Always-on learning: Evolving L&D’s role

Seen less, experienced more

Always-on learning: Evolving L&D’s role

Posted by Matt Stevens on May 31, 2017.

Traditionally, the role of the learning and development (L&D) function was plain to see, evident first in various course catalogs and instructor-led classroom training and later in e-learning that was essentially classroom training transferred online. Today, however, L&D is evolving to be a more ubiquitous, more behind-the-scenes force for supporting and enabling employee development and performance.

The idea is that L&D becomes “invisible” —in the background but always on, able to meet learners where they are, at the point of need, with a learning solution that meets that need.1 The learning experience is holistic, not confined to a particular course or session but an ongoing presence throughout an employee’s tenure with the organization. L&D doesn’t “own” learning as much as anticipate, curate, and enable it. It uses a variety of technologies and tools to make learning accessible from a variety of sources in a variety of modalities and to encourage learner-driven knowledge sharing and collaboration.

For many organizations, achieving this ever-present, experiential vision requires a substantial shift in L&D capabilities. Bersin by Deloitte notes that as many as two-thirds of companies it surveys still practice more traditional models of corporate training.2 The good news is the great potential the shift presents for L&D to have a significant and positive impact not only on individual performance but also on business performance. It’s also an exciting time to be an L&D professional precisely because roles and responsibilities are shifting.

Moving from episodic to continuous learning
An example comes from one of our clients who is in the process of making this transition. People formerly called trainers are now becoming experience managers, so named because will they not only be handling traditional classroom facilitation but also facilitating the broader learning experience. This could include things like encouraging peer-to-peer dialogue through internal social media channels, moderating discussions, posing questions, distributing online assignments, connecting learners to relevant online articles or resources, and similar activities that make learning a more integral and continuous part of employees’ work lives.

Another shift happening is today’s instructional designers becoming learning experience designers and content curators. This reflects need to manage an increasingly wide range of learning content sources internal and external to the organization. The L&D organization provides the governance and infrastructure for learning and guides the instructional integrity, but the content itself might be user-generated from learners themselves, it might leverage the vast numbers of corporate learning topics available broadly in the marketplace, and it might come from commercial or academic online video channels. We also see traditional instructional design skills being used more broadly to make on-the-job learning more effective.

The expansion of L&D technology represents another giant shift. Today you might have a learning management system (LMS) that serves as your system of record for learning registration and tracking. You might still have an LMS in the future, but as part of a much more robust digital platform that can provide a common user interface while serving as a portal to the greatly expanded range of internal and external learning content in a variety of modalities (traditional, online, video-based, mobile). As a result, the L&D team may expand to include user experience/user interface (UX/UI) designers, multimedia developers, and app developers.

Another always-on L&D shift is related to training measurement and assessment. Where traditional measurement tended to focus on learner satisfaction, there’s now a concerted effort to shift to more business-focused measures. So, has the learning actually improved some key business metric (e.g., has a learning activity for sales professionals had a measurable impact on sales, customer satisfaction scores, or the like)? Greater emphasis on analytics is a part of this as well; for example, you might look at user traffic patterns to see which learning content sources or modalities are getting the most use in order to make more informed decisions about where to focus learning resources and target what learners want and need.

Building or borrowing strategic capabilities
L&D functions have options for how to augment their team with new capabilities and transition to this new type of experience-oriented operating model. Simply adding team members with the desired skills is not always an option, at least not in the near term, given typical limitations like budget or headcount. But we have seen (and assisted in) L&D functions transitioning in other ways. For example:

  • Tapping non-L&D subject matter experts. You don’t have to rely on just retraining professional trainers to become the facilitators of the learning experience. One organization we worked with used its instructional design resources to create an online forum of key development topics for a particular job/role, and then handed the reins to a subject matter expert (SME) to moderate the group. The SME (a business leader or individual contributor) would spark discussions, pose provocative or challenging questions, answer questions, and generally oversee the group’s progress. It’s essentially a modernized extension of the concept of “leader as teacher,” which traditionally involved introducing leaders into classroom settings.In a similar vein of tapping in-house expertise to share responsibility for learning, another L&D group leveraged the corporate directory to include an “expert finder.” Employees could click a few buttons to opt in to be identified as an expert in certain topic areas, and would then show up in the search results of other employees seeking knowledge or assistance in that area. Users could even rate the experts on the quality and helpfulness of the assistance they received.
  • Borrowing non-L&D resources and methodology. A manufacturing client we work with made a leapfrog-size jump toward experiential L&D using resources well outside the L&D function. The group borrowed facilitators of the company’s R&D innovation process and experience design process to help them apply methodology used for manufacturing design to the design of a new coaching development experience for leaders.Similarly, L&D organizations unable to add staff to their own departmental organization chart can look to “lift and leverage” those capabilities through dotted-line connections to other parts of the organization. This could mean using marketing staff to help rebrand L&D and market L&D offerings, HR or operations data analysts to analyze learning data, or app developers from the customer-facing side of the business to create learning apps.
  • Leveraging service providers. Another trend we’re seeing is leveraging technology and service providers. Because they work with many organizations, they generally have a much broader view, are eager to work with organizations, and can provide insights to make learning happen more effectively.

A transitional journey, not a quick trip
Executing a true learning experience strategy is a multistep journey to:

  • Assess your organization’s current capabilities against desired future capabilities to identify gaps.
  • Design a learning experience operating model & organization structure.
  • Define roles and resource requirements for a learning experience organization.
  • Develop an implementation and sustainability plan—including change management to help drive and support this new experiential learning culture throughout the organization.

However, much of what we’ve talked about here can be thought of as low-hanging fruit—a way to jump-start the shift to always-on L&D while you pursue a broader transition strategy. Think about how you might introduce experiential learning, even to a pilot group. What non-L&D resources or subject matter expertise can you tap into within your organization? It’s an interesting paradox that the more you can do to make L&D invisible, yet always on, the more potential you have to raise L&D’s credibility and business value in very visible ways.

Matt Stevens is a learning specialist leader in the Human Capital Organization Transformation & Talent practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, where he helps organizations in a wide range of industries define and implement talent development strategies.

1 Janet Clary and Dani Johnson, Capabilities for “Invisible L&D,” Research Bulletin, Bersin by Deloitte, January 2017..

2 Josh Bersin, Predictions for 2017: Everything Is Becoming Digital; Bersin by Deloitte, December 2016..

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