Workplace Learning Areas Of Focus
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Skills Are Not Enough

Learning is like breathing. Yes, breathing is essential. No, it is not limited to yoga and meditation.

What thoughts come to your mind reflecting on the sentences above? We'll come back to the statement later.

Workplace Learning Beyond 2020

This article explores the future of workforce development and workplace learning as we're emerging from the 2020 pandemic. What did we learn? How to move forward? Where to focus?

You'll find in-depth analysis and recommendations in the following papers published in early 2021:

The "Future of Workforce Development" (green paper) [1]:

A pivotal point: the future of workforce development is based on research interviews with 50+ CEOs, heads of Learning and Development and policymakers. It explores the changing nature of work and workforce development and the shift from learning to performance.

And the "5th Annual Workplace Learning Report" by LinkedIn Learning [2]:

At LinkedIn Learning, we hope that the insights, tips, and inspiration in this report will help guide your learning programs and inspire skill building.

Where Should We Focus Now?

According to the "Future of Work" paper, the 4 key areas organizations should be focusing on are:

  1. Skill assessors: how do I improve if I can’t define?
  2. Supported career pathways: getting employees from A to B
  3. Applied collaborative learning: increasing sharing, uptake, engagement and self-motivation
  4. Tailored learning: improving relevance and impact

The 2021 LinkedIn Learning report concludes the same about the importance of skills:

It all starts with skills. We need to help our teams build the skills that will inspire learners, managers, and executives to co-create a culture of learning that rewards what employees already know and the pace at which learn new, high-demand skills.

Skills, Skills, Skills

This is great news for L&D! L&D can play an important role in upskilling and reskilling. At the same time, the same LinkedIn report suggests, "check out the five most uniquely popular courses among L&D pros [...]:

1. Instructional Design Essentials: Models of ID by Joe Pulichino

2. Articulate Storyline Essential Training by Daniel Brigham

3. Instructional Design: Storyboarding by Daniel Brigham

4. Converting Face-to-Face Training into Digital Learning by Daniel Brigham

5. Measuring Learning Effectiveness by Jeff Toister"

What do you notice? First, congrats to Daniel Bringham! But that's not the pattern I'm after. Are L&D pros, who drove the digital learning transformation, taking essential courses on Instructional Design, storyboarding, and Storyline authoring so they can take face-to-face courses online?

Or, because of the heavy demand for virtual learning, suddenly a new generation of L&D "pros" joined the learning forces? Turns out the report uses "learning pros" as learning professionals, so technically any level. Maybe it's just my bilingual bias, but for me, a pro is someone who has a certain level of demonstrated expertise in the field.

 

Anyway, I'm happy about the last one on the list! Measuring learning effectiveness is a must if we want to stay relevant in the future. Measuring and evaluation are often an afterthought, if any. This is one of the biggest mental shifts we need to make in L&D. Without measuring, specifically, measuring the right thing, workplace learning will be stuck with lots of learning without impact. If this is not the case in your organization (aka we're drowning in content, yet we haven't moved the needle), this article is not for you.

Skills Start With Measuring

Skills are so essential that LinkedIn just announced they're stepping up their game in the arena with Skill Path:

Skills Path brings together LinkedIn Learning courses with Skill Assessments to help recruiters evaluate candidates in a more equitable way—based on their proven skills. Hiring practices have long depended on traditional candidate qualifications like degrees, title, and their network to discover candidates. With Skills Path, that changes.

What makes me wonder is how Skills Path measures "proven skills" to be more equitable. Does that mean I have to take LinkedIn courses and answer multiple-choice questions to prove that I have a "skill?"

How it works is simple. First, hiring managers at participating companies identify the core skills for a role. Then, candidates get a fairer shot at a new role by:

  • Closing any skills gaps with free LinkedIn Learning Courses curated to help them learn the skills required for the role;
  • Demonstrating their skills by passing a multiple-choice LinkedIn Skill Assessment and a video (or text) assessment; and,
  • Securing a recruiter conversation if they pass the assessments.

Time will tell what this approach measures: test-taking ability, knowledge, skills, or application of skills. Measuring the right thing will be the competitive edge for companies looking for talent. But what should we measure and how? The LinkedIn report offers various results for what they measured: "Gen Z learners watched 50% more hours per learner of learning content in 2020 vs. 2019."

Is this the right measurement? It depends on what you want to do with the result! When you design your measurement strategy, think about the potential result you get. Create a hypothesis. But most importantly, think about how you will use the result! What actions or decisions are you going to make based on the results?

