Engaging Learners with Real Work Relevance


Four Drivers for Engaging Learners

A training program participant who is not engaged is a participant who is not learning. And a participant who is not learning is an employee who will not improve their performance on the job. We all have an interest in delivering interesting, relevant and challenging programs.

Trainers want to deliver programs that make a difference to participants' working lives. Senior managers want to see tangible benefits to the organization from the program. Program participants want to feel involved and not have their time wasted.

I've identified four key areas that trainers need to work on in their program design and delivery if participants are to feel engaged in the learning. These four areas are:

  1. Real work relevance

In this article, I want to focus my discussion on the second aspect; making training really relevant to the participant's job.

Real Work Relevance

When employees perceive the training program they are attending as being not really about their role and their job, many will quickly lose interest. This is axiomatic, yet many programs I see leave employees guessing how the knowledge and principles taught during the program apply to them. Without a direct link to the participants' actual work, the program never gains the credibility it needs to win them over.

When employees perceive a disconnect between the program and their actual work, the discussion in the training room quickly moves to why the training is not applicable to their jobs. Faced with this situation, the best trainers compile a list of actions that the organization needs to take to maximize the relevance and the impact of the training just delivered.

This list is then given to the program sponsor for consideration. Some sponsors and senior managers see these suggestions as a "list of grievances". And in some ways it is. The best sponsors and managers read the messages behind the list and work to address the causes of the disengagement.

Some items on the "grievance" list are valid. Others point to areas in which the organization needs to do some work to change employee perceptions. All the better if perceptions are aligned before the employees enter the program. The main point I am making here is that by showing participants how the program relates directly to their day-to-day work, trainers can significantly lift the level of employee interest in the program. Below are my top seven tips for clearly making this connection between the learning and the person's job.

  1. You, as the trainer, need to be well-versed in the employees' job requirements and the working environment. This includes getting familiar with the cultural aspects of the workplace: What is it like to work in that area? What is the history of the work area? What are the current issues getting attention?

    If you are external to the organization, then it is even more important for you to talk to the participants' supervisors and to some participants before program start. If employees attending your program are from a number of different departments, organizations or professions, then get familiar with current trends around the subject you are teaching.

  2. Develop an expertise in the knowledge and skills being taught, or at least rely on subject matter experts at the appropriate times. Employees will quickly see through you if you try to use theory as a crutch. If you are not an expert, schedule in subject matter experts that know the job inside out – and leave plenty of time for participants to discuss issues with the subject matter experts.

  3. Use a host of real-life examples and scenarios, preferably from the employees' own workplaces. Many role-plays that I see acted out in training rooms are a pale reflection of real-life situations. Role-playing "angry customers", "passive-resistive employees" and "heart attack patients" rarely evoke the sweaty palms and panicked forgetfulness resulting from real encounters. Make role-plays, simulations and examples as true to life as you can.

  4. Demonstrate how models, theories and principles need to be contextualized for each workplace situation. Involve participants in making those connections by generating free and frank discussion about how the learning can be applied back on the job. Ask questions, such as:

    • "What problems do you see in doing it that way?"
    • "What would you have done if the customer walked away?"
    • "Tell me about a time when you did this."
    • "Did you get the response you expected?"
    • "What happened when you used this method?"

    Listen for the answers without berating the participant, and encourage others to relate their experiences. Help them draw their own conclusions about how to apply the skills in their jobs.

  5. Get the participants' supervisors and managers to introduce the program or each session. Doing this sends a strong message that the person to whom they report considers the program to be practical and relevant to their work. If a supervisor or manager has not introduced a session previously, discuss with them what they plan to say. Suggest to them the points that you feel will help employees adopt the program and apply the learnings once they return to the job.

  6. Where possible, get the participants' supervisor or manager to deliver one or more components of the program. This can either be as a subject matter expert simply delivering content or by taking a more active role, such as conducting role-plays, discussing scenarios or demonstrating skills.

    If you are planning on a high level of interaction with participants, in which the manager is expected to be a trainer or facilitator, ensure that the manager possesses the necessary training or facilitation skills. An untrained trainer or facilitator may do more to disengage the employees than to spark their interest.

    A supervisor or manager conducting part of a program not only brings a wealth of practical experience into the program, it also sends a very powerful message to participants that the program is grounded in real world application.

  7. Ensure that participant assessments are based on real job requirements. If the assessments test theoretical knowledge only, consisting of "tick the box" questions and the like, word will quickly get around that your program is not serious. Future participants are likely to attend in body only, leaving their hearts and minds back on the job.

    Your assessments need to test for future performance expected on the job. Letting employees know up front, at the start of the program, the link between the assessment tasks and what is expected from them on the job will signal loud and clear that the program is of immediate relevance.


Few things put training program participants off more than a course that is perceived as not being relevant to their job. Participant disengagement in a program results in employee anger and frustration, wasted time and money, and a lost opportunity to improve the organization's performance.

In this article, I urged program sponsors and managers to listen, really listen, to what participants are saying about the program. I also shared seven key activities that trainers can do to drive home the relevance of the training and lift learner engagement. Attending to these key activities will result in maximum benefit to the trainer, the program participants and the organizations they work for.

Further Reading

The above is an edited extract from Leslie Allan's book, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about how to create training that is relevant and engaging for learners. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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