Learning Interview

The learning interview is a technique for capturing knowledge from an individual.  It can be used in a variety of settings, for example “learning after” from an individual, after an activity has been completed, or “learning during” as part of on-the-job learning while observing an expert at work. Interviewing is a form of dialogue involving a question and answer process which continues until the interviewer feels he/she has reached core knowledge, expressed as future recommendations, based on real experience.

Before the Interview

Identify key questions you have for the interviewees—be clear why you want to interview them—what you want to learn.  Take a list of the questions with you, but try to memorize them so that you can ask them as naturally as possible.

Select a quiet location for the interview where you will not be disturbed. Make sure that the door is closed, that your cell phone is shut off, and if you are recording the interview, that any noisy fans or air-conditioning units are switched off.

Prepare for the interview. Take a thick notepad and plenty of pencils or pens.  Unless you can write very quickly or take shorthand, also consider taking an audio recording device to record the interview.  The audio file can then be transcribed later, to give you a way to verify sections of the interview where your notes may not be adequate.  It is also sometimes very useful to take short video summaries of some key learnings, so consider taking a video camera.  Before you record or film the interviewee, make sure the person is comfortable with that and has given you explicit permission to do so. 

If you cannot record the interview, consider having a colleague sit in on the interview to write down the interviewee’s responses.

Think about appearance.  Dress appropriately to convey the message that this interview is important to you.

Ahead of the interview, let the interviewee know about the process that you will use, and make sure that he/she is willing to be interviewed, and ready to be asked many questions.

Tips for Being an Effective Interviewer

Pause 3-4 seconds after receiving each answer to think about what you just heard.

Don't accept unclear or vague answers - press for specifics. You should only accept recommendations that will help the next person doing similar work.  Also listen for mention of key documents, tools, and other materials which will be useful to complement the interview.

Demonstrate active listening and make appreciative comments (such as, “I hadn’t thought about it that way, that was very helpful”  “That’s a very good point”).

Offer the respondent appropriate nonverbal responses. If he/she describes something funny, smile. If he/she tells you something sad, look sad. Present yourself as interested and aware.

During the Interview

Before you start the interview, spend a few minutes chatting with the interviewee to build rapport—explain who you are and why the interview is being conducted (what you want to learn).  The goal is to put your respondent at ease and establish a warm and comfortable rapport.

During the interview, remember your purpose—what kind of information you want to obtain. Try to keep the respondent on track. Always have a copy of the interview questions in front of you—even though you should have your questions memorized.

Ask only one question at a time.  Provide context for the question if needed.

A good place to start is to ask the interviewee to identify successes

  • “Tell me about the successes you’ve had in  [the activity in question].”
  • “What were the most important accomplishments?”
  • “Where did you have the most impact?”

Then probe for challenges:

  • “What didn’t go well?
  • “What were the challenges you faced?”

For each experience the interviewee mentions, probe deeper:

  • “What were the key factors that made this a success?”
  • “What were the main things that disappointed you about the initiative?”

Probe for causes of the successes and ask for examples:

  • “One of the success factors you mention was teamwork. Tell me a story that illustrates what you mean by good teamwork.”

Probe with similar questions for challenges or disappointments:

  • “Give me an example of a time when you thought the relationship was not very good.”

Be intentional in asking closed or open questions:

  • Closed questions ask for facts
  • Open questions ask the respondent to think and reflect, tell you what he/she sees as important

Closing the Interview

End the interview by asking the interviewee to summarise the main lessons. The following question is very useful in prompting a good summary: "As a summary of what we have been discussing (and this will probably be repeating some of the things  we've been through); if you were speaking to somebody who was just about to start on a similar improvement activity tomorrow, what would your key points of advice be?" or "If you were advising someone starting similar improvement work, what steps would you recommend they do to ensure the best results?”

Ask a parting question:

  • “What else have I not covered that might be helpful to me?”
  •  “Is there anything else you think I need to know”
  • “I am wondering if anything has occurred to you as we’ve been talking that would be useful?”

Thank the interviewee when you finish and explain how what you learned in the interview will be used.

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