Personally, I believe "watched" learning content has nothing to do with the application of knowledge or skills on the job. And honestly, who else did not spend more time online in 2020 than in 2019? But, let's say this piece of information is important to you. What do you do with it? You put more content online for Gen Z to watch? Again, the value of any result from your measurement and evaluation strategy depends on whether they support your decisions or actions. Therefore, start with the end in mind; start with the decision and actions.

Food For Thought: Taking Courses Is Not The Only Way To Learn

The LinkedIn Learning report is filled with food for thought. It is worth going through to find actionable items for your organization. You will also walk away from the report with a warm and fuzzy feeling that learning is essential for growth. This result is backed by both qualitative and quantitative data. However, keep in mind that this is a LinkedIn Learning report after all.

Learning is like breathing. It is essential but not limited to yoga and meditation. Taking courses is NOT the only way to learn. It is one of the ways to learn. The data can inform you about one of the multiple aspects of learning: the ability to complete online courses. It may or may not be enough to form a strategy on how to move forward.

What Can We Do Now To Move Forward?

Let's take each of the focus areas and develop a current state analysis. Without knowing where you are, it's hard to tell how far to go. Again, everything starts with measuring. "The Future of Work" paper suggests the following four areas you should assess in your organization regarding the maturity level of workforce development:

  1. Skill assessors: how do I improve if I can’t define?
  2. Supported career pathways: getting employees from A to B
  3. Applied collaborative learning: increasing sharing, uptake, engagement and self-motivation
  4. Tailored learning: improving relevance and impact

Fundamental Questions

Who owns workplace learning? Who's responsible for skills development and career progression?

Is it the senior leadership of the organization? HR? TD? L&D? Managers? Employees themselves? What's the bottleneck? Imagine that you survey everyone in your organization and combined all answers into a single visualization map (of your choice). That is your learning culture.

Everyone owns a piece of the puzzle. The further away you get from the actual employee (who owns the brain where learning takes place), the more it is about the conditions of effective learning (policies, time, rewards, motivation, tools, resources, guided pathways, etc.). Nobody owns learning as is. Not even L&D. L&D may be well-versed in learning science but they also need to be connected with the business, understanding how employees are incentivized, under what circumstances they work, etc. Otherwise, you'll end up with "engaging" courses in the LMS. And that itself is not going to solve your problems.

Comments in a LinkedIn thread clearly show that there is not one single bullet to crack this challenge. You're going to have to crack it in many ways [3].

Workplace Learning Areas Of Focus

Focus #1: Skills Assessment

The idea is simple: If you know someone's skills and what skills level someone is currently at (A), and your organization has a solid skills taxonomy (and ontology), along with competencies defined per role (B), all you need is the customized path to get from A to B. In real life, it is a more complex problem to crack.

Explore some of these questions to form a common understanding of where you are today with skills assessment:

  • What is a skill? How do you define, categorize, and use skills today in decision-making?
  • How do you measure a skill? Do you use different measurements for different types of skills?
  • Are you self-assessing skills? Peer-assessing? Manager-assessing? Mentor-assessing? Community-assessing? Industry-assessing?
  • What is a role (for career pathing)?
  • How do you know a role requires a certain skill?
  • How do you know a role requires a certain skill level (competency)?
  • How do you measure competency? Do you consider both formal learning (certifications, courses, workshops, etc.) and application on the job (successful project delivery that required a certain skill) when measuring competency?
  • Does having a set of skills required for a role guarantee career progression? If not, what else is a factor?
  • What are the top-down ways your organization supports skills development?
  • What are bottom-up (grassroots) ways the workforce gains new skills or improves existing ones?
  • How does your organization support skills development (time, resources, incentives, etc.)?
  • How well equipped are managers to support skills development?
  • Who is responsible and who is accountable for skills development? Leadership, L&D, managers, employees themselves?

This list is not inclusive, of course, but it can start your journey on exploring the skills focus in your organization.

Focus #2: Supported Career Pathways

If you think of skills as stepping stones to provide the ability to move from one place to another, they also need a destination. Career pathways are a hot topic in the industry. They are important not only because they set the destination of skills development but also because it is expensive to lose talent. Talk to recruiting about how much resources your organization invests in finding and hiring talents. Keeping talent and providing them a meaningful career path is a win-win.

