Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine

In today’s “always-on” workplace, companies should not be afraid to invest in new tools and platforms that deliver the learning people want and aspire for, says Josh Bersin, principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and founder and editor-in- chief of Bersin. “Artificial intelligence, chatbots, video, and virtual and augmented reality will significantly change learning in the years ahead.”

Bersin is the leading provider of research and advisory services focused on corporate learning. More than 60% of the Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For are Bersin members, and more than a million human resources professionals read Bersin research every month. 

In this interview, Josh Bersin talks about the transformations that are taking place in the learning & development segment and analyzes the trends and challenges that will shape the future of corporate learning. 

What changes have you observed in L&D in the past 10 years? 

Ten years ago we were building page-turning e-learning programs and they barely ran on mobile devices. The content was really a “repurpose” of instructor-led training and much of the content development was based on the ADDIE model. We developed the concept of “blended learning” (which is now called “flipped learning”) so people could study online and then attend a class in person. And we had very traditional learning management systems, which arranged content into courses, programs, and curricula. 

As social media entered our lives, of course all this changed. Employees and consumers now want bite-sized instructional content (now called “micro-learning”), they want content that is very easy to find, and they want a user experience that feels more like a search engine or a TV set, not a course catalog. We have been trying to build this infrastructure for the last five years, and now in 2018 it’s finally possible. Consumer libraries and many others have accelerated this shift. 

According to a survey by Deloitte Consulting LLP, from 2016 to 2017, business and HR leaders’ concern with learning and career development skyrocketed, up by almost 40%. To what do you attribute this growth? 

There are two huge drivers of learning today. First, the economy is booming, so companies are hiring, training, and reskilling their people faster than ever. Second, the rate of change in technology, tools, and business practices is breathtaking. The digital revolution, the growth in AI and new algorithms, the growth in the use of software, and all the automation at work have forced us all to go “back to school.” So employees and leaders are very focused on reskilling people (at all levels) and the appetite for modern, easy to consume learning is enormous.

How do you foster and build a learning culture within the company? What are the main issues for a company to become a high impact learning organization? 

In all the research we’ve done (and we’ve done a lot), we always conclude that no matter how good or weak your learning technology is, it’s culture that matters. When a company has a  “culture of learning” – people take time to reflect, they have time to learn, they talk about mistakes in a positive way – people can learn. While technology-enabled learning is important, it’s not as important as giving people mentors, sponsors, and experts to learn from – and giving them the time, rewards, and environment to learn at work. Companies that embrace a learning culture can adapt, reorganize, move into new product areas, and grow in a much more sustainable way – and our research proves this. 

What is the key to creating a successful L&D program that really impacts the company results? 

I’ve written two books on corporate training and it’s not a simple process. The first step is to really diagnose the problem you’re trying to solve. Is your “sales training” program designed to help people sell? Upsell? Increase new sales? Or increase close rates? The clearer and more prescriptive you are in problem definition the easier it is to really identify the learning objectives and the learning gaps. 

Second the designer must use what is now called “design thinking” (we used to call it performance consulting) to understand the learners’ work environment, existing skills, educational background, and managerial environment. A training program alone won’t solve a problem if it doesn’t reinforce and support the entire work environment. This also means understanding what type of learning experience will really “grab” the employees and get them to pay attention. And this also involves interviewing people in the role, to see what gaps exist. 

Third, the designer must build a set of small, easy to absorb, highly interactive learning experiences, content, and interactivities that drive a learning outcome. This is the instructional design stage, and the designer should be up to date on the latest technologies and approaches. Right now micro-learning, virtual and augmented reality, chatbots and video are really exciting approaches. But often a face to face exercise, simulation, or project is needed. 

If you do all this work, and test and iterate on your design, your program will really drive value. I always encourage L&D leaders to evaluate learning by asking employees “would you recommend this?” and “have you used this?” This kind of practical analysis helps you stay grounded in reality, and not spend too much time creating academic content that may not really drive the business result. 

Recently you characterized Blackboard as a “Program Experience (Delivery) Platform.” Can you speak more about what that means and how Program Experience (Delivery) Platforms impact business and learning at organizations today? 

Yes. Throughout the L&D market companies need platforms to help them design, build, implement and measure their training programs. The original LMS vision was to be this platform, but it really became a learning “management system” and not a true “learning system.”  

