Engaging complexity – our approach to engaging learners with complex topics

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Insitu - Engaging Complexity

Digital learning platforms have the potential to change the experience of workplace learning, opening up new ways to engage with employees. But even though learning and development teams can now use modern technology to reach and teach employees anywhere at anytime, for complex subjects and topics the age-old obstacles to learning still exist.

At Insitu Digital we have developed an approach to complex topics that is focused on matching the learning programme to the end goal. In this article we share aspects of our approach, and share how we can help you to develop a learning programme on complex topics for your company.

insitu - What-makes-a-subject-complex

A healthcare story

In a project for a major healthcare client, the management team identified that if the sales force had better medical knowledge and understood how the company’s products were used by doctors, they would be able to have more successful conversations with professionals and increase sales. A new training programme was required in order to give sales representatives the ability and confidence to engage with medical professionals at this new level.

But how do you even begin to teach something as intense as anatomy to sales staff who may never have considered themselves proficient at science?

In situations like this, there exists an obstacle to learning that non-experts must overcome before effective learning can happen. Even if the obstacle has been identified, the usual challenges such as learner disinterest or diverse personal backgrounds get amplified when applied to complex topics. These problems are also further exacerbated when combined with other factors, such as an unwillingness of the company to invest sufficient time in staff training, or if a subject matter expert (SME) fails to grasp the intricacies and challenges of the subject from the viewpoint of the learner.

Working with our client, it became clear that to meet the desired end goal a structured programme of learning taking place over many hours would be needed. Crucially, management teams would need to be aligned to this need and build the new training into the work programmes of their staff. Only with this cross-company alignment with the goals of the project could we successfully deliver the learning programme.

Start at the end

Backwards planning, starting with a clear view of the end goal, is an extremely successful method for creating programmes of learning, but for complex topics it is crucial. We are going to be trying to teach people about a subject that is not only totally new to them, but is also difficult to grasp. Only by planning with the end goal in mind, will we be able to uncover all the knowledge and training that will be needed to reach it.

There will most likely be a lot of hard work to be done within a company to really discover what that end goal is. At the outset of a project, we will work closely with you to build a clear picture of the company and workplace culture: What do you want your staff to know? And why do you want them to know it? What situations and under what context will staff need to recall or implement this knowledge? How often will they need to apply this knowledge? What factors will obstruct their learning? What factors will obstruct them applying their learning?

With a clear view of the end result, the big picture, we will then plan backwards in a step by step approach to identify all of the separate pieces of learning required to reach that goal. A learning roadmap will emerge showing a clear route from beginning to end, showing how the larger subject can be learnt by mastering smaller topics.

With a solid roadmap in place for the programme of learning, you can be confident that every facet of the training will be shaped around getting the desired result.

What makes a subject complex?

So how do we know that a subject is going to turn out to be complex for people to learn? And what do we do after that?

Complex subjects share a number of similar issues, and in the initial discussions around the learning they will become evident:

  • A distinct vocabulary and terminology is associated with the subject and is not in common use elsewhere. This can be a very big barrier obstructing the main learning goal.
  • Requires multiple steps, or an extensive amount of information to comprehend.
  • Contains several different topics that must be tied together to show the big idea and unlock new thinking for the learner.

As well as these subject-specific factors, the learner perspective is also critical. Learners can find a subject complex and difficult if:

  • They get overwhelmed by an avalanche of steps without enough time to digest the ideas.
  • They don’t have the proper background knowledge or skill sets.
  • Their personal background doesn’t prepare them to handle unfamiliar terrain and difficult tasks.
  • A high level of cognitive ability is needed to complete exercises and assessments, eg. transfer and apply their knowledge into new situations. Any topic that asks learners to do this will be more difficult for them.
  • They lack interest in a topic, making it feel more complex because they’re not motivated to learn.

Lastly, even the simplest topic can be made complex if not enough time has been spent on planning. A clearly defined route map through the subject is essential to make sure learners have a chance to learn the topic.

With this in mind, here are some approaches that we have successfully used at Insitu Digital to break through the barrier of complex topics and overcome obstacles to learning.

Insitu - Atomise-content

Atomise content

From the learning roadmap we will have a clear view of the steps needed to reach the end goal, and we can start the process of generating the course content for each step.

As we do this, we will be thinking how content can atomised, how it can be broken down even further into bite-size chunks. This approach allows the content to be ordered in different ways for different users and frees-up the material to also serve as a just-in-time reference once the course is completed. By atomising the content of the programme, we can make it easier for your learners and more cost effective for the company.

Another key benefit of this approach is that it gives learners the option to engage with the content non-linearly, to build their own relationship with the content as they learn. Learners can spend more time on items they are weaker at, without having to wade back through content they already know.

This fluid or non-linear approach to learning is not always applicable, but it can greatly increase learner engagement with complex programmes, by offering them choices on how to complete the learning within each step.

Insitu - Culture-alignment

Culture alignment

At Insitu, we have found that one of the most difficult obstacles to overcome is setting aside enough time for learners to study.

Despite the hours that are saved through the convenience of digital learning, hard to understand topics will always require time – time to work through the content and, crucially, time to reflect on and process the learning.

Nonetheless, it can be frustrating for CEOs and senior managers who are eager to see a quick return on their investment – be that in increased sales or a more productive or innovative workforce.

To learn complex subjects, employees are going to need distraction free time away from their usual working environment. As your company considers investing in learning programmes for complex topics, it is essential to initiate a parallel activity that works with managers throughout the organisation to raise awareness and alter work patterns to allow sufficient time for learning. With your training programme and working patterns working in harmony, there will be a much greater return on the investment.

Further Reading

We’ve collected together here links to resources that we have found useful when considering our approach to teaching complex topics.

Understanding by Design: Backwards planning as a concept has been successful as a concept for learning in schools. The basic principle is also at work in strategic planning, marketing and communications. It is a particularly useful tool for teaching complex topics.


How adults learn: There are various approaches that can be applied to adult learning, although no clearly defined ultimate method. This resource summarises current thinking in this area.


The disruption of digital learning: This report by Josh Bersin at Deloitte contains data and insights on the changing workplace and how people learn, including research on how little time is available for learning.



Key obstacles to learning complex topics

  • Learners are not interested in learning
  • Insufficient time for in-depth learning
  • Unfamiliar vocabulary and terminology
  • Learners are missing key background knowledge
  • Learners are not capable of working at the required cognitive level

Key Solutions

  • Consider the starting point of learners and develop a programme based on their perspectives
  • Define the end goal and work backwards from that to plan the programme
  • Atomise content – break complex information into the smallest building blocks
  • Give learners time and opportunity to practice, applying new knowledge in situations relevant to them
  • Multiple delivery methods are likely to be needed – don’t just rely on face-to-face or digital learning
  • ‘Offline’ training needs to be invested in for deeper learning – for example, group discussions, coaching, practical assessments