Steps on the way to omni-learning

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– By Peppe Auricchio –

Corporate learning’s transformation is being announced across all channels, and with increasing vociferousness. Practitioners and experts alike warn that the way employees learn today is nothing like the learning of old – and hence, that disruption is upon us. This disruption, they say, concerns both the learning experience and the learning function.

Digitalisation is allowing learners to resolve old needs in fundamentally new ways – and hence alter their learning experience. For example, learners no longer need to keep formal and informal learning separate; they can link the two via platforms that capture all their learning moments – in whatever context they occur. Likewise, learners need not put up with “one size fits all” interventions that vaguely meet their needs; adaptive learning tools use data to “personalise” the learning experience, by suggesting future activity based on past interactions as well as peer recommendations.

L&D teams must adapt to the implications of these changes. Continuous, data-driven learning requires a dramatic change in the way they provide learning. Rather than defining programmes and administering them, today’s reality requires a capability to support employees’ engagement with their learning – wherever and whenever it occurs. As a result, L&D must transition from being a visible “function” with responsibility over learning interventions, to an invisible “dimension” charged with creating the conditions for learning to flourish “naturally” (ie for a learning culture to take root).

Dealing with this reality is no easy task. Especially if one considers the other drivers, in addition to digitalisation, that are influencing the landscape that is emerging. These include new realities in learners’ jobs as well as changing skills requirements.

The “talent tsunami” generated by these forces is radically changing companies’ expectations of learningand doing so at an ever-increasing speed. Learning professionals must not only understand these forces, but also rethink their tasks and responsibilities because of their impact and develop the capabilities that new routines require.

For a Chief Learning Officer (CLO) the kind of transformation required is both strategic and organisational in its nature. What that means is a CLO must first define a vision of what the organisation is becoming and what it should be doing, and then drive an orchestrated set of initiatives in support of that vision. For CLOs to be successful in this ambition, they require certain ingredients – from top-management support to streamlined decision-making capability to a substantial budget allocation.

Might this simply be too much to ask for, especially over a short period? For some CLOs, that may certainly be the case. Research1 reveals that several organisations are still struggling to put in place the foundations for a new learning environment. This includes everything from implementing a new digital platform to developing (or acquiring) skills within the L&D team. Without these basics in place, a wholescale transformation may be an unreasonable ask. So what is an alternative approach? CLOs should consider “stretch” experiments.

A “stretch” strategy uses targeted experimentation to develop new organisational competencies. This experimentation, in green fields or in existing business activity, can over time produce change that is more widespread and so lead to transformation. However, in the short-term CLOs can use “stretch” experiments to learn about unfamiliar solutions. If these solutions prove successful, they can then be scaled to capture greater value; if nothing comes of them, little harm has been done – and the learning in and of itself is of value.

The key to successful experimentation is selecting a good context. A good context is a contained environment that allows testing of specific elements of a solution. Through user involvement, this testing becomes an integral part of the design and development of a new solution. Within the scope of activities of a traditional L&D team, there is one such context – and that is a formal learning experience, or more simply put a “programme”. Indeed, programmes are ideal platforms through which assess the impact from the use of new modes and methodologies and ask learners for buy-in before eventual adoption.

One would think that in the era of digitalisation, experimentation with new approaches is rampant. The reality is that for all the talk about EdTech and the pressure to offer something fresh, there has not been significant application of digital learning for senior and mid-level leaders.

Findings from a study sponsored by UNICON (The Use of Blended Learning in Executive Education: The Voice of the Learner; Auricchio, Frazer, Prouty-McLaren; 2017) suggest that corporate L&D teams are hesitant experimenters. Across over 20 programmes profiled, the study found little variance in how traditional methodologies (coaching, action learning) were deployed. Furthermore, in these programmes the use of online learning was extremely limited; indeed, most programmes lacked a digital infrastructure of any kind.

The data collected suggests that L&D professionals like to stay close to what they do best; in other words, use known “tools of the trade” to craft solutions that fit what they believe to be learners’ needs. It also confirms that what they do best is facilitate face-to-face learning. In other words, the hype about “blended learning” is just that: the use of online learning in combination with face-to-face learning has yet to live up to its promise in a corporate context. Might this failure be an opportunity? Perhaps, if CLOs can use the aggressive pursuit of blended learning as an excuse to experiment with new approaches; wetting their feet in the pool commonly referred to as “digital-age learning”.

For this hope to be satisfied, CLOs and their teams must embrace a new approach when designing formal learning experiences.

Today’s “digital learning” does not simply mean a shift in tools; it is a shift toward learner-centric design. To capture the opportunity digitalisation offers, L&D practitioners must look at learner needs as a source of inspiration for new approaches. In other words, they must be open to meeting old needs in new ways.

Unfortunately, acquiring this flexibility is hard; the temptation to revert to an existing toolkit is strong, in any profession. Yet resisting that temptation is critical to create programmes that are optimal from the point of view of the learner. L&D professionals must engage in the design process with a key question in mind: “what is important to the learner?”. By thinking about the learner’s pains (and gains), they can then explore how to best address these – given the tools available to us today. This process of rediscovering needs and questioning how to solve them in our current context is what can produce learning experiences that are novel because it opens the door to leveraging the possibilities of today’s connected, data-driven world.

Perhaps an example is useful to illustrate the potential of this approach. One of the wellknown objectives for attending a programme is to engage with a network of peers. Until recently, this network was typically established and developed mostly during face-to-face time. This was justified by learning designers with the excuse that face-to-face interactions are uniquely suited to building relationships. While that may be true in part… can we break this need down into what is important to the learner, and address these pains and gains in a different way today – given the tools at our disposal?

What a learner values, in the process of networking, is varied. At the very start of a programme, participants are curious to find out more about each other – some basic information about work, nationality, family, interests, etc. of their fellow learners. During the program, participants seek data about how the network is developing; who they have met, who the influencers are, who can provide them with useful resources. Following its completion, participants are anxious about maintaining the relationships they have established.

In most programmes, these aspects of networking are addressed poorly, or not at all. But by being open to the possibility of new ways to satisfy them, effective solutions emerge.

For example, fellow participants can meet before they do so in the flesh by engaging online in “meet and greet” exercises.

Additionally, network diagnostics can help participants assess their network, and map that to the people in their programme. Finally, a social community can extend interaction beyond a program’s completion. Adopting these simple solutions is technically easy; indeed, even conceptually they seem trivial. However, dong so systematically requires L&D teams to leave the “product and service box” they occupy, and move to the “needs to be served box”. By identifying new solutions to solve what is most important to the learner, L&D teams can run experiments that allow them to gradually develop the capabilities needed to enable digital-age learning. While these experiments can be challenging, perhaps for many they are a less daunting starting point to unleashing the power of digitalisation.

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