Senior learning and development executives, much like their counterparts in technology and other people-centric industries, are always talking or at least thinking about the next big thing. That doesn’t necessarily mean the latest gadgets or innovative new systems that frequently promise to cure all learning needs and performance ills at the push of a button. The next big thing in learning could be an idea or a theory, a concept that if properly planned and executed, will offer learning leaders strategic direction and guidance in addition to bottom-line results. In a recent discussion about the future of learning and development, Claire Schooley, senior industry analyst at Forrester Research, speculated on a few hot buttons that might bear consideration.
One of the top things the industry can look forward to is the integration of work and learning. Some larger organizations have already begun to walk this path. Schooley pointed to IBM’s easier time finding clients and customers who want to work with the company’s on-demand learning initiative around embedded learning as evidence. But many others lag behind and continue to follow more traditional methods of learning delivery. “In the past, when it was time to learn you stopped your work,” Schooley said. “You went to another building to a class or maybe it was a week-long class at a different location, and so you had to get things together and make sure that work was taking care of itself and go for the learning. That has moved to learning right at your work location via e-learning, the virtual classroom and resources that are informal in some ways, but when you think about the amount of learning that one gets once you leave school in an informal way, you get it more informally than you do formally. In fact, I think it’s something like 80 percent is done on an informal basis as opposed to maybe 20 that’s a formally structured event.”
Schooley said the integration of work and learning is closely linked to increased performance because if employees can get the learning or the information they need in real time, the sky is the limit on what they can accomplish. “We also have that blurring of information of learning. Is it information or is it learning? Does it really make a difference if it’s going to help you do your job? I see people being able to access materials that will help them perform more successfully in the job that they’re doing. And of course that’s always very positive to the executives because better-performing employees means a higher bottom line, and all in all it’s a win-win.”
Of course finagling this integration between work and learning is easier said than done. Schooley said like any paradigm shift in the way corporate learning operates, everything that can be done won’t be. The reasons why vary with the organization, the budget, the culture and the purpose for individual learning interventions. But preferences in learning delivery methods have definitely changed, and now it’s a case of the shorter the learning, the better employees like it. “We’re getting to the kind of bits of learning where it’s not a half-hour course, it’s a six-minute learning object or a learning chunk that will help you in the particular job you’re doing. You see that there are certain ones available, and you go and look and see whether or not they’re appropriate for you.
“I think another thing that’s happening is the whole notion of search,” Schooley said. “Think about the amount of time that people spend searching to find what they want. We really need a better method of search, and that all goes hand in hand with this integration of work and learning. You’re constantly trying to get the information that’s most appropriate for the employee right there in front of them. Sometimes this can mean really embedded learning in which the learning is actually integrated into the application that you’re learning. That’s happening today with a number of the ERP applications: SAP, PeopleSoft and so forth. If you get stuck as you’re going along, some learning will pop up and help you get through that particular process. You can take that learning right there, two minutes, then come back and move on, not having to leave the application to find the particular chapter that talked about the particular issue that you’re having trouble with and then come back to the application. People won’t do that. They need it right there. That’s the real embedded learning. You see the results with this type of short training that’s able to be put into practice immediately. The quicker you can actually put it into action by applying that learning into a work situation, the more likely you are to retain that.”
Schooley said there are still some organizations out there that have yet to come around to the universal importance of learning. It plays into that paradigm shift from traditional learning to development offerings that include communities of practice, expertise groups, mentors, and potentially tutors or coaches if they’re available. “It’s much more than just the content,” Schooley explained. “It’s the whole environment with emphasis being placed on the fact that learning is important within the organization. We’re still struggling with that one. There are many, many people who feel that, ‘That’s over here.’ It’s not part of the mainstream, and it really is if you’re going to develop employees that are going to move the business forward. Learning has got to be aligned with the business objectives. If that doesn’t happen, you’re not going to have skilled employees, and the business is not going to move. I think a lot of executives are thinking about that today, but it’s not just the learning content. It’s that whole environment that really supports a learning, collaborative kind of environment to do work and everybody’s interested in helping everyone else be productive. That’s very important.”
If companies want to grow and advance beyond competitors in a global marketplace, their learning organizations also must address the generation of younger workers that are entering the workforce and advancing through the ranks to replace retiring baby boomers. Schooley said these young professionals are different from 20 years ago. “This young person demands that technology be a part of the work environment. They’ve been used to technology since they were born. They also want much more flexibility, and they want to be able to do some work remotely. They don’t want to have a kind of 9-to-5 responsibility. It might be 9 to 3, and then do something else, and then be online in the evening until midnight. That kind of flexibility is something that many companies need to deal with. These are young people who want to be heard. They want to interact with executives when they have a good idea. They want to be valued. That means new ways of learning, whether it’s an MP3 player that they’re going to get a lot of their information on going back and forth to work. They’ve got their iPods, so you might as well use them for learning as well. You’ve got a whole different way of approaching learning.”
Learning organizations also must examine where best to fit older and retired workers. “Right now in the workforce you’ve got four different age groups in the workforce, the older ones in the 60s, baby boomers, the 30s and the new worker who does not know a world without technology,” Schooley explained. “That means different needs and being flexible in terms of how programs are developed. It also points out a need for age diversity training within organizations because older people have difficulty understanding why these young people want to move jobs 15 times, and they will in their lifetime. They’re not going to stay for 40 years like the 60-year-old. Then, of course, you’ve got the older workers retiring. A lot of them say, ‘I’m healthy, I feel good, I don’t want to retire. Maybe I want a job that doesn’t have quite as much pressure on it but, I still want to stay and be productive in the workforce.’”
Clever organizations already are wrestling with these issues of age, diversity and succession planning as they pertain to learning by initiating mentoring programs to partner younger executives with senior ones so that all that valuable knowledge doesn’t leave the company when the latter executive retires. “That’s excellent as long as it’s done more than just at the top,” Schooley said. “What I see is that kind of succession planning always done with top executives, but I’d like to see that really cascading down so that you have that with people who are not as high up in the company. More and more is being done looking at succession planning and how you provide support. If you have someone who is retiring and they’ve made it known that in six months they’re going to do that, immediately, what kind of program are they going to go into where they mentor and talk to other people? Maybe there is some information that you want to get down in some kind of recorded format. The most important information is so embedded in the head of retirees they don’t even think to talk about it. It’s just natural for them.
“I also see a lot of organizations taking this opportunity of the retiring workforce to restructure the particular department or position that person is leaving,” Schooley said. “They’re not doing a one-to-one fill always. They’re looking at it and saying, ‘Now that these two people have left, maybe we need to think about doing business a little smarter in some ways. Do we need these particular two positions in exactly the same way they’re described now or should they be changed?’ People are doing a lot of that. It’s interesting times.”
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