Today, given the enormous growth in micro and macro forms of online learning, there is a need for a new set of platforms. These include systems that can manage content, administer traditional training, and programs that can bring together instructor facilitated programs (ie. leader-led or instructor-led courses) in high-fidelity programs like onboarding, sales training, customer service training, ethics, and other high consequence programs. Blackboard falls into this category. Where most education has a teacher, Blackboard’s platform provides a solution for training programs that involve an instructor, a subject-matter expert, or a mentor or coach. Many companies need this type of solution, and Blackboard’s specific design can be useful for many training applications. 

What are micro and macrolearning and how can companies help employees identify what type of learning they need? 

Every learning solution has macro and micro-topics. Fundamentals, background, and theory are always macro or longer-form topics. For example, if you want to learn how to become a Java programmer, you need fundamental education in data structures, syntax, language, and use of the various Java tools. Once you become a programmer and learn how to code, however, you may need lots of “add-on” education which teaches you special techniques, solutions to common problems, and small answers to typical questions in a micro format. 

This blend is common in every type of learning. Macro learning is fundamental. Micro-learning is applications, answers to questions, and new applications. 

How can companies select and apply technology in a way that truly engage workers in their learning programs? 

As I mentioned before, the hot new topic is “learning experience design.” What will it really feel like to take this course or program? Will it fit into the flow of work? Will the learner enjoy it and feel compelled to complete it? Will the learner meet others and feel inspired to create a community from this course? Will it help them move their career goals forward? Will it provide the types of learning (auditory, lecture, example, simulation, virtual reality, video, project, etc.) that the learner enjoys and remembers? Will there be enough “spaced learning” to let the material sink in and really stick? All these questions are independent of the topic, and they represent the excitement and design opportunities for learning leaders to build something truly amazing for their companies. 

An oil and gas company I know recently built a 3D virtual world to teach employees about geology, history of rock and sediments, and the different types of chemistry that go into the formation of fossil fuels. The experience is more fascinating than a movie, and extremely memorable. This type of program would be boring in a classroom and probably boring in traditional e-learning, but using virtual reality and 3D animation they made it compelling and very memorable. 

You have mentioned in a lecture that companies tend to increasingly reward workers for skills and abilities, not position. At the same time, recent research indicates that people are looking for non-traditional, short-term degrees and certifications. They want to learn specific skills that help them grow and evolve at work. How can corporate learning contribute to that? 

Every organization rewards people for their formal education, certificates, and certified skills. But beyond that, real performance is based on an individual’s true abilities, experiences, their natural gifts, and their desire and passion to solve problems. These “non-certifiable” areas of capabilities are what we try to assess in behavioral interviews, reference checks, and on-the-job assessments and exercises. Knowing that someone is “certified” in Sales or Engineering may mean nothing about their actual experience and capabilities in different domains of these fields.  

We in L&D have to help recruiters vet this out, and our true learning challenge is to identify these “non-certified” capabilities and skills, and teach people to focus on improving in these areas, giving people experiences to learn, and coaching and mentoring people with strong advice on how to improve. 

Research indicates that individuals now are working harder and they are more distracted and less productive than ever. In a scenario where employees are overwhelmed by information, how can companies make continuous learning easier? 

This just gets back to the topic of experience design and micro-learning. Can you give me “just enough” learning to solve my problem without forcing me to complete a course when I don’t need it? That’s the magic of a modern learning experience today. 

What trends will define the future of corporate learning? 

In summary, I would say that corporate learning is more important than ever. Today, we have a vast amount of new technology, terminology, and concepts to teach people. But at the same time we want to teach people “how to perform better” – as technical professionals, managers, leaders, or workers. These “performance learning” programs are always custom-designed and need to reflect “what works in your company.” So our job in L&D is to apply all the new technologies and design approaches to making our particular company perform better. 

Finally, I would say that artificial intelligence, chatbots, video, and virtual and augmented reality will significantly change learning in the years ahead. We now have algorithms that can observe what works best, communicate with us in human language, and show us how to do something that might be expensive or dangerous in the real world. I strongly urge L&D professionals to experiment with these new tools, many will become the most powerful technologies and solutions in the future. And of course don’t be afraid to invest in new platforms. Now is the time to look for new platforms that deliver the learning people want and aspire for in today’s “always-on” workplace. 

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