Q&A with John Hannaway

Reading time: approx 9 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to John Hannaway, Business Development Director of The Learning Rooms, a digital learning services company that helps organisations deliver technology-based training solutions.

The Learning Rooms was established in 2001, beginning as a management consultancy before moving into the digital learning space. The company, which is headquartered in Sandyford in Dublin, works with organisations from across a wide range of industries, from pharmaceuticals to tech and social media. 

The firm demonstrated its resilience and durability by doubling in size since the Covid-19 pandemic, a growth trajectory which it plans to extend further by building new international partnerships and plotting moves into new markets over the coming years. 

John graduated from UCD with a degree in Sports and Exercise Management in 2010. He would later join Marathon Travel in a sales and administrative role before joining Recruiters in 2013, where he spent five and a half years, rising from Recruitment Coordinator to Internal Acquisition and Learning and Development Manager. 

In 2018, he joined The Learning Rooms as Business Development Manager and became the Business Development Director in July 2022. The 30-year-old describes his role as having two distinct responsibilities: sales, in which he pitches the company’s many eLearning solutions to customers, and partnership-building, in which he develops and manages relationships with creators of e-learning technologies around the world.  

John is passionate about martial arts and has represented Ireland on the international stage from age 13. He now serves as an assistant coach with the National Amateur Karate Association of Ireland. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

Adaptability is key. I studied Sport and Exercise Management in UCD, but the recession began while I was in my second year. Suddenly there were no jobs in sport. When I became interested in public health, I found it was the same story there in terms of employment. Finally, I got an opportunity to work with the Marathon Group, a specialist travel company offering package trips to Premier League games, stag and hen trips, and that kind of thing. After that, I pivoted to IT recruitment. Looking back, I totally bought into being adaptable, flexible, saying yes and figuring things out. I know now that all that was largely driven by necessity, but I feel like my positive attitude and adaptability opened so many new and interesting doors for me. 

What was the best advice you ever received?

When I was leaving the Marathon Group for another opportunity, one of the directors pulled me aside and said, ‘Be yourself’. At the time I was quite young and, when you’re young, you have this work image of yourself as uber professional and serious all the time. I found that the more I tried to be true to myself, in the sense of being more human and willing to have fun with people, the better my relationships were with colleagues and clients. I have long-term clients that have stayed with me for years and years. That’s because I’m a real person to them, not a robot at the other end of the phone. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

Focusing on the ‘why’ has really helped me enhance my career. Working with clients, I might say, ‘Yes, you need a digital learning solution, but why do you need it? What’s it going to do?’. The more we focus on the ‘why’, the better our solution and hit rate. Clients then come back to us because they know that we understood them the first time around. When I’m interacting with my peers or if I’m managing someone, going down the ‘why’ pathway with people has also helped me understand their challenges and how I can assist them. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Whenever I’ve had a chance to lead people and mentor them, I’ve always reminded myself that it’s important to put myself in their shoes. If there are clear communications around why something is happening, and when it’s happening, people generally feel more comfortable about going along with change. Even going back to when I coached sports, I found that filling in the blanks for people and helping them understand the ‘why’ was so important. 

How has AI impacted your organisation/industry?

We are looking at this constantly because if you’re waiting to see what happens, you’re too late to the party. There’s a concern around how AI is utilised, obviously, but no-one is quite sure what that will look like. I always say: everyone knows there’s an answer within AI, but as an industry we are still figuring out what the question is. 

For us, a huge amount of the value-add from our team is on the content side of digital learning. We do work in compliance, and even stuff on wellness, but we need to ensure the information we’re providing is factually correct. One of the issues is that the AI content generators can give you something that sounds fantastic but might not be the best advice, or it is missing the human elements. AI provides fantastic shortcuts and assistance, but we are missing the human oversight and analysis piece. That’s important. 

What are the opportunities and/or risks from AI to your business or sector and/or the learning technology industry?

If you’re doing a college essay and you are copying and pasting stuff from Wikipedia and changing a few words, you’re not getting the value from the learning experience. You can say the same thing with AI. There’s lots of potential to it. In terms of opportunities, I think it will streamline a lot of functions but there needs to be a human element to ensure that information is factual. For instance, in a consultancy you might see a junior partner gathering information for a senior partner, but if the senior partner doesn’t check it, there isn’t that value add. We can see the same using AI. The same is true for learning experiences. If we fill in the blanks of a course with AI-generated information, are we still delivering that learning experience? Are we ensuring the knowledge is being transferred accurately and creating behaviours, or are we just telling people things?

Why is R&D important in your industry?

