It’s a good year for learning leaders and their vendors.
After decades of fighting for budgets and justifying their existence, these L&D professionals are finally getting the respect and resources they deserve. Almost of half of learning leaders report that in 2019 their budgets are increasing, 77 percent say they are adding staff, and 82 percent say their executives actively support efforts to engage employees in professional development.
This is translating into larger investments in learning content and platforms, and more conversations about the link between learning and business outcomes, said David Mallon, vice president and chief analyst, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting. “The C-suite is finally catching up to what they have always intuitively understood but never addressed,” he said. “That learning and performance are two sides of the same coin.”
Learning leaders are also facing increasing pressure to address the ballooning skills gap in the workplace and to create a culture where employees are constantly building new skills. Fully 85 percent of companies report that they are ‘reskilling their workforce’ — and more than half say they are either doing this to a significant extent or that they plan to in the future, according to data from APQC.
“Those numbers really stand out,” said Elissa Tucker, principal research lead of human capital management for APQC. Companies now see learning as an integrated element of the work experience and it is changing the way they create and deliver content to meet the needs of employees. “They want consumer grade learning experiences that are available on demand and pushed to employees at the point of need,” she said.
To do this, companies can’t just roll out a catalog of content and assume people will use it, noted Tanya Staples, vice president of product, learning content at LinkedIn Learning. “Employees need motivation and direction, and access to the right content at the right time.”
In response, many learning providers are deploying artificial intelligence tools that can recommend content for every employee based on their role, learning preferences, career map and other personalized criteria so they have exactly what they need when they need it.
The content is also getting chunkier, giving employees options to learn bits of knowledge between meetings, on their lunch hours and on the way home. This has led LinkedIn to take an “audio first” approach with several courses so employees can listen to them on their commutes. “You can’t do audio first for tech skills like coding, but it works well for leadership and other soft skills.”
Virtual reality is also emerging as a tool to help employees experience immersive learning experiences in a self-paced learning environment. DDI, for example, is testing a VR course on diversity, where participants in a meeting experience common diversity-related biases, like being excluded from the discussion, having their ideas stolen and not being allowed to voice an opinion.
“It’s incredibly powerful,” said DDI CEO Tacy Byham. She’s seen several men complete the course in shock. “They put down the goggles and say, ‘Oh my god, I’ve done this,’ ” she said.
Don’t Get Distracted
These innovations aren’t just driving new forms of content. Companies are also looking to vendors for better monitoring tools so they can assess whether employees are using the content and learning new skills that are relevant to the business. That includes understanding when they access content, what drives their learning needs, whether they are completing courses and whether it is driving new behavior.
“They want vendors to provide data on what’s working so they can course correct,” Mallon said.
These monitoring efforts have to go beyond whether a new channel or catalog of content is being used. “The world of learning and development has a history of chasing bright and shiny objects,” he said. “But that can be a trap.” Instead, he urges companies to look for proof of value from their learning investments. “It doesn’t matter what channel they are using, what matters is whether it made them more successful in their roles.”
Learning leaders also cannot forget that there will always be a human element in learning – especially for soft skills training, said Byham. Self-paced content, virtual reality, AI and other automated features may be useful enablers of learning but they don’t eliminate the need for a personal touch.
“You can learn coaching in a virtual course but you still need to practice,” she said. “Technology will never be a panacea for human interaction.”