US Invests In 'Learning Renaissance,' But Must Re-evaluate Methods

Duke Daehling, Director, Talent Management, Analytics, and Strategy, IBM Smarter Workforce
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Duke Daehling, Director, Talent Management, Analytics, and Strategy, IBM Smarter Workforce

An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Jack Welch’s words were never truer than now, as organizations across the country strive to be more flexible and agile to keep up with the fast-paced nature of today’s business world. This race to maintain a competitive edge has led us into a learning renaissance.

“The corporate learning environment is so governed and downright cumbersome that it makes people averse to learning”

About fifteen years ago, there was an explosion of growth in the learning industry. Hundreds of companies were buying e-learning modules, and hundreds claimed to have the best CDROM or web simulation program in the market. We are now again in the midst of a similar growth spurt.

US companies already spend an aggregated estimate of between $80 billion and $140 billion annually on training and learning programs to build organizational capability, according to numerous industry analysts. Now, they are projecting a massive uptick in budgets for training, development and learning. How is it different this time around?

Everyone understands the importance of building organizational capability, and the corporate investment is a primary indicator of this. That said, there is a disconnect somewhere. Companies that conduct regular training sessions and encourage employees to improve skills continuously, see a lack of employee buy-in. The corporate learning environment is so governed and downright cumbersome that it makes people averse to learning. Recognizing this, companies are looking for better approaches that focus on what drives performance and user experience.

What’s wrong with existing learning methods?

There is a growing thirst for instant self-prompted learning. Outside of work, people have access to data and information on the web that allows them to learn new things and answer myriad questions every day. But suppose the only way to do this was to sign up for a scheduled time to review a boring PowerPoint? That creates a barrier to learning, and this is what is happening in the organizational context. But how can organizations revamp their learning systems to remove barriers, engage learners and realize significant returns on their investments?

When we search for answers, we typically look for very specific information to solve the problem or question at hand through an internet search, or look online for a rating, comment or conversation thread where someone has asked for a solution to the exact problem we have. Here, we trust the opinions of people we’ve never met. The great part about learning this way is that you can choose to learn more only if you need to or if you find it interesting or useful enough. And, you are more likely to retain the lessons you learn because you are applying them practically.

Contrast this with typical corporate learning, which is more like a sheep dip program that you go through, hoping all the while that some of it sticks in your brain long enough for you to remember it sometime in the future when you actually need it. Also, these programs assume everyone is starting from the same level of knowledge, has similar motivations to learn, or has a similar learning style to everyone else taking the course. While it’s great that enterprises recognize the value of learning, the outcomes do not always match the effort invested. Fewer than 10 percent of organizations know what is working and what is not. A significant number don’t know which investments make people better than the competition.

Would you use more learning programs if they were organized in a manner that allows you to learn as you normally do outside of work? Would you want to collaborate with people and share expertise just when they need it most? Would your teams use a tool that gives them access to other people’s expertise, experiences, and easy fixes? Chances are you would answer yes to all of these questions.

What does the immediate future hold?

The surge in budgets I mentioned earlier indicates the significant growth happening in the industry. A few important facets are rapidly evolving.

There are players with discrete pieces of IP that are of very high value when it comes to learning; for example, teaching sales people to be better at selling using tools, systems, and methods. These segments of IP content are critical assets in the space and their owners will become smarter about the ways they sell to organizations and how content is delivered to learners.

Also, content delivery is becoming more sophisticated, following the way other industries deliver to consumers. A good example is the way retailers are targeting consumers today, matching products to small-segment buyers with the use of analytics.

Often, people want asynchronous or instant access to people in their company with discrete expertise on things that matter to their job, but which they don’t need to access regularly. For example, a sales executive might need an answer to a question for a specific customer on a topic important to that customer, but unnecessary for all sellers to know. This is an institutional asset and learning in this manner can happen only in a collaborative environment where knowledge is democratized and part of work culture.

Last, but most important, the availability of analytics to understand what works in learning and development has caught up with your imagination and demand. This fuels the effectiveness of the two previous points and creates a reinforcement cycle to achieve new insights to increase competitive advantage. The foundation of this analytic process is not new but has become easier and faster.

Currently, in the learning function, we understand the profile of the person and then the events or assets that could contribute to the environment or conditions of success for them. Imagine knowing this for a university graduate from day one to give them a customized learning journey based on their uniqueness and the role/geography they are in. Or, picture helping a first-time manager develop faster in a way that resonates with both their learning styles and the regional needs. This allows you to know which investments are the most likely to achieve the return on the asset and achieve the competitive advantage Mr. Welch was alluding to.

We are experiencing the biggest learning renaissance and peak in corporate initiatives related to reinventing training and development and creating cultures of learning. Technology to enable all of the above ways of learning already exists; organizations are using them and seeing great outcomes. Are you?

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