Corporate learning and development has undergone a digital revolution in recent months — and a much needed one. As companies have pivoted, creating new virtual programs for thousands of colleagues, it has become clear these shifts will have profound, ongoing implications for the way we think about learning, both as learners and as learning professionals. Getting this right will propel organizations into the world of “learning for the digital age.”
For too long, L&D has focused on creating day-long training programs where employees are all on the same path, regardless of their individual knowledge or experience. COVID-19 has hastened the shift to personalized, asynchronous programs, from learning “just in case” to learning “just in time” and “just what you need,” from not just creating content but curating it too. Accelerated by the urgency of the pandemic response, advances in technology, including virtual classrooms and artificial intelligence, also hold exciting possibilities for the future of learning.
These changes will affect us all. Learning professionals must seize this moment to switch decisively from a content-centered model of education (dictated by a body of knowledge to master) to a human-centered learning experience that fits the immediate need of the learner (dictated by a problem at hand). Why ask a colleague to learn 20 modules they might need, when they can just select the one they do need?
This is not to downplay the challenges of recent months. This period has been a learning journey for me, personally. When COVID-19 hit our region and movement restrictions were imposed, it became quickly evident that the Majid Al Futtaim Leadership Institute needed to support our 6,000 office-based employees across 16 countries, who had become home-based overnight.
They didn’t just need safety briefings. They also needed guidance on how to optimize their time, utilize unfamiliar technology and adjust to the potential mental health challenges of remote working — and they needed it fast. Making this happen has accelerated our move into new areas of learning. It has also led to us asking a series of questions.
Can we act faster?
When faced with the urgent need to adapt our teaching materials or create new learning solutions, we resisted the temptation to create content from scratch. There’s a whole world of quality learning content already available online; selecting the right mix of ingredients to frame a topic helps in delivering content that learners are looking for, and at a faster pace.
At the Leadership Institute, our curation focused first on clarifying key objectives, such as how to work effectively from home during the COVID-19 crisis. We then identified the themes supporting this objective — for example, how to adopt the right mindset in challenging times, mastering technology and working effectively in virtual teams. From there we were able to identify existing quality content — such as learning Zoom, leading virtual meetings and improving listening skills.
Now learners can choose the content that best matches their current challenges or questions, or they may decide to follow the entire set of learning materials from beginning to end. They now have control over what they learn. That intrinsic motivation results in increased engagement with the content and, therefore, more lasting impact.
What is engaging in the digital world?
Does that two-day classroom-based seminar really work well when delivered in the same two-day format virtually? If your answer is yes, it may be time to get a second opinion. Replicating the classroom experience online simply doesn’t work.
Most workplace learners are so distracted by everyday tasks they find it hard to watch videos longer than four minutes, according to Bersin by Deloitte research. As workplace learning becomes more virtual, a complete digital redesign is needed, using all the tools available. An engaging virtual learning experience can comprise shorter interventions that are either synchronous or asynchronous: live sessions, group exercises, quizzes, group discussions, learner competitions through gamification, individual assignments and peer-to-peer coaching. All these elements, when embedded in a well-structured learning journey, create great levels of engagement.
At the Leadership Institute, we have transformed some of our two-day in-class programs into weeklong journeys that require one or two hours of learning activities per day. Some days people study on their own, at their own pace, when it is convenient for them, and on other days they attend live online sessions with faculty and participants to check in on their progress, ask questions and engage in group discussions.
How do people learn best?
We need to think beyond online lectures, white papers and videos. Social learning, where people can share ideas and learn from each other in a less formal setting, is a powerful tool. Throughout the pandemic we have used discussion groups across our organization to create touchpoints with peers, flattening hierarchies and enabling conversations across geographies on specific topics, from “kids, cats and team meetings” to “how to boost your resilience during challenging times.”
To be clear, change isn’t easy. Social learning thought leader Julian Stodd has written about the “real tension” that exists within leadership development to create an ongoing conversation, “versus the reality that learning is typically served up to people in abstract and time-bound courses.” Changing behaviors is an ongoing journey, not an event. But it is a challenge we must grasp.
There’s also a need to personalize learning further, considering differences in learning styles and in individual experience.
Some like to learn by themselves in a self-directed mode, while others prefer to be supported in a facilitated virtual learning journey, where there is a clear start and end date. In this “scaffolded learning” approach, the learner receives support from subject-matter experts, has a clear pathway divided into some self-directed elements to complete whenever is convenient, and other synchronous group activities.
Some may know a topic quite well and decide to skip it or may want to explore it further through optional resources and lessons. Others may need to spend more time on a topic that is new to them, at a more foundational level.
Providing learners with the flexibility to learn the way they prefer, through content that is most relevant or interesting to them, is a good recipe for “learning that sticks.” This is the power of learning personalization. Today, some learning platforms already leverage AI to search and recommend learning content that matches individual preferences. Tomorrow, AI will be the key to deliver hyper-personalized learning at scale.
Is there time?
L&D was already changing to be more convenient. Over the past two decades, we have transitioned from the dawn of e-learning catalogues through to continuous learning and real-time, always-on digital learning.
But COVID-19 has accelerated the next step — what corporate learning leader Josh Bersin has called learning in the flow of work. Put simply, in high-pressure situations, workers often don’t have the time to spend hours training — just 1 percent of a typical workweek is dedicated to learning, according to some estimates. So, it will increasingly be up to employees to integrate teachable moments into daily tasks. They must be able to reach out to peers and experts or access learning resources, just-in-time, when faced with new challenges. Employers must foster that learning culture and set up the learning infrastructure that will support it. This is an important step forward.
We have already used many of these techniques to train more of our colleagues than ever before. And virtual tools have enabled us to reach employees beyond the two or three countries where classroom setup was possible, to colleagues in 16 different countries. I have personally made new connections across our businesses and have learned a great deal from the exchange of ideas that has been created.
As a form of normality resumes, it will be a mistake if we fall back into old, familiar certainties. We were already living through great changes before COVID-19, from the expansion of digital to the acceleration of innovation and disruption that we as businesses must confront. All of this demands fresh insights and updated skills — companies and economies depend on it if they are to recover.
Indeed, in order to stay ahead, we must learn continuously, both as individuals and as companies. The mark of success will be to embed what we have learned this year so that we can better support future generations. It is time to leave our comfort zone.
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