The Future of Corporate Learning: Towards a Learner-Driven Model


Introduction

My last blog post on corporate learning focused mostly on some emerging developments, illustrated by examples of what Udacity, Microsoft and Northeastern University have been doing recently.

 In this blog post I will argue that we are entering a new era of corporate learning—one where learning and skills/competences acquisition will be more learner/worker- and demand-driven (“pull model”) rather than the more traditional approach (“push model”). The corollary of this type of development is that learning, even in corporate/work environments, will be most effective when it is more like the informal learning that has always accounted for most of the learning that adults engage in.

 The see the emerging model as a convergence of changes that are occurring at two opposite ends of the learning spectrum: (1) the formal, corporate learning and training department where most learning has typically been highly managed and directed, and (2), the more informal, unstructured, and more personal learning environment. The figure below illustrates the convergence process I think is emerging, and shows some of the contributing drivers or developments on either side that now are moving corporate learning into a new era.

Source: Eilif Trondsen, Strategic Business Insights

Before I continue, I have to admit to bringing a bias to at least part of the topic of this posting: I am a life-long learner who strongly believes in personal, informal learning. How could it be otherwise, since I have been a friend of Jay Cross, the Guru of informal learning, for over 20 years. If you don’t know Jay and his extensive writings on the subject of learning, and especially informal, personal learning—and his latest Real Learning project—I highly recommend you check it out.

Informal Learning: Learner- and Demand-Driven

While I consider myself a pretty good “informal learner” I realize I still have a lot to learn, and I suspect that after a bit of self-reflection, just about everyone will have to admit that they probably can become even better at it.  So, when Jay recently launched a new initiative, initially calling it the Aha! Project—but then renamed it “Real Learning”—focusing on personal learning, I was among the first to agree to join. How could I turn down an opportunity to learn more about how to become a better and more effective (informal) learner, and learning from someone with more insights and knowledge on the topic than anyone I can think of?

Jay wrote a book that learners can use to guide them in the Real Learning initiative, including exercises that he strongly recommends that everyone do, including doing frequent (ideally daily) learning reflections, and writing these down these reflections as well as learning goals, in a personal log. Since I have always been in favor of a bit of structure and guidance, especially when setting out on a new initiative, I appreciated Jay’s book that provided some structure to what we are doing. But looking back at attending one of Jay’s first “unconferences” many years ago, where he made it clear that no structure or guidance was needed—as things would organically emerge—I wonder if he has now come around to accepting that sometimes a bit of (formal) structure and guidance can be useful and helpful. Anyway, the book and Jay’s thoughts about informal and personal learning came in very handy, I felt.

 I see informal or personal learning as a process that I illustrate in the figure below, and I see the following as the key features of the learning process that most of us use:

  • Learning course changing as process evolves. The learner, starting out at point A—either with relatively little knowledge and understanding of a particular domain, or with clear gaps he or she wants to fill—set out in a certain direction, but this may involve twists and turns, depending on what we find as we make our way towards point D.
  • Push and pull processes along the way, Most of us receive a wide and growing variety and amount of information pushed to us from a wide range of organizations. Some of this may be useful, but what we pull down from the Internet as we seek specific information and insights, is likely to be much more valuable. This learner-driven, pull process may also involve communications—via e-mail, Skype or other means—with people we know to have useful information that we need, or suggestions for where we can find what we need.

 

Source: Eilif Trondsen, Strategic Business Insights

Given how Jay and I feel about the power and potential value of informal learning, we both felt that corporate training, the way most corporations have long managed it via training departments and formal training courses, etc. was not the best way for employees to learn, and would not be the most cost-effective way for employees to learn. In many ways, it was too much of a formal “push approach” (where corporations would require certain learning and training programs, typically consisting of very formal training courses) rather than structuring learning as more of a “demand-driven approach” where learners would be directing their own learning activities, and given appropriate resources and tools for learning what would be most useful and relevant for gaining the skills and competence they needed. Companies can build a learning culture as well as learning environments—even providing online learning platforms that enable a variety of learning materials to be easily accessed—and make it clear that they not only encourage learning but expect learners to be more self-directed and drive their own learning activities in ways that give them the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to do their jobs and to grow in their jobs over time.