Here are some questions to explore about your current career pathway strategy:

  • What does career progression look like in your organization? Note that not everyone wants to move from individual contributor to manager, to senior manager, etc. Is career progression simply going up the chain?
  • What motivates people to work for your organization? In different roles?
  • How long does it take to progress? What does it take to progress?
  • Do you have policies in place (along with execution plans) to support career progression?
  • How big of a barrier is the old joke: "CFO: What if we train them and they leave? CLO: What if we don't train them and they stay?"
  • Is there a clear competency map to guide career pathing?
  • What does your manager toolkit look like? Without manager support, it is unlikely that career progression is successful. How do you support both the managers and their direct reports?
  • What about the practical side of a path: Do you have a simple way for employees to visualize where they are, where they're heading, and how to get there?

Focus #3: Applied Collaborative Learning

There are two important elements under this focus: applied and collaborative. While you may define these terms slightly differently within your organization, they highlight two crucial aspects of learning:

  • Applied learning
    "Activities that engage the learner directly in the phenomena being studied and are associated with structured reflection on the connection between the phenomena and theoretical concepts (Kendall, 1990, 181)."

What does that mean in workplace learning? "Knowing" is not enough. Presenting is not enough. Telling is not enough. Even animating is not enough. If you are a learning professional, you should not be measured on how engaging the course is and whether they can answer multiple-choice questions by remembering what they saw on slide 5. You should be measured on how people apply what "they know."

Theory and mental models are important, especially for novice learners. But the more advanced your audience is at what they're doing, the less "hand-holding and spoon-feeding" you need. And if I can only focus on one thing to change, my suggestion is feedback. Find creative ways to make employees reflect on what they learn, challenge them in meaningful ways, and provide them with actionable feedback.

However, this approach may lead to the bottleneck problem. You can't own learning, you can't own providing feedback. Even if you have a learning team, it is not scalable. You'll need SMEs, mentors, and experienced team members.

That is where collaborative learning comes in.

  • Collaborative learning
    Learning together with others by working to reach a common goal.

Combining applied learning and collaboration with others on projects is a powerful approach where you, as a learning designer, become a facilitator rather than a keeper and shipper of knowledge. Like a conductor, invisible but controlling the overall musical experience.

Focus #4: Tailored Learning

In my 20+ years in the learning field, I've seen the evolution of eLearning: CBT, WBT, eLearning course, eLearn, etc. While we've managed to rebrand "electronic learning" many times, the concept remains the same: content packaged and delivered to you on demand.

The advantages against the "old-fashioned" face-to-face, instructor-led trainings are obvious, at least from a business perspective—cheaper, more consistent, more accessible (based on time and geography). With rapid authoring tools, this became a "delivery method" for many things. eLearning has become an empty jar that we can quickly fill with information and put on the shelf for consumption for all in no time.

The problem with the empty jar concept is that we lose sight of our audience. A jar filled with stuff for all is a jar filled with stuff for nobody. Things like "awareness training" became a thing. It's been like that for a decade, so why is it a hot topic today? Because the pace of change has dramatically accelerated around us. Software products used to have one release a year, now it's every month. Because there's so much change, we no longer can fill our jars fast enough. On the receiving end, people don't have time to dig through these jars to find one meaningful knowledge nugget.

The only way to move forward is by breaking the jar and creating tailored learning experiences for individuals. It's like going back to the apprentice model on a scale. Tailored learning requires all other focus areas; you must know the individual's skills set, what they're trying to do, and what they need to get the job done with minimum cognitive load.

Learning through case studies, worked examples, simulations, hands-on workshops, project-based challenges starts with the customer and then works backward. It is no longer effective to start with an empty jar and fill it with content.

  • How's your jar business going?
  • What pieces of information would you need to be able to provide meaningful learning experiences?
  • What data and privacy policies, laws, and ethics are in place that you need to be aware of?
  • What's your AI vs. human curation strategy?
  • What needs to change in how your organization designs and delivers learning?
  • How do you measure the impact of learning for individuals today?
  • Data analytics can help you make data-informed decisions rather than gut-informed good intentions. Do you have the capability in-house?
  • What organizational challenges are you seeing that hinder tailored learning? Silos? Politics? Lack of strategic leadership? Time pressure? Risk tolerance? Culture? What's your mitigation plan for these?

Conclusion

Learning is like breathing. Yes, breathing is essential. No, it is not limited to yoga and meditation.

The time is here and now for you to make a difference. Break the jars and start with the end in mind by asking the right questions: Have I made a difference in someone's ability to work better, easier, faster? Have I contributed to their growing motivation, engagement, and job satisfaction? And if yes, how do we know?

Takeaway: Learning is essential but it is not limited to courses.

References:

[1] A pivotal point: the future of workforce development 

[2]LinkedIn Learning's 5th Annual Workplace Learning Report

[3] LinkedIn Posts

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