Sixteen years ago, in a career-making lucky break, a college friend recommended me for an editorial position with Integrity Interactive.

I was a Minneapolis-based arts & culture journalist who had also written for legal magazines. Integrity Interactive was an eight-person start-up in Dedham, MA, that was trying to transform the nascent compliance industry by delivering employee training over the Internet — despite objections by corporate attorneys that a 45-minute online course could never measure up to their three-hour antitrust presentations.

Carl Nelson, Integrity’s president, was also my manager for the first year, and during my first review, he gave me a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten: “Don’t spend too much time planning and strategizing,” he said. “Decide what you’re going to do, and then do it. Every six months or year, you can stick your head up and look around. But then go back to work.”

On June 30, Rethink Compliance completed its first year in business. That’s the company I founded after taking a 15-year journey with the Integrity crew, one that saw us grow from a tiny start-up to a leader in online compliance training.

Along the way, I went from editor, to department head, to compliance advisor, to head of product strategy, first at Integrity and then at SAI Global, which acquired Integrity in 2010.

I wrote or edited close to 500 online courses, on every conceivable topic, customized hundreds more, and worked with clients to write and launch at least a dozen new Codes of Conduct and other policies. I had the great fortune to work with the kinds of companies who buy advertising time during the Super Bowl, brand name companies that make the products you drink, wear, drive, and brush your teeth with. Companies that know how much trust matters and how expensive it can be to recover if it’s lost.

But the more time I spent in product strategy, the more I saw that clients were struggling with a new problem: How could they create learning or communication products that really connected with their employees? How could they move from a compliance program that was designed to inform to a program strategically engineered to persuade — one that would genuinely influence workplace culture and employee choices?

At the same time, I was doing a lot of reading in behavioral psychology, learning science, and copywriting — disciplines focused on influence, persuasion, and how to design information to make it “stickier” — and I thought I saw a way I could help.

So just over one year ago, I decided to open a small, content-focused boutique with a few of my favorite colleagues.

On the occasion of our one-year milestone, it seems worth sticking our heads up and taking a moment to think about what we’ve learned in the last year, and what that tells us about where compliance is headed.

We have three observations. In this post, I’ll focus on the first.

Observation 1: It’s a good time to be at the intersection where compliance meets persuasion and influence.

Jay Rosen’s recent interview on the Masters of Disaster podcast* gives some useful context to one of the big drivers behind this increased interest in connection and persuasion — specifically, consistent actions by government regulators and prosecutors who won’t accept “check the box” programs anymore.

This is a subject Donna Boehme has also written about at length, including in her recent post on the FCPA Blog.

At first, it sounds obvious that — to be effective — compliance programs have to connect with employees and persuade them to change their behavior.

But when the industry took shape 16-20 years ago, those early compliance programs were concerned with defensibility above all. Every choice a compliance officer made came back to whether or not they could make the case, if misconduct happened, that they had put a thorough program in place.**

At the time, too, many compliance officers reported in through Legal. They thought like defense attorneys. They didn’t want to ask questions they didn’t know the answers to (or didn’t want to know the answers to), and they didn’t want to generate evidence that could be used against their program in court.

And, to be fair, government prosecutors hadn’t yet proven they wouldn’t use a program’s own information against it.

But, as a consequence, it meant that compliance learning products were designed to collect as little information about their audience as possible. For instance:

  • Tests required a passing score of 100%: This way, a prosecutor couldn’t uncover that a bad actor had previously failed a question on the subject. (“So you KNEW this individual was unfamiliar with the definition of a government official, and yet you did nothing.” Or: “So being 80% ethical sounds good enough to you?”)
  • Learner activity was not tracked: If it took you 99 attempts to pass a test, you were the only person who knew it. If you had to take a course 10 times to pass the test, no one would have any idea. What could they do about it if they did? Introducing the possibility seemed dangerous.
  • Few companies gave learner surveys or tried to seriously identify gaps in knowledge: In the early days of compliance, just getting a training initiative out the door was a huge undertaking. Why try to collect information that might undo all your work — by creating evidence there was material that employees didn’t really understand or agree with?

In the spirit of Apple’s “the only thing that’s changed is everything,” the only thing wrong with this way of thinking was everything — at least from the perspective of persuasion. To really influence an audience, you need to know that group of people inside and out, to the point where you know how they think, what they want, what they fear, and what obstacles or resistance they might have to your message.

Once you know your audience that well, you can create messages that really resonate with them.

To be fair, many compliance officers were already plugged into the culture and mindsets of the organizations where they worked. But by actively avoiding any information that could be used against them, they lost opportunities to dig deeper into where the stumbling blocks were. Where were employees getting lost, or having trouble making the leap? Where were the stubborn pockets of culture that resisted the direction? What information did employees discount or ignore — and why?

These days, though, most compliance officers I speak with are eager to have a conversation about innovation and effective learning — and, when they say those words, they typically mean something like: How can we use modern communication techniques and tools to really reach employees in a whole new way?

Which opens up exciting possibilities — especially for a start-up like Rethink Compliance, where we’re asking ourselves exactly the same question.

* Incidentally, Jay’s interview also makes the point that, in this age of consolidation and one-stop shopping for compliance products, compliance programs should also consider when they would benefit from working with a specialist. We couldn't agree more!

** Of course, this is still a core requirement for any compliance program today. But the government has now engineered the neat trick of making measurement-driven effectiveness a key component of defensibility, so now companies HAVE to look more closely at whether or not their policies, training, and communications are really working.

Read Part 2 here.