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Learning transformation in action: eight key trends

This post was written by Steve Barden and first appeared on the LINE blog on 5th September 2013.

As featured in this month’s Elearning Age, we continue to look at The New Learning Organisation with Steve Barden examining how L&D within organisations is changing and highlighting eight key trends.

A previous post on this blog, Five drivers of learning transformation looked at the forces driving change in learning. This post looks at how the shape of organisational L&D is changing in response to those drivers and how it is learning to cope with the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment now identified by strategic leaders in many sectors.

1) The course paradigm is broken

It would be foolish to claim that the formal training course is dead, or that we don’t need it anymore. The fact is that courses are still the primary focus of most learning and development departments, even if they increasingly sit alongside or are delivered in combination with other elements of less formal learning. There are many areas of organisational learning, not just technical and compliance, that still (for the time being at least), require a structured body of knowledge to be accessed in cohorts at prescribed times.

Change is happening but it takes the form of addition, rather than straight replacement of one modality by another. The training course is no longer, if indeed it ever was, the sole response to training needs. New L&D has a larger and more diverse tool kit at its disposal but it also addresses a broader agenda. On-the-job training and coaching are reported by respondents to the 2013 CIPD L&D survey to be among their top three most effective practices, suggesting that they live in a 70:20:10 world, even if they don’t necessarily chant that particular mantra.

At the same time, the societal and technological drivers we identified in a previous post on learning transformation are changing, slowly but quite radically, the character of what L&D does. As Dr John McGurk, Adviser on Learning and Talent Development to the CIPD has written: ‘Learning and talent development is gradually becoming less about instruction’, seeing a move towards more ‘interaction and autonomy in learning’.

2) The self-directed learner

Learners can no longer be considered as empty vessels into which L&D pours knowledge but as so many intelligences which have to be engaged, motivated and interacted with in various ways. Adults have a choice over whether they pay attention or not, even if they do happen to be sitting in a training room (compliance training might have been delivered – tick that box – but has it been received?) and without engagement, as the literature shows, there is no real learning.

In a traditional training set-up, the training manager’s job would be, put simply, to gather and mobilise learning content centrally so that it could then be distributed and transmitted to the learners. Within more mature organisations these days, it is less and less the case that all the learning content is transmitted by L&D.

That is not to say that learners nowadays are being expected to make it all up for themselves, instructionally speaking. Learning content, even if it is not internally generated, needs to be curated and contextualised. Learners still need support, signposting and structure from L&D, even if they are not being ‘instructed’ quite so much or so often.

The trend is for learners to have more autonomy about how and when they learn and for the length and depth of learning interventions to be driven more by what the learner needs at any given time and in any particular location and less by the convenience of the instructor, the availability of resources (such as training rooms) and the dictates of fixed training schedules.

Technology is both the main enabler in supporting this shift but also it is a driver. The general available of highly personal and portable forms of computing offered by smartphones and tablets has created an opportunity that cannot be ignored. At the same time it is driving learner behaviour and expectations.

3) Just In Case (JIC) and Just In Time (JIT)

Discussions of JIT learning often touch on performance support but frequently fail to make any distinction between the two. There is an important difference.

JIT learning tends to be delivered in nugget form, focused on a particular task or procedure – e.g. how to close a sale, how to tension a bolt. The learner might access it in the back of a cab on the way to a meeting, or at their desk before delivering an appraisal, but it still requires them to step out of the working situation and mindset, if only for a matter of minutes. YouTube has numerous examples of how this works and organisations are developing their own channels to meet the demand.

Performance support tools, on the other hand, are generally designed to be used within workflow and without interrupting it, and have no instructional design input. Examples of performance support tools that have been with us for a long while and which we take for granted are ready reckoner’s, sat nav, calculators, slide rules, etc. Some electronic performance support systems (EPSS) can be quite elaborate, but are still designed to be seamless in their use as part of workflow. Electronic help and procedure guides are good examples of EPSS when they are accessible at the point of need.

In the more academic forms of Education, where JIC learning is the general rule, we learn concepts and knowledge we might not actually get to apply in the real world for many years (I’m still waiting for my knowledge of how ox-bow lakes form, studied in secondary school, to come in handy!). But this underpinning conceptual knowledge is in many cases absolutely essential to building practical capability later – learning the principles of engineering, for instance, or of double-entry book keeping. Without such underpinning knowledge, later progress can be drastically slowed down or ‘capped’ at a particular level. JIT learning, by contrast, delivers knowledge of relevant processes and procedures that you want to use in the coming weeks, days or even hours.

