Investing in the Right Learning & Development Model

On three separate recent occasions, I have been asked to provide my thoughts to clients on the service delivery model, allocation of resources and funding, and overall structure of their HR organization.  In each instance, learning and development has come up as a key area of focus, and one where HR leaders are struggling to commit to a model that they believe will drive the results they desire for their organization.

This is understandable, as the very nature of learning, both within and outside of the corporate environment, is changing before our eyes.  Not only does theory continue to evolve around childhood, adolescent and adult learning and retention, but employee learning preferences are also shifting and new technologies are constantly entering the marketplace that provide significant leaps in learning curation, design, development and delivery.  The result is an incredibly diverse set of options and models for a Learning & Development or HR leader to choose from, each with its own set of implications for key roles, skills and capabilities needed within the organizational development function.

As I’ve discussed this challenge and these options with clients over the last few months, I have found myself consistently referring back to three key trends to consider:

  1. The 70/20/10 model
  2. Bite-sized learning
  3. External content

Invariably, this leads the conversation to one logical conclusion: a thin, federated learning and development function that puts ownership and accountability where it belongs, in the business.

Let’s start with the 70/20/10 model.  As my North Highland colleague, Mark Norris, pointed out in a recent article published in The HR Director, the 70/20/10 model is rapidly becoming the standard both in the US and internationally.  An extrapolation on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains (or cognitive retention), the model suggests that, in order to maximize capability development, 70% of learning should occur through experience, 20% through learning from others and 10% from formal learning.  This model puts the strong emphasis on learner participation and experience or practice, the method through which the brain naturally retains the most information.  At the same time, it recognizes that, as much as technology has advanced and simulation design has evolved, nothing comes close to matching the real thing.

Then there is bite-sized learning.  Much has been said recently about revisiting the amount of information we try to cram into an individual training course or learning program in light of the participant’s inability to truly learn and retain all of the details.  There is a point in every classroom training and even every interactive computer-based training (CBT) where the learner is just simply oversaturated and cannot process any more of the information being fed to them.  This is another point made in Mark’s article and a Google search on “bite-sized learning” will return numerous perspectives from industry organizations and research institutions around the need to shift to smaller, shorter and more discrete learning interventions or experiences.  With a targeted and dedicated purpose and a brief duration of the learning experience, participants will be able to maintain their focus and attention and, more importantly, retain the information that provides a building block to their overall development.

Finally, it is important to consider that, whether you like it or not, much of your organization’s learning is going to occur outside of the learning programs you design, develop and deliver.  Companies such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Lynda and ALISON are offering free, graduate program-level and expertly facilitated courses on general business professional skills and even trade or function-specific topics.  There are more targeted online programs available for purchase through industry groups and universities or even YouTube videos available on every topic imaginable!  The implication here is that your employees, especially the best of them and those focused on their own development and growth, are accessing training, building key skills and knowledge critical to their success on the job and sharing those sources with friends and colleagues all outside of what your learning and development organization is delivering.

So, where does that leave you as you weigh the right design and best investment for your organization in learning and development?  You want to focus on developing employees through work experience, results and feedback, you recognize the need to reduce reliance on large, extensive learning programs that require expertly constructed instructional design, and you accept the reality, just like a parent sending their children off to school for the first time, that the growth and development of your employees is not only in your hands but also the hands of others outside of your organization.   And you recognize that none of these trends or desires are going away any time soon.

As I’ve discussed this question with clients recently, I keep coming back to the same answer: you need to ride the wave of these trends.

  • Not overnight, but over time, scaling back the role of the central learning and development function in job-specific and skill-based training and scaling down the team
  • The model becomes a federated design, where development is scripted and curated by the business utilizing the principles and standards outlined above as established and monitored by learning and development
  • Learning is designed, developed and delivered by those closest to the subject matter and, by leveraging the best and brightest talent, incorporates their understanding of the best resources within and outside of your organization

Now, there are a couple of key implications of this model to consider before moving forward:

  1. Business Buy-in and Support: First and foremost, in order for this model to be successful, the business must buy in, committing the investment of time, money and resources, either in formal dedicated roles or level-of-effort allocations, to ensure development of their folks and business return on that investment. I personally like the idea of learning oversight committees or councils within each line of business, but this may vary depending on organization size and need. A large regulated electrical utility client recently completed this transformation by implementing line of business-specific Training Councils comprised of operational leaders and a single learning and development resource.  With an increased focus on practical learning, overall time spent in corporate training has decreased substantially across the organization with no measurable loss of productivity or performance.
  1. Investment in Technology: Taking training design out of the hands of instructional designers will be a significant shift for many and may be scary. The solution is to invest in training development technology that automates or guides the user through the instructional design process.  Remember, you are only building bite-sized pieces here, so the instructional design should be significantly more simplistic.  There are also implications for centralized housing and curation of learning materials.  There are many new tools out there and others hitting the market every month that not only bridge the social and corporate learning spaces (bringing external content into the corporate learning environment) but also enable the users of the system as administrators in a safe and manageable way.  It is worth exploration into alternatives to a traditional learning management system (LMS) when considering this model.
  1. Changing Role and Skills of Learning & Development: In this model, a learning and development function does not need to be composed of instructional designs, CBT developers, instructors, LMS administrators and training schedulers / planners.  Rather, the skills and knowledge that will be critical to leverage centrally in support of the business include user experience, interactive design and social networking and monitoring.  There will be a heavier reliance on other organizational development functions to play a role in employee development (performance management, coaching, etc.) and there will continue to be a need to drive corporate and cross-functional learning needs and programs, but this is a different look than the traditional learning and development function.

No matter the size, industry or culture of your organization, these trends are impacting your workforce.  Regardless of the budget allocated to learning and development, there is an opportunity to shift the organization’s thinking, save money and produce even better results for your workers and your company.

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  1. Peter
    Apr 22, 2016 - 06:11 PM

    Paul. Congrats. Great job!