What can L&D learn from the UK election results?

Unicorn CEO Peter Phillips explores some of the parallels between the recent UK General Election, and themes of engagement, communication and social influence in learning.

The recent election outcome in the UK defied every major opinion poll and made fools of most of the media experts. So how did a seeming no-hoper defy all predictions and deliver the biggest increase in Labour support since 1945?

And what can we take away from this extraordinary election?

Engagement. We all know the importance of engagement in learning, and this was illustrated vividly in this election. The main reason the polls were so wrong was that they assumed young voters would not turn out to vote, because they had failed to do so in 2015 and 2016. But Corbyn spoke directly to them and the energy he generated was palpable.  When the huge crowd at a pop concert at Tranmere football ground, two weeks before the election, broke into a spontaneous and thunderous chant of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn”, it felt like there was something big happening under the radar, and of course the clips of the event went viral Here is one of them.


Social learning. The L&D world’s interest in social, collaborative and informal learning looks more relevant than ever. Because they were engaged, the young voters shared, commented and even created content. They did so spontaneously and naturally. Can we, in a business environment do the same? Our people want to learn. Let’s find subject matter that is relevant, make it engaging, short, accessible, and don’t try to track it too closely.

Actions speak louder than words. If you are weak, indecisive, and perform U turns at the drop of a hat, then it is probably best to avoid slogans like “strong and stable”. Good leaders say what they mean and mean what they say. We are rather good at spotting insincerity and hypocrisy. It is no good telling your staff to behave ethically if your business routinely treats customers unfairly. Don’t give inspiring speeches about values and then set up incentive schemes that encourage short term greed.  If the actions of senior management are driven by short term gain then no amount of ethics training will change behaviours.

Treat learners as intelligent. If you want to engage your learners, don’t patronise them, don’t talk down to them. Let them explore, make their own choices, challenge them to think, oh and don’t start your e-learning with two pages of instructions on how to select the next button.

Beware of “group think”. There are other ways of doing things, and they just might be better. It is very easy in life and in business to become ensnared in the status quo. Had you come to believe that there was no alternative to austerity? That higher taxation and/or more borrowing is “bad” no matter what it is used for? That left of centre policies make you unelectable? What is the perceived wisdom in your business, about the market, your products, the talents of your staff, the best way to deliver training?

Communication channels. This graphic reveals the extraordinary disparity between the mainstream media and the informal, communal web. Three tiny independent bloggers went viral in the final week of the campaign. All were anti-austerity, pro-Corbyn, passionate and credible.

Graph showing the virality of facenook pages during the final week of GE2017

Throughout the campaign and particularly in the last two weeks, I often felt like I was living in two parallel universes.

On one plane of consciousness was the mainstream media, initially taking a huge Tory majority for granted, then as a few doubts started to creep in, marked by a wave of personalised and increasingly vindictive attacks on the Labour leadership by the right-wing press.

But in the parallel universe on line, a completely different dynamic was playing out. The youth vote was being mobilised on social media. The trending topics on Twitter, Facebook et all, were unfailingly anti-government and/or pro-Labour. The song “Liar, liar” went to the top of the charts, even though the BBC and other mainstream broadcasters refused to play it, Twitter was alive with memes ridiculing Theresa May as her campaign unravelled, comedians had a field day (Google “Mark Steele” for example), and short video clips were getting millions of hits on social media.

Back in L&D, we are all aware of the forgetting curve and the importance of regular learning reinforcement. Are there any lessons for us in the statistics above. We may need our formal learning to be centrally managed, mandatory, tracked and reported, but for on-going reinforcement, the answer may be short, engaging content delivered via Apps and social media, and designed to be shared.

Of course, Labour did not actually win the election, but that might be one final lesson – manage expectations. Things are rarely judged in absolute terms, we are all wired to compare. Labour’s triumph was to do massively better than expected. Beware of hubris, overconfidence and the confirmation bias.

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