This is a spectrum. We need to get away from the idea that JIT/JIC are in opposition, or that one is necessarily better than the other. At one end of this spectrum lies immersive, reflective learning that engages with underpinning concepts, knowledge and case studies. At the other end lies performance support. New L&D needs to engage with both ends and all points in between!

Looking at things from this perspective points to one particular shortcoming of the traditional, course-based model of training. Ebbinghaus’s oft-cited ‘forgetting curve’ (see diagram) tells us that knowledge of a particular process or procedure needs to be applied very quickly in order for that knowledge to be transferred into working memory. Repeated or spaced practice is critical here too.

forgetting curve applied to training

This is why learning design that looks beyond the course has become so important. The new Learning Architect, to borrow Clive Shepherd’s phrase, combines different learning modalities (e.g. classroom course, webinar, learning portal, JIT mobile nuggets, performance support tools) to support the transfer of learning from the purely theoretical realm to its application at the workface.

4) Competencies

A further effect of the course paradigm losing its dominance is the rise in the importance of competencies.

One of the clearest demonstrations of this can be seen within the military, whose training systems have always been among the most codified around. Under the traditional model, training needs analysis would feed directly in to a set of training objectives, which would generate a course or courses for cohorts. Now, in UK Defence, there are signs of a move away from this approach towards a more granular, task-orientated model based around competencies. The emphasis is no longer so much on time spent by the learner on a certain topic but on the level of capability achieved against the relevant competency standard – a move from fixed time, if you like, to fixed mastery.

In many other sectors, too, competency-based learning is becoming of greater relevance, providing a standard outside of the course which a more ‘architectural’ style of learning design can use to link various different types and modalities of learning into a coherent learner journey.

In Health and Safety, the increased focus on ‘human factors’ has led to identifying failures of competence in particular disasters, which in turn highlights the role of competencies in generating relevant compliance training to prevent such incidents reoccurring.

In organisations where talent management drives L&D, competency systems provide the way to link learning to particular objectives, at a level above that of discrete courses.

Adopting a more competency-based approach to learning often implies surfacing the competence model as part of L&D’s remit, as opposed to it being wholly owned by HR. Though this can create ‘turf’ issues, it also has many advantages for L&D.

The competency model may be heavily involved in defining job roles, for instance; which is very much an HR preserve. However, increasingly, organisations need people who are adaptable and multi-talented, and may therefore need competences that transcend a particular job role. This then moves into areas of development that are L&D preserves. Both functions can therefore work with a common competency model, although they do different things with it, and may need to develop it in different ways. Adopting a more competence-based learning approach can thus integrate L&D more closely with strategic HR and organisational development (OD) issues.

5) 70:20:10, Learning Architectures and informal learning

Though its basis in published research is minimal, this six-digit buzzword has had a huge effect in changing how many people conceptualise L&D, and remains extremely useful as a way of thinking about what types of learner activity go into the mix alongside the 10% of formal, structured learning interventions.

Often falsely represented as a model, it is in fact nothing more than an observation about how adults learn in working situations, but it has far-reaching implications for the role of L&D.

In the context of the New Learning Architect, 70:20:10 suggests that L&D no longer has one single way of operating with regards to learning content or one single type of relationship with learners. Rather, L&D will have different modes of operation depending on whether learning is formal or informal, structured or unstructured.

In developing the idea of learning architectures, and informed by 70:20:10, Andrew Joly of LINE has suggested that the learning architect should:

  • Strongly support the culture and infrastructure for the 70%
  • Develop and exploit the power of the 20%
  • Design the 10% within the clear context of the other 90%

With regards to informal learning, which sits within the 70%, the L&D approach to content will inevitably more curatorial, and consist of signposting and providing access and discovery of content, rather than structuring and delivering it. More content will be delivered on demand than is pushed to learners. This brings L&D closer to the role of a company librarian or knowledge manager, creating more potential turf issues – but also more possibility for alignment with the strategic direction of the business.

Having said all this, it would hyperbolic to claim that corporates currently see informal learning as significant. And we would be hard put to point to any organisation which is making significant use of it yet.

However the opportunities for supporting informal learning are hugely increased by enabling the mobile channel for use by L&D, and that in itself is at an early stage of development. We might well see L&D support for informal learning growing as more organisations mature in their m-learning journey.

