Andy Young explains the importance of learner-centred experiences, and how digital tools, curation, and metrics can help organisations maximise the value of learning.

Imagine it’s Saturday morning. You and your family plan to ride your bikes to the pier for lunch. There’s just one problem: you have a flat tire, a puncture kit, and no idea how to use it. Thanks to a quick Google search, a few YouTube videos, and maybe some muttered curse words, you fix the tire and get on your way. Fish and chips never tasted so good (pass the vinegar, please).  

Congratulations: you just learned a new skill, and you learned it in the flow of what you were doing. Now think about how learning happens within organisationsRecent research from the CIPD shows that some organisations are using digital tools, curating resources, and fostering a learning culture to achieve great outcomes and learning experiences. However, some organisations aren’t—yet.  

The importance of learner-centred experiences

Before I dig into the research, I want to emphasise the power of learner-centred experiences. They’re created by combining curated content, digital platforms, and learning culture, and they put focus on people actually acquiring new skills, rather than just complying with corporate training. 

Curation can be driven by technology, such as on-demand content from platforms like Udacity and LinkedIn Learning, or driven by humans via recommendations from experts and communities of practice. Digital platforms like Udacity and LinkedIn enable organisations to deliver curated learning so people can learn where, when, and what they want. There are also rich options available for free, such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) like EdX, or TED talks.  

Together, these factors make it possible for learning teams to create new media content and interactive experiences—via video, AR, VR, or other technologies—to connect with people, prime new behaviours, or win hearts and minds.  

Face-to-face learning still dominates

Face-to-face interactions still dominate, with 44 percent of respondents saying it makes up the majority of learning. In particular, it comprises the majority of learning for more than half of companies with fewer than 100 employees. This drops to just over a third of organisations with more than 250 employees, suggesting that digital learning transformation is progressing faster in larger organisations.

In addition, on-the-job training is the most common learning and development method, with 61 percent of respondents using it in the last 12 months. However, only 9 percent of respondents said it’s a priority to facilitate ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning. Also low on the priority list? Speeding up the transfer of learning back into the workplace.

Organisations are using technology to support learning

The majority (79 percent) of organisations use some form of technology, including webinars (36 percent), learning management systems (27 percent) and open education sources (23 percent). Online learning was used by 57 percent of organisations—nearly twice the 29 percent reported in 2015, the last time this study was conducted. This includes e-learning, virtual classrooms, and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Some organisations are using digital and blended learning (in-person plus digital).

Larger employers (more than 250 employees) are more likely to use technologies like augmented and virtual reality (23 percent, versus 11 percent of SMEs) and mobile device-based delivery (20 percent, versus 5 percent of SMEs).

This isn’t surprising given that digital tools are well-suited for larger workforces. However, it is concerning that only a minority of large employers are using them, suggesting they are way behind on learning transformation. And worryingly, 21 percent of all organisations do not use any technology to support learning (31 percent of SMEs and 13 percent of larger organisations).

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many learning teams to digitise some of their basic capabilities, and in many cases, very quickly. For example, physical workshops become virtual classrooms and in-person meetings become video chats. It’s a glimpse of what’s possible—and should be both aspiration and inspiration to do more.

Notably, digital and online learning must be rooted in human experience. Technology is essential to many people’s lives and globally, people spend an average of 6.4 hours online each day. Many organisations haven’t yet re-oriented to recognise this shift. Learning in the future demands rethinking core assumptions about how learning works, and what happens at the intersection between people and technology.

Many organisations aren’t taking advantage of new technologies

Emergent forms of technology still aren’t being used widely: digital (augmented and virtual reality) and mobile device-based learning are used by just 18 percent and 14 percent of organisations, respectively.

Of note, the vast majority of organisations that use mobile device-based and digital learning have increased their use over the last two to three years. In comparison, only one quarter of survey respondents say their use of external conferences, workshops and events has increased—and one quarter say their use has declined. That suggests that organisations are seeing benefits from investing in, and using, digital tools for learning and are continuing to support them. That’s in line with research from Stanford University’s Human Interaction Lab showing that when immersive VR instruction is used, learning retention is 33 percent higher than compared to video instruction.

