Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Learning, beyond digital

Corporate Investment in L&D has been growing at double digits for five years and seems poised to continue. However, the results of these investments are strongly challenged. To increase its impact, L&D must reinvest in its own talent.

Increasing investment, mixed results

Today, corporate learning is delivered through an ever increasing number of methods, from time-tested Instructor-led training to emerging peer-to-peer learning or MOOCs. Corporate Universities have often been early adopters of new delivery methods and technology: according to Josh Bersin, from Deloitte, expenses and investment in Learning & Development have been growing at double digits since 2011, at the same time that 35 million people enrolled in MOOCs. McKinsey reports that above 60% of a panel of CLOs plan to increase their spending in L&D and the number of formal learning hours per employee. 

However, this increasing investment in L&D does not seem to be convincing everyone. According to Korn Ferry, CEOs “would rather invest in technology than people”; and according to Degree, employees give their employers L&D’s opportunities a … -31 NPS! while only 38% of L&D professionals think their organizations are ready for the learners of the future.

In the same report mentioned above, McKinsey finds that only 50% of a panel of CLOs think that their corporate universities “enable their companies to meet strategic objectives”, going on to suggest that digital provides Corporate Universities with an opportunity to change “on the order of magnitude experienced a century ago, when they developed from low-level workshops into mature institutions”.

What to make of these two contrasting realities? Does the transformation of L&D and corporate universities, from classic ILT approaches to a digital-powered blended learning experience, account for below average performance for L&D departments? Or could it be that the digital hype is hurting L&D departments?

Learning & Development strategy must move beyond the digital hype.

Corporate universities, communities of practice, e-learning approaches, leadership programs, on-the-job (OTC) learning, … This wealth of different delivery approaches for what used to be “training programs” begs the question : what exactly is Learning & Development, as a corporate function? And what real challenges does this organizational function face? 

At the highest level, Learning & Development is a corporate process implemented to develop individual and collective skills and behaviours that impact both the organization and the individual employee. 

For the organization, the main impact is the development of new capabilities, or the refinement or transformation of existing ones. Additionally, learning has other impacts, like improved engagement and mobilization and decreased overall cost structure through decreased turnover or improved mobility.

At the individual level, learning provides opportunities for people development by helping build new skills, enhancing professional behaviour, improving self-confidence and even by developing employee networks and reinforcing corporate culture.

From a logical point of view, there seems to be a sequence to Learning & Development impact: people equipped with new skills and professional behaviours are the means by which organizational capabilities are enhanced or created. At the same time, people learn and develop when they participate in a project that leverages new capabilities, making Learning & Development a key function in the organization’s learning cycle or journey. It is the function that sets the direction and accelerates learning to align it with the strategy of the corporation, and therefore a key participant in the strategy design process or cycle.

Well, is it really the case today? Not necessarily: Deloitte reports that only 36% of HR departments are involved in the AI-driven work redesign, and that HR only leads this effort in 5% of the cases. It is as if L&D was overwhelmed by external, digital, trends and unable to cope with the operational challenges that these trends present it with.

Brokering learning to talent.

And being overwhelmed is understandable. Business is quick. New products and services appear overnight at some competitor, pushing us to consider the development of a new capability. But by the time that information reaches the L&D department, that very need might have become obsolete, thus putting an increased pressure on L&D to be as close as possible both to the front-line and to the strategic suite. Some of the new L&D approaches (like OTJ learning, peer-to-peer learning or even communities of practice) are an attempt to respond to that increased speed.

More generally, digital learning, by allowing learning to become independent of time and space, provides a new paradigm for the delivery and consumption of learning: learning can be consumed in context, when it is needed, and it can be consumed in small chunks, after-hours, when commuting … In short, learning can happen on demand, it can be pulled by either the need of the employee or the need of the context. It can even happen in micro-moments, (“micro-learning” has already been dubbed as the future of learning: “While spending copious amounts of time on such gadgets sharpens certain cognitive skills, it also shortens attention spans. This is why employers may want to seriously consider utilizing micro learning in corporate training” - Social Learning Blog).

We are here in the real of disintermediation, that deserves careful attention. Disintermediation has at least two different dimensions: the first one consist in diminishing the number of steps / players that are needed to bring a service to a final customer/employee. For a financial controller needing to acquire new skills on the latest ERP feature, disintermediation of this kind brings important value add.

However, there is a second, more worrying, aspect to disintermediation: because of this need for speed, the learning dimension of intermediation is in danger of disappearing. The sheer pace of evolution in most trades and occupations makes becoming an expert in these a very complicated matter. Increasingly, internal L&D associates become experts at finding the right expert to deliver a course, the right key-note speaker to energize a meeting or the right curriculum on which to build her own course. 

John Hagel has noted an empty market space for Trusted Talent Advisors, that would complement the current activities of Universities and Learning Institutions and help individuals with their lifelong learning strategies. Similarly, we think there might be an empty Trusted Learning Advisors function within some corporations.

Trusted Learning Advisors would engage in a long term view of individual and corporate development needs (capabilities, skills, behaviours), and would act as advisors both to employees and business leaders.

In the end, the increase in speed requires an intelligent use of digital technologies, and namely of delivery methods, but also a new player that is able to take a step back and ensure that the emerging Digital Learning System is oriented to developing strategic skills and capabilities. There is a need, in short, for human management of the omni-channel learning experience in the corporation.

Slowing the pace

At a time when digital transformation is set to increase its pace, when new and disrupting trends (AI, robotics, neuroscience, to name but a few) will certainly increase the speed of evolution of our organizations, our learning needs are as deep and as urgent as they get. We are in need of contextual learning to respond to the rhythm of evolution and we are in need of direction in our individual and collective learning paths if we are to remain skilled, engaged and mobilized to do our work every day.

In a context of accelerating business speed, continuous change, increased performance pressure and uncertain near future, employees need something more than technology to help them navigate their own professional future.

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