Workplace Learning Is Broken...But It's Easily Fixable

Workplace Learning Is Broken...But It's Easily Fixable
Summary: Practitioners are seeking accountability for their learning efforts, but recent surveys reflect eroding stakeholder confidence. In these uncertain times, learning practitioners have a unique opportunity to change this perception. It's time to step up and make your learning lean.

Learning And Accountability

In 2019, global spending on training amounted to $370 billion [1]. That's huge! And because of the pandemic, Great Resignation, employee shortages, and a move to remote/eLearning, you can bet this amount has grown significantly.

It should come as no surprise that businesses, and your stakeholders, see value in learning; they actually, and probably desperately, need you. But spending like this is a precarious event for learning practitioners due to one word: accountability. Accountability is one of those elusive elements practitioners so desperately seek that they may as well be searching for the holy grail.

Published statistics for workplace learning effectiveness show that practitioners don't know how to be accountable, or they do everything to avoid being so altogether. A recent Harvard Business Review article surveyed 1500 managers from across 50 organizations and discovered that 75% were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning and Development function [2]. Furthermore, 70% of employees reported that they didn’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs [3]! Clearly, learning is not stepping up to the plate.

The pandemic, however, offers a silver lining for practitioners and should be a turning point for workplace learning. This once-in-a-lifetime event is dramatically, and possibly permanently, shifting how and where we work. This is a unique opportunity to position workplace learning as an employee retention and motivation benefit. Furthermore, what employers desperately and immediately need during these uncertain times is for employees to quickly adapt and respond to unforeseen changes that the pandemic may (will) further inflict. At the very least, your stakeholders expect learning to prepare employees to function in the post-pandemic new world.

Time To Get Lean

If the intent is to calm pandemic uncertainty, then what should you do to capitalize on these learning opportunities? How can you avoid those shocking stats and demonstrate value and accountability to persnickety stakeholders and decision-makers? Well, there are some easy wins that you can immediately apply. It's something that I've repeatedly referred to as "lean learning."

For business leaders, being "lean" isn't anything new. They expect the business, specifically every operational activity, to be lean without undermining value and quality. Some associate lean methodology with cost-cutting. Consequently, when practitioners get a whiff of cost reductions, they believe their budgets and jobs are about to be eliminated. This couldn't be further from the facts about true lean organizations.

Lean is about allocating resources and funding to areas that derive the most value for the organization. The value aspect comes from learning how to do and become better. It's about iterative, continuous improvement. Subsequently, lean learning is about:

  • Getting to the central reason (the "why") of what employees need to learn
  • Having employees immediately and repeatedly apply what is learned to real-world situations
  • Receiving immediate and focused learning feedback and further refining to address the business need
  • Making iterative improvements to the learning need (lather, rinse, repeat)

The days when stakeholders would give an accountability pass to supporting functions like learning are long gone. Today, and even more so during the pandemic, they expect budget accountability from every internal business activity. The good news? Learning is positioned to be a lean operational activity; it's just that they either don't realize it or don't know how to apply lean concepts.

The first step is applying the Pareto principle or what you may refer to as the 80–20 rule. Rather than trying to address all learning requirements, take a step back and assess what is essential and what is "nice to have." For every operational situation, learning should first focus on the 20% that will address 80% of the operational issues. This is a general rule of thumb and is the best approach to apply to learning solutions, especially within rapidly changing environments like this pandemic. Doing so will allow you to:

  1. Better manage and allocate your and your internal operational customers' training budgets
  2. Be in a better position for managing and allocating scarce organizational resources
  3. Proactively respond to learning expectations rather than waiting for requests
  4. Begin focusing training on operational activities that add substantive value
  5. Target precise learning interventions rather than applying a "spray and pray" approach

Being lean means being relevant and practical. Applying the Pareto principle addresses relevance, whereas practicality is about making learning relevant to real-world situations. Stakeholders expect training to get people to consistently and constantly apply learned skills to improve operational and job performance. For employees, it's about having the "aha" moment!

Your focus should be on developing learning that reflects real-world work situations and on making it practical. Your learning effort is simply a means to an end. The "end" is having employees deliver tangible business outcomes while reducing training and skills adhesion time. But it's not just about the technologies. It's about learning about employee job improvement needs and operational expectations so as not to develop learning in a vacuum.

Technology's Role In Lean Learning

When it comes to learning technologies, practitioners often act like kids in a toy store wanting the latest and the greatest. Understandably, technology is sold as the promise of tangible accountability. That said, technology, like anything else, is another tool in your toolbox, and its utility is in how well you select and apply it. With learning technology, it's not about how much you have or even if it's the latest innovation, it's about how you use it.

Technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, technology facilitates how learning takes place; on the other, stakeholders expect to see increased efficiencies. As I often say, for decision-makers, the "e" in eLearning is about efficiency. This is where lean learning and technology intersect.

The intent of learning technologies is to make learning more accessible to users. But accessibility isn't just about having the capacity to post an eLearning course, it's about making it easily accessible and tangibly relevant to learner needs in a timely fashion. It's about when, where, and how users can access the learning resource, and the practical utility they can derive from it. When seeking new learning technology to become lean, consider the following:

1. Be Integrative And Seamless

In the past, learning events were just actual, physical events employees had to attend. It was disruptive to operational processes, something no stakeholder wants. They accepted it only because there wasn't an option, but options now exist and it is to use learning technologies. Your learning efforts should be seen as a process that occurs naturally and organically. Technology offers an opportunity to structure your interventions in a deliberate and thoughtful way. Simply put, your learning effort should be available without thought, accessible when needed, and an integrative component within the business process. It's about delivering non-intrusive and seamless learning interactions.

2. Minimize Operational Disruption

In a perfect world, decision-makers and managers never want operational downtime. Downtime is seen as losing money, more precisely as lost revenue and profits. Learning technologies won't eliminate downtime, but they can significantly reduce it. Learning through technology should be about two things:

  • Reducing employee learning cycle time
    Lean learning is about applying knowledge to create value, not acquiring it (focus on Kirkpatrick level 3, not level 2). It focuses on relevant learning when and where it’s needed, and the knowledge is applied to improve performance.
  • Ensuring learning interventions take place during reduced operational cycles
    While attempting to make your learning efforts fully integrative and seamless is admirable, it isn’t realistic. Rather than convincing leaders to accept downtime, seek out reduced operational cycles within the business process to deploy learning interventions.

Next Steps

It's apparent that many practitioners are struggling to demonstrate accountability and trying to keep up with the dramatic changes occurring in business and the economy. But one thing is clear. Learning is needed more than ever before and is valued by your stakeholders. You just need to demonstrate accountability to show value. One effective approach is to make your learning lean by rethinking its focus and appropriately leveraging learning technologies.

Focus on what they need, not on what you want to deliver. Lean learning is about delivering relevant learning when it’s needed, improving outcomes, and reducing waste. It’s about being brief, appropriately allocating resources, and providing employees with immediate capability. Your learning should deliver adaptability that helps organizations achieve the competitive advantage they seek in a volatile world.

Please share your thoughts and feedback with us. We would enjoy hearing about your efforts. And who knows, it may be the topic of our next eLearning Industry article. Also, please check out our LinkedIn Learning courses to learn more about developing your business credibility for your learning efforts. Please share your thoughts and remember to #alwaysbelearning!


[1] Where Companies Go Wrong With Learning and Development?

[2] Why Leadership Training Fails—and What to Do About It

[3] Setting L&D Leaders Up for Success