios that are built using action mapping principles. Providing a video demonstration of how mistakes are commonly made or providing statistics on the rate of mistakes may help to better hammer home this point. This approach may help the QA team realize that a QA protocol is really needed when working with the Blue Widgets, which will motivate them to actually change their behavior on the job.

2. Perceived Efficacy Of The Change

Another important factor that can affect employees' motivation to make a behavior change is their belief about whether the change will actually solve the performance problem. After chatting with the QA team about the Blue Widget, you move on to the Green Widget. The QA protocol is slightly different when working with the different widget models, and the team tends to ignore the specific protocol for the Green Widget because they don’t think the protocol is useful in catching the common mistakes that are made during assembly. In this case, the team recognizes that assembly mistakes are made (i.e., they believe there is a need for a protocol), but do not believe this specific protocol is efficacious in catching these mistakes. Would basic training make an impact on the use of the protocol in this case? Even if the QA team all know how to complete the protocol, they still probably won’t use it because they don’t think it works.

Although this may call for an adjustment in the QA protocol, the QA team may also have erroneous beliefs about the efficacy of the protocol. For example, perhaps a couple of mistakes slipped through the QA process early on because it wasn’t being implemented properly, and the team perceived this as a problem with the protocol itself. If this is the case, then training can be designed to improve this belief and better motivate staff to use the protocol. For example, you could expand the introductory video mentioned above by detailing the ways in which the QA process has been specifically designed to catch the types of mistakes that are most often made when assembling the Green Widget. Furthermore, branching scenarios that allow a learner to practice implementing the protocol can allow them to experience first-hand the ways that the protocol can catch mistakes.

3. Self-Efficacy To Execute The Change

Finally, it is critical that a worker be confident in their ability to engage in the target behavior. Extensive research has shown that, if someone is less confident in their ability to successfully complete a behavior, they are far less likely to actually engage in that behavior. To finish up your conversation with the QA team, you move on to the Red Widget. This is the most feature-heavy widget that the company sells and has many bells and whistles. Consequently, the QA protocol for this widget is quite extensive and involves testing some complex technological functions. Although they know most of the steps, many members of the team are not confident in their ability to complete all the steps and are afraid they might damage the widget during the testing process. Consequently, most of the team members skip a couple of complex steps in the QA protocol. In this situation, think about whether a training that relied on an information dump would result in behavior change. Probably not, because the workers need a chance to build up their confidence in actually completing the protocol. This is where action mapping really shines because it focuses heavily on immersive scenarios that allow a learner to practice skills in a safe environment. You could design a branching scenario that gives the workers opportunities to practice the protocol, including the most complicated steps. The natural progression of the scenarios would allow the learner to experience the consequences of their actions (e.g., completing the protocol successfully or breaking something) in a safe environment, such that they can build up their confidence. Using action mapping in this way is a sure-fire way to build your learners' confidence so they will be motivated to implement the target behavior in the real world.

Beyond widgets, think back to the last training project you worked on that required learners to change their behavior. Did the training communicate why the behavior change was needed? Why would the behavior change lead to success? Was it designed to foster a learner's self-efficacy to make the behavior change? If so, great! If not, consider some of the strategies considered here during your next project.

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