Some learning leaders are concerned that a decline in formal learning is creating a smaller share of the “learning market” for their departments. It’s like a marketing department’s concern over a declining share of the consumer’s wallet as other products or services displace their own. In our profession, the worry is driven by a move toward employee-directed learning; employees bypass formal corporate training programs in favor of external online learning opportunities as well as self-directed learning on the internet and informal learning through their own networks.
Several studies in the past two years have confirmed the shift, but should we be concerned? In general, I don’t think so. First, for the sake of those new to our profession, let’s be clear that it was never the goal of any corporate learning and development department to control 100 percent of the learning for the organization’s employees. Nor was it ever a reality. Informal learning has always taken place outside of the learning department’s reach.
Although I’m not a fan of the 70-20-10 principle, it certainly reminds us that formal training plays an important but usually limited role. With regard to control, most organizations have always offered discretionary or elective learning opportunities, including tuition assistance, where employees were free to choose their own learning.
Now, back to the question. The answer really depends on the learning department’s mission. If the mission is narrowly defined to focus on providing employees with consistent, uniform, basic skills, and if those employees are now getting inconsistent, perhaps incorrect information on their own that detracts from their performance, then, yes, we should be concerned.
Think of basic skills training in industries like manufacturing, banking or food services where the goal is for employees to perform tasks in defined ways. Similarly, if your focus is primarily on compliance, you don’t want employees getting a lot of incorrect information on the internet. In these cases the amount of formal training provided has probably not decreased, but the informal training has increased, so the share of formal has declined. Essentially, you may have to work harder or redesign your formal learning to consider what employees are picking up through their own channels.
If the mission is to provide learning to improve performance through additional training beyond the basics, then there is less reason for concern. Think of formal learning to improve the marketing employees’ performance or to improve most leadership development programs. As employees learn more about marketing or leadership on their own, the share of the knowledge they have gained on these topics from your formal training will decrease, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
If they are actively looking to learn from outside resources, that shows a high level of engagement. As in the aforementioned cases, you may need to consider these new sources of learning when designing programs. You could incorporate the good informal sources that are consistent with your approach, and address the issues or problems with the approaches not consistent with your formal teaching. In either case, employees are probably going to learn more and be better prepared for the challenges they face on the job.
Last, consider a mission primarily created to increase employee engagement. Here there is little reason for concern if employees migrate to learning opportunities outside the formal learning framework. Yes, your share of their total learning is decreasing, but hopefully, employees are finding what they need. In this case you should do all you can to help them find and access great learning — whatever the source. The easier you can make it for them, the more engaged they will be. Mission accomplished.
This shift toward decreased share of learning for corporate learning and development departments is indeed permanent, and the trend is likely to accelerate as more outside resources become available, and organizations make it easier for employees to access them. Some caution is required depending on the department’s mission and type of offerings, and the shift is likely to force changes in formal learning design, which is fine. The future remains bright.
David Vance is the executive director for the Center for Talent Reporting, founding and former president of Caterpillar University and author of “The Business of Learning.” Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.
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