6) Social learning

Another logical result of thinking learning architectures is that it becomes possible to envisage types of learning that do not hinge on content at all, or make use of user-generated content, a phenomenon strongly associated with social networking.

Harold Jarche is a strong exponent of the idea that learning is more about connection than content: ‘the co-creation of organizational knowledge develops from the sharing of our implicit knowledge’, a constructionist view that challenges the assumption that there is any really ‘stable’ knowledge.

The phenomenon of Web 2.0 has seen the collapse or diminution of many authoritative knowledge brands such as Encyclopaedia Britannica, which no longer publish a print version, and a radical change in the way we relate to information available in our daily lives.

L&D is still be working out how to incorporate these changes into the new pattern of organisational learning, but 70:20:10 has prompted a renewed focus on the types of community-based learning that already exist within organisations – such as communities of practice, for instance. These may have sprung up independently of L&D in the first instance, but there is a growing awareness that they are a part of the learning and development remit and should be supported.

7) Mobile: the personal channel

LINE has published extensively on using mobile for learning and communications (see guide here), so we will not talk about it in detail except to make a few brief general points.

Firstly, L&D has been very much on its back foot with mobile. The drive to use it has come from board level and from users rather than from within L&D. Data from Towards Maturity suggests that its use is steadily growing in the UK, but the difficulties it poses for L&D – and also for IT – should not be underestimated. The move towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is seen as fraught with danger by many IT departments worried about security and the workload imposed by supporting so many different operating systems and platforms. Enterprise technology for authoring, publishing and distributing is still in an immature state.

Perhaps the biggest area of uncertainty lies in what is also the greatest opportunity for learning – the fact that mobile is such a personal channel; far more so than desktop PC. Initiative phenomena such as BYOD serve to emphasize how much mobile blurs the lines between personal and professional lives. This is something we also see with social media, and causes headaches for HR.

The difficulties should not blind us to the size of the opportunity mobile brings for learning and performance support however, which is substantial. Learning is an intensely personal thing, in that it takes place within the brain – inside the human body. It seems logical that the more personal the medium, the more it can be a tool for learning, working and living.

Perhaps the most important things to say about mobile in this context, however is that enables and accelerates all the trends we have identified above. In this respect it is both enabler and driver. If you truly want to transform performance in your organisation, enabling the mobile channel is one of the most important things you can do. It also follows as a corollary that when you do enable the mobile channel, you will see a push towards all these trends as a result among your learners, whether you have consciously chosen the route of transformation or not. Better to chose that route proactively and remain in control!

8) Personalisation

Competence profiles and mobile helps drive the trend towards personalisation of learning, allowing timely delivery to the particular person, at whatever location. They might even be on the way to a working location, allowing mobile to make productive use of time spent at work, but not actually working – usually known as downtime.

However, personalisation is a broader trend, seen in all types of learning systems. It has two main threads. Firstly, in the context of learning ‘pull’ it allows self-directed learners to be far more selective about the learning and information content they access based entirely on their own needs both long-term and short-term. Many systems empower this types of self-directed learning with bookmarking and other personalisation features – e.g. learning portals that allow learners to make their own selections of content to form a personal learning library. Much performance support falls into this category.

In a ‘push’ context, systems are increasingly allowing on-line course-based materials to be reconfigured according to prior knowledge the system has about the learner, or data that the system collects from the learner’s interactions with learning content. Adaptive learning falls into this category and this can be fairly crude – e.g. modules within a course selected dynamically according to results of a pre-test – or highly sophisticated – e.g. course reconfigured ‘on the fly’ in real time, page by page.

Personalisation of this latter type is enabling a great deal of compression of learning time, as learners address only the material they don’t know already, and training duplications, which are quite common in traditional training, are avoided. In a large programme this can equate to huge savings of time and money. Personalisation also tends to increase learner engagement as they see their time being spent more wisely.

Conclusion

One common theme that emerges from our examination of the eight trends above is how important it is to avoid binary oppositions such as ‘JIC versus JIT’ that portray one of the options as good and progressive whilst the other is retrograde and bad. The truth is more complex than that.

Although the change in training we are seeing is transformative, it is happening at an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary pace. New forms are coming in, but they are not necessarily replacing the old so much as complementing them. The result is that L&D is now a more complex and various field than it was before, which can cause challenges. Today’s L&D has to cope with this complexity – and also a good deal of volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity. New L&D is definitely a VUCA environment!