Learning is closely tied to progress, evolution, and revolution. The reality is that if we’re not constantly researching and developing new concepts, we’re stagnating. We can sometimes date a course by its references to certain methodologies and theories. Over time, new methodologies are developed that work better or can be delivered in a way that we didn’t know previously. If we’re not working to reveal those methodologies, we’re robbing the learner of a good learning experience. I’ll put it this way: if a teacher was using textbooks from 1950s, that would be an issue. In terms of digital learning or the learning space more generally, if we’re not up to date on the latest research, and we’re not pushing boundaries, our industry is not going to move forward, and we will lose value. 

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning? 

We have an abundance of extremely high-quality resources begging for our attention all the time. If you check your phone, you will have many notifications from many different apps, all with fantastic UX design. So, if I want to teach you about health and safety, fire safety, compliance, whatever it might be, I need to make sure it’s as engaging as possible to hold your attention. 

As an industry, we’ve finally accepted that the approach of just putting text online isn’t effective. We would ask questions of any teacher who came into a classroom, handed out books and said, ‘Read that. That’s me teaching you…’ A digital learning resource needs to engage you, question you, make you think and consider things, and ultimately build behaviours. As an industry, we need to provide higher quality resources. They might be smaller and shorter, like micro credentials, or just-in-time training where I’m teaching you one piece at a time. We are seeing the emergence of higher quality versions of learning resources.

How should we prepare for the future of work? Does AI have a role to play in this? 

There’s a lot of talent emerging from third level and secondary schools with brilliant technical knowledge but missing the softer skills, like communication. We’re responding to that by creating content that will help them manage their stresses, strains, and the interactions they have. Learning and development is a lovely, collaborative community. I think that stems from it being one of the most poorly funded areas of a business. When things are good, executives are all for it, but if there’s a dip, the training budget is the first to be slashed. To prepare for the future, we need to make sure that we have well-rounded, adaptable, and communicative employees, and we do that through training, upskilling, learning and development. The marketplace is moving so fast that we need people with the highest level of skills and capabilities. 

How can third level address the skills gaps/challenges you are facing?

A question for any third-level institution putting learning content online: is it engaging, is it making me think? You can take a very charismatic person and have them present 18 hours of filmed content, but at some point I’m going to tune out. The lectures that we remember the most from third level are the ones that made us interact. They used different exercises to engage us as a learner audience. Plenty of lecturers put 20 bullet points on a PowerPoint slide and ask you take notes, but you will never consider the information. Universities that will compete with emergence of micro-credentials are those that provide practical information in a workshop environment, encourage collaboration, and give the learner time to consider, discuss and challenge that information. If this is the evolution of third-level education, I think the next batch of students will do really well. 

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Legacy by James Kerr

It’s a book about the New Zealand rugby team and gives insight into their locker room culture, their leaders and so on. It’s very much about leadership and, interestingly, relates back to business in lots of ways. It’s also a super read for anyone interested in rugby.

Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi

From a martial arts perspective, it’s interesting, but it also talks a huge amount about adaptability, understanding your environment, and maintaining your momentum. Sometimes we have this breakthrough, and we sometimes sit back and catch our breath when we really need to do the opposite. It’s hard to get the ball moving, but when it’s moving, there’s less pressure.  

What are your favourite tools and resources in work? Are you using any AI tools in your business at the moment?

I spend a good bit of my time on LinkedIn but, in terms of AI, I find certain tools have really helped me clean up my communications. If I’m writing something, whether it’s a script or media post or email, I might know the sentiment I’m trying to capture but I can struggle to find the right form of words. AI is helpful in that regard. It can also help me to scour Google Scholar for the best articles on a certain topic. If I let AI do the hunting for me, it gives me more time to do in-depth research.  

Any interesting podcasts or other media do you consume that you would recommend on learning, technology or business?

TED-ED is a platform for little puzzles and riddles. I really enjoy them because they will create animations around classic riddles and then go through interesting explanations of the solution. It’s a fantastic example of how you can do learning well. They take a common problem and gamify it to make you think about it. 

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company? What does Learnovate do well?

We became Patron members recently enough but, since we’ve joined, Learnovate has made us feel very much at home in its network, which is made up of genuine thought leaders in their spaces and circles. 

Membership of Learnovate has been great for enhancing our knowledge in the learning technology and development space but it’s also been great for sanity checking some of our business decisions. I expected that we would have to be members for years before availing of some of the supports we’ve received. We’ve talked to Learnovate about growing the business internationally, about recruitment, learning support and research and development. There’s a great team there to engage with. If I haven’t talked to them in a while, they will reach out to see how things are and if there’s anything they can help with. 

I’ve worked in different industries and I’ve never really gotten the level of support that Learnovate provides. Learnovate’s events are also brilliant, such as the Thought Leaders Circle Meeting, the Link & Learn webinars, and Learnovation, the Global Learning Summit. For me, it’s such an easy membership to recommend to other organisations. I’ve already put it out to other people in my network for people to get on board. 

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