The catch-22 of not measuring learning

The good news: 70 percent of organisations assess the impact of their learning and development initiatives. The bad news: 28 percent of those evaluations are limited to participant satisfaction, and only 16 percent measure changes in participant behaviour by assessing learning transfer into the workplace. The vast majority report barriers to evaluation, such as lack of learner or management time, and the pressure from other priorities.

In addition, that means that 30 percent of organisations aren’t systematically evaluating their learning initiatives—this includes 35 percent of SMEs and 26 percent of large employers. This may be due to smaller firms not having a dedicated HR or learning function, and further highlights the important role of managers in measuring learning impact.

Overall, only 35 percent say they share the results internally to inform business strategy and update learning interventions. And it’s concerning that 16 percent produce a report but don’t act on the findings, 11 percent rarely use the data and metrics, and 17 percent don’t know how the evidence they gather is used.

Here’s the problem. Without evaluating and measuring the impact of learning, organisations can’t quantify or measure the impact of their learning and development programmes. That makes it hard to garner additional time, resources, or support for future initiatives.

In action: NatWest Group provides ‘just enough and just for me’ learning

NatWest Group (NWG) provides banking and other financial products and services in the UK and Republic of Ireland. NWG started by drawing on behavioural science, academic literature, and external research to identify five Critical People Capabilities: innovation, dealing with change, thinking critically, collaboration, and being a trusted advisor.

In 2018, NWG introduced a self-assessment tool that enables colleagues to understand their strengths and development gaps, and helps them align their learning plans against their career goals. Since launch it has been completed over 52,000 times. Results are anonymous but colleagues are encouraged to discuss their results with their line managers. Managers can also request a summary report to understand their team’s development needs as a whole.

In 2020, NWG launched a Learning Academy that includes a suite of online resources like videos, toolkits, team activities, and virtual reality games. Employees can select items that fit their learning style and time constraints.

What leaders are doing

When it comes to learning programmes, here are some ways that leaders are closing the gap between intention and action.

  • Leaders are investing in learning platforms and personalising learning for individuals. This enhances the experience by providing learning that’s ‘just enough and just for me’. It also means learning teams can derive insights through data and analytics.
  • Leaders are weaving learning into the flow of work and performance. By enabling ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning, organisations can help people learn as they work and work as they learn.
  • Leaders are tapping into the value of powerful digital learning, from apps to advanced simulations, VR and XR. Digital tools can help organisations curate content, personalise it, and deliver it at scale—which can improve engagement and learning retention.
  • Leaders are using data to create, not just measure, impact. They’re using learner data to create impact by personalising and delivering ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning in the flow of work. It’s the learning equivalent of Netflix recommending new shows based on what you’ve watched to before (and your Fitbit vibrating when you’ve binge-watched too many episodes). Importantly, learning must go beyond just recommendations to be social, targeted, and relevant.

What you can do

Here are some steps to help organisations start to close the gap and enable learning and development programmes that have measurable impact on performance.

  • Demonstrate value by measuring the impact of learning. This goes beyond questionnaires. Without measuring the impact, transfer and engagement of learning and development activities, organisations are wasting valuable time and resources.
  • Embrace technologies that support learning and collaboration. Implementing effective tools for digital learning and collaboration will continue to be vital during the COVID-19 pandemic. This means applying what we already know about knowledge transfer to digital tools, addressing learner barriers, and assessing the theory behind the tools to determine if it’s the right fit for the organisation.
  • Tap into new media and storytelling techniques to create compelling content. Think about Netflix’s Black Mirror, which invited audiences to influence how the story played out—a digital choose-your-own-adventure experience. How might your organisation use elements of that experience to bring learning content to life?

Put people at the focus of learning

When executed well, learner-centred experiences can inspire and connect people to a greater purpose. It allows them to work in areas they are passionate about, and for which they have a natural aptitude. The organisation that supports such powerful motivators can be well-rewarded by unlocking learners’ true potential—and that can mean more collaborative, innovative teams that drive value and help the business succeed in turbulent times. 

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