These days a CLO’s best bet to ensure the learning function remains relevant today and tomorrow is to assume the role of development architect — not learning provider — and to shake up design and delivery to put learning in employees’ hands.
by Thomas Handcock
January 9, 2015
Today's learning leaders have to be prepared to change. At some point thye may need ot adjust development offerings based on learner or participant feedback. Programs that were once well-attended may need to be discarded or upgraded if they don’t match the new business environment or, say, the expectations of a key employee demographic, such as millennials, a group that’s increasing in numbers in the workforce.
Business priorities change, companies expand into emerging markets, employees need learning delivered across multiple channels and may require different skills. Delivery methods have to change, too, or risk becoming irrelevant.
A Change Is Coming
A 2014 Corporate Executive Board Co. study, “Building a Productive Learning Culture: More Learning Through Less Learning,” shows that organizations’ employee development needs are aging faster and are more uncertain than in the past. In pursuit of growth, business leaders are focused on new products, models and markets, bringing new and varied skill-building needs. (Editor’s note: The authors work for CEB.)
Employees’ expectations for where and how they will learn are also changing. The CEB survey of 23,000 employees uncovered that:
- Fifty-seven percent of employees expect learning to be more “just in time” than it was three years ago.
- Only 37 percent of employees expect the organization will actively manage their development.
- Only 21 percent of employees expect most learning to happen in the classroom (Figure 1).
Considering the intense focus on millennials and the pervasiveness of social media, these expectations are not entirely surprising. However, what is surprising is the degree to which learning-and-development functions no longer direct most of the learning within their organizations. Today, only 21 percent of learning activity comes from L&D (Figure 1).
Yet there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of learning activity. According to CEBresearch, 65 percent of employees report greater and more varied access to information and learning, and 64 percent report participating in more formal learning than they did just two years ago.
One could look at these numbers in isolation and conclude that today’s learning functions are successful. But behind all of this activity lurks a troubling challenge to employee productivity. The averageemployee spends 39 percent of the work week on learning activities (Figure 2); much of that time is unproductive. Employees waste time trying to find the rightinformation, consuming information that isn’t relevant and failing to effectively extract andapply learning.
The average employee is wasting 11 percent of his or her day on unproductive learning, costing the average organization more than $5 million in lost employee productivity per 1,000 employees each year. Add to that the millions of dollars the typical organization spends providing much of that wasted learning.
The Development Architect
To be successful in the future, learning-and-developmentfunctions must re-orient their efforts away from creating more learning and encouraging more activity and participation. They must move from being the learning provider — simply producing and/or distributing content, courses and opportunities — to being a development architect, with a primary goal of focusing the organization on the right learning opportunities and improving the quality.
To achieve this goal, learning leaders should place three critical objectives at the center of their future strategy. They should:
- "Right-size” learning opportunities and enable employees to access only the most relevant and highest-quality learning.
- Advance the organization’s learning capability by teaching employees how to learn.
- Activate shared ownership for changing the learning environment.
“Right-size” opportunities.Most learning leaders report that they provide employees with many learning options, but employees are not effective at navigating all of those choices (Figure 4).
Learning leaders need to enable employees to make better choices about learning by setting operating principles that curate, direct and control the supply of learning opportunities.
LPL Financial, an organization of independentfinancial advisers, has embedded the curation, directionand control of the supply of learning into itsongoing operations, carefully combining data analytics and informed judgment to cut its existing learning content to only the right learning choices. To make these cuts, LPL used learning management system data on usage rates and employee assessment data on the value of learning offerings. Additionally, an informed view of business and talent strategy provided another critical filter with which to make smart decisions about what to cut and what to keep or modify.
LPL uses its talent development council to drive ongoing strategic monitoring of the demand and supply of learning. The council is composed of leaders (executive vice president and above) from across the firm’s core functions. The group meetsevery four weeks to evaluate new learning and requested learning against talent-strategy goals. This evaluation process ensures that learning is only provided by the learning-and-development function when necessary. Furthermore, the senior-level makeup of the council helps ensure that learning from outside the L&D function is aligned with the broader organizational strategy and critical business outcomes. Altogether, this unique way of partnering with the business on talent developmentenables LPL’s learning catalog to remain highly curated.
“We understood that more is not better,” said Don O’Grady, LPL’s senior vice president, talent development. “Targeted learning not only supports the business and learners, it resulted in increased employee participation in the right learning at all the levels. Leaders are more involved in the learning strategy decision-making, managers encourage their teams regularly to use L&D resources to make progress against their development goals, and employees are more independent at owning their development.”
Teach employees how to learn. Most employees fail to realize the full value of their formal and informal learning experiences. Employees onlyapply half of what they learn in formal programs back on the job, and only 45 percent of employees extract useful lessons from on-the-job learning. In fact, just 20 percentof employees are highly capable learners who engage in productive learning behaviors(Figure 3).
Improving learning relevance is a crucial step, but learning leaders must go further and change the way the function designs and delivers learning to actively address employees’ ability to learn. This not onlyenhances the impact of L&D-owned programs, but also it builds more capable learners and can affect the quality of external employee learning.
American Express Co. is changing how it designs learning programs to build employee learning capability, focusing on the application of learning methods within its learning paths. Recognizing the value of learning is largely determined by how learners engage in each learning activity — not just what they are meant to be learning — the company designs its learning paths around the behavioral outcomes and leadership habits learners need to demonstrate to be effective leaders. A typical learning path might include workshops, peer learning and on-the-job learning.
The L&D team at American Express also emphasizes teaching employees how to best engage in activities to derive maximum learning from them. “Sometimes we put so much effort and passion into setting learning objectives and creating content that we might forget the importance of how employees are going to learn,” said David Clark, senior vice president and chief learning officer at American Express. “The content and information we pull together is only valuable if the learner finds it engaging or relevant; otherwise, it won’t be as effective as it could be. Our learning paths have been successful because we’re re-imagining learning for the employee. We want to improve not just what employees learn, but have them take delight in how they learn.”
Activate shared ownership of the learning environment. Few organizations have environments that support productive learning. Although 60 percent of employees report their work environments are open, far fewer consider their environments safe, fair, relevant and clear. These attributes matter, as they can improve employee performance up to 14 percent.
The attributes of a supportive learning environment rely heavily on shared experiences. All employees must take ownership for creating the right environment through their day-to-day actions. Learning leaders are responsible for putting the scaffolding in place to activate the shared ownership that will allow a productive learning environment to take hold. There are two types of strategies for doing this: top-down approaches driven from the center with strong partnership from line leaders, and bottom-up approaches focused on enabling managers and employees. The most successful organizations use both strategies.
The changing learning landscape, in particular the shift toward non-L&D-directed learning, creates a challenge for the learning function. With challenge comes opportunity, and the biggest one for learning leaders is to put a stake in the ground as the organization’s development architect. By making changes to extend the function’s effectiveness beyond just the learning it controls to additionally enable the quality of learning from others sources, L&D will be poised for future success.