 Corporate Learning: The New Model

The first figure in the post illustrated the convergence I see where the new corporate learning model emerges from a set of changes and developments on the corporate and the informal side of the learning equation. Since the figure summarized very briefly some of these developments and drivers, let me provide a bit more information that lead me to expect the convergence I have postulated:

  • Growing supply of more granular, high quality content. The open educational resources (OER) movement is alive and well, and new arenas, including market places where teachers can shop for lessons plans sold by other teachers [TeachersPayTeachers], for instance, are emerging to give learners the content the need, increasingly in smaller chunks. And the growing amount of videos, mostly of short length, are available on YouTube and other Internet channels for just about anything one wants to learn something about—for free. As video equipment becomes better, cheaper and easier to use, this type of learning materials will likely continue to explode.
  • Nano-degrees and stackable certificates. In my first posting on corporate learning, I indicated some of the changes that are taking place, including Udacity’s strategy of nano-degrees that clearly acknowledge the needs in today’s market place. The leading MOOC provider, Coursera, has also been moving in the same direction, although with more of an academic angle on what it calls “Specializations.” These specializations—when I counted the latest offering, I found 114 of them (some of which are shown in the table below, to indicate the range of subjects they cover)—typically consist of much smaller time and costs commitment than are needed for typical college courses, and most of the topics also seem to be more aligned with corporate, workplace needs.
  • Easy, anywhere access to content. Not only is content in various formats available on the Internet, but increasingly content, including mini- or micro-courses, are now formatted for mobile devices, and thus will likely be more attractive to learners who want to use mobile phone or tablets to access learning materials. Since WiFi networks are becoming more widely available and free in many cases, learners can also access content as well as communicate via audio or video at low or no cost. This is the kind of “learning-on-demand” environment that many of us have talked and written about for many years—I led a research program, Learning on Demand (LoD), for 10 years at SRI [launched after I co-authored an SRI research report, with Kent Vickery, entitled Learning on Demand, in 1996]—and now, finally, it is close to being a reality, at least in many developed countries.
  • Smarter, more work-contextualized learning design. In the words of Sam Herring, CEO of Intrepid Learning—which together with INSEAD and Microsoft created the Microsoft MOOC that was described in my last blog posting—the learners they are designing platforms and learning activities for are “learning in cohorts from experts and from one another, they are influencing the learning experience as a group, and they have meaningful opportunities to practice and apply concepts to their specific situation. Social engagement is integrated with structured learning through discussions, peer reviews, and meaningful moderation.” In addition, Sam notes that “learners expect solutions that are optimized for their lifestyle – mobile, on-demand, short-form, socially connected, and self-directed.”
  • More learner-driven and -friendly learning. Unfortunately, much of current online learning—both in academic and corporate environments—are constrained in many ways by learning management systems (LMSs) that are designed for administrative processes than for user-friendly learning. These systems have given online learning a bad reputation, and while newer systems—such as Canvas by Instructure—have much more user-friendly and attractive user interface design, newer platform designs such as that developed by Intrepid need to replace older, inflexible systems that also typically don’t integrate well with other communications and collaborations systems that learners use either in their personal or workplace learning and work processes.

 

The Future

The futurist William Gibson noted once that “The Future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And, yes, we have many companies, on both the “demand and the supply side of the learning equation” that recognize and are embracing the model as I have described it above. Some of these companies were illustrated in my last blog post. But, the vast majority of companies are not close, and still cling to the older, conventional training models and their old ways of running training departments or their “corporate universities.”

High tech companies, either small or large, are typically among the early adopters of the new model as they are facing more rapid change and more intensifying competition than players in other industries. And tech startups need to grow fast and scale their operations—resulting in rapidly changing learning and training needs—to meet the expectations of demanding investors. Silicon Valley and other tech-intensive areas are therefore good places for finding and studying how corporate learning will evolve.

In my discussion of these things with a good friend, Kevin Wheeler, Founder and President of The Future of Talent Institute—a human capital expert who carefully monitors and studies talent and talent acquisition around the world—Kevin said that he agreed with the trends I have identified but he noted that a key factor determining how quickly things will change depends on how quickly the behavior of recruitment managers will change. Most of these managers, he has found, tend to be quite traditional and conservative, especially in engineering-focused companies. This means that new and innovative ideas, such as nano-degrees, stackable certificates, badges, and competency-based learning programs, will take considerable time to gain acceptance with most recruitment managers.

This will likely mean that the companies that will lead the charge into the new future will be smaller companies with younger recruitment managers who are less risk averse and see the upside as greater than the potential down side for embracing the new corporate learning model. Kevin, Jay, Sam and I and others will continue to monitor these developments to identify who the early adopters are in Silicon Valley and elsewhere as well as how they deploy the emerging models of learning.

 

Brief Bio

Eilif—a transplanted Norwegian who has spent his whole professional life in Silicon Valley—has led and participated in a number of syndicated research programs and numerous consulting projects during his 35 years at SRI International (formerly Stanford Research Institute) and Strategic Business Insights (a spin-out from SRI, located on the Menlo Park campus of SRI). He has also been Adjunct Professor of Economics at a number of Bay Area universities. Most of his work has focused on eCommerce, Learning, Innovation, and Virtual Technologies, and in recent years much of his work has focused on the Nordic region, especially Finland and Norway, including projects for Tekes and the Norwegian Research Council, and two projects funded by Nordic Innovation. He has been a Board member of Silicon Vikings for the last 5 years, and have been the Chair of the Special Interest Group on Entrepreneurship and Learning since its beginning.

 

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