IT Systems Training with Impact: A behaviour change-based approach

Brightwave’s Kathryn Nixon looks at how applying a behavioural change approach to systems training can help you design learning that really changes your learners, and asks whether motivation could be the missing piece in your design puzzle.
You might know the best process for delivering systems training – but what can you do to design that training so that it delivers real, measurable impact?

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe seems to have measurable impact nailed. I’m not entirely sure he was thinking about systems training when he said that, but to me it sums up measurable impact pretty perfectly.

Because when we talk about measurable impact or results (which in digital learning we do… a lot), we’re really talking about changes we can observe and measure. What are people doing differently as a result of the training? How have their behaviours changed?

Every piece of systems training is different and will target different learning environments and objectives, but here are a few common scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: You have a new system and you want your learners to get up to speed with using it as soon as possible.
  • Scenario 2: You’ve upgraded a system and need your learners need to adapt the way they currently use it.
  • Scenario 3: Or maybe your system hasn’t changed at all, but you need to iron out non-standard behaviours in the way your learners currently use the system.

In any of these scenarios, the overall goal of the training is to embed new behaviours and capabilities. And that’s where theories on behaviour change can help inform your design.

The COM-B model for behaviour change

There are a number of different behavioural change models, but recently at Brightwave we’ve been looking at the COM-B model.

The COM-B model is widely used in government and public sector organizations as a framework for exploring the factors that generate behaviour change and how they each interact.

The three factors are:

  • Capability: This means a person’s knowledge and skills. What is the person’s current knowledge and skill level.
  • Opportunity: This refers to all the factors around a person that could make the desired behaviour possible. What prompts or changes could be put in place?
  • Motivation: What motivates that person to make decisions or do what they do? What are their habits or routines?

Once each of these three areas has been evaluated, you can then identify what types oflearning intervention will be effective to bring about the desired behaviour change.

A good way to think about it is: what are the enablers and blockers to the behaviour change, and how do they interact?

A short analysis using Com-B

So let’s think about how this would work in the context of systems training project.

Take scenario 3 as an example:

“Your system hasn’t changed at all but you need to iron out non-standard behaviours in the way your learners currently use the system.”


The learners already know how to use the system but may be lacking knowledge in certain areas, which is leading to errors and non-standard behaviour.


What are the enablers that could make the behaviour change possible?

The overall opportunity is essentially our learning blend, but this could be made up of various different solutions:

  • Digital learning
  • Face to face training

There could also be physical or environment opportunities; what can change about the learners’ working environment that might make the behaviour change easier?

For example:

  • Performance support material
  • Mentoring and support
  • Technology or IT support


On one side, this is evaluating what the learner is currently doing and why they’re doing it. On the other, it’s looking at ways to motivate the learner to change their behaviour.

For example, a learner might be motivated to use the system in non-standard ways because it’s quicker and they don’t want to spend additional time filling in extra fields etc.

“Motivation is the art of getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”
– Dwight D. Eisenhower

But perhaps after questioning your learners, you find out that they’d be motivated to use the system correctly if it would save them time on admin tasks and improve data management.

What does this analysis tell us?

This is a very brief example evaluation, but you can see that by analysing the three factors of Capability, Opportunity and Motivation, you can identify the enablers – but more importantly the key gaps (or blockers) – your training needs to target to produce real behavioural change and therefore, measurable business impact.

Learners need to:

  • Understand how to use the system to close knowledge gaps that are barriers to behaviour change
  • Have an environment and learning solution that makes closing these knowledge gaps as easy and pain-free as possible
  • Relate to why they should use the system correctly so they are motivated to understand the learning and adopt the new behaviours and shed the old ones.

What can we take from it?

I think we’re all familiar with number 1: this is the heart of what our solution needs to achieve. I’m not going to ponder on the best approach to do this as that’s probably a whole other article itself. But I think the key thing we can take from the Com-B model is that this part of the solution shouldn’t be considered in insolation to the other factors.

That means when designing your learning solution, think not just about what knowledge needs to drum into your learners’ brains but how your solution can stimulate motivation and engagement too – because these factors are key to real change.

And alongside that, consider the opportunities you can leverage to make the learning process take place with the least friction possible. What will make new behaviours easier to stick to in the long term – it could be on-the-job aides, in-system pop-up reminders or support roles?

Motivation – the missing part of the puzzle?

But for me, ultimately it’s the motivation factor of the Com- B model that is most useful when it comes to thinking about systems training and behaviour change.

Because motivation is often overlooked in systems training design as capability related objectives tend to take a front seat. It’s easy to focus on the knowledge gaps that need to be filled rather than why our learners should be motivated to fill those gaps! The benefit of the Com-B model is that it forces you to explore motivation from all angles.

What can you do?

So how can you get your learners fired up to get to grips with your system? After all, I think we’d all admit it’s not the most exciting of subjects…

But unlike other types of training, systems often has a direct impact in our learner’s jobs. Small changes in behaviour here can add up to significant personal benefits over time. It’s highly likely that they’ll be using the system every day or week.

That gives you a direct line into what gets them fired up.

Think about it: I’m sitting here writing in a word processing program I use every single day. I could definitely tell you a thing or two about my frustrations and aspirations for this particular piece of software… and if someone offered me a chance to really get to grips with it, I’d be very grateful!

That’s because I can recognise how using this program in the right way would make my job easier and more productive. It’s not something that keeps me awake at night but it’s definitely something I’d be motivated to do.

In the same way, we want to get our learners to understand why this our training is going to make their lives better.
That means really thinking about why your learners, not just your organisation, will benefit from the training. So of course, increased profit margins, better efficiencies etc. may be a key part of the reason why you’ve commissioned the training, but that might not be what resonates with your learners.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
– Nelson Mandela

For example, imagine you’re introducing a new system. Of course this is going to be a big upheaval for your learners. But perhaps think about the frustrations they may have with the old system and communicate how the new improved system will make their jobs easier. Being transparent and honest, speaking in your learner’s language, is how to generate the necessary enthusiasm.

In closing…

Hopefully this short investigation into the Com-B model has piqued your interest. Why not try it out on your next project, and see what insights it opens up for you? And most importantly don’t neglect to design for motivation. After all it’s what keeps us all striving, working and, well – learning.

This article first appeared in e.learning age magazine.

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