The Future of Learning

To find out what we can expect in the corporate learning space, the editors of Chief Learning Officer magazine talked to some of the industry’s leading voices.

To find out what we can expect in the corporate learning space during the next few years, the editors of Chief Learning Officer magazine talked to some of the industry’s leading voices to uncover future challenges and solutions. Here are their thoughts on some of the most important trends on the horizon.

Channeling Changes
When we asked management guru and The One Minute Manager author Ken Blanchard what he thought the future of learning held, he provided an outline of the three major changes he sees coming:

Changing Technologies
• Engaging digital natives (younger generations) in creating the kind of learning experiences they are drawn to already
• Organizations need to pay attention to how social networking, gaming and simulations facilitate real work
• Increasing isolation and alienation because more people are working from home
• Organizations need to be deliberate in strengthening relationships at work, even virtual ones
• Productivity/relationship best practices for workers who work at home or independently

Changing Demographics
• Finding different work arrangements for baby boomers other than retirement
• Organizations need to be more flexible to keep needed talent:
• Part-time arrangements
• More flexible schedules
• Project work
• Developing Gen X and Gen Y more rapidly to become leaders and managers
• Organizations need to provide career planning and intentional development and give attention to what they want or need:
• Boomers as mentors
• Work-life balance
• Larger meaning in work
• Support more “intrapreneurship” to keep people from leaving

Changing Workplace
• Increasing need to provide just-in-time solutions to problems rather than just-in-case training
• Organizations need to provide shorter training and more follow-up
• Create ecosystems that support rapid on-boarding of new employees, training with supervisor involvement, coaching and access to information through technology
• Get away from one-size-fits-all: People need their own career/development journey mapped out and supported
• Custom-built life

Improving Business Acumen
During the past few years, business acumen increasingly has been acknowledged as a core competency for effective chief learning officers because it’s the underpinning of alignment and effective measurement, said Rebecca Ray, senior vice president of global talent management and development at MasterCard and Chief Learning Officer magazine’s 2008 CLO of the Year.

“As a profession, we need to increase our business acumen and truly understand the industry of our company, its competitors, its value proposition, its products and services,” she said. “We must plan and execute against business metrics and articulate the impact in business terms. We must position ourselves as a business partner committed to driving results. We must see far down the road and be the thought leader our business partners will need.”

Ray predicted that the learning industry will see increased use of social networks and user-generated content due to demographic and technology changes. The challenge for CLOs is to stay ahead of these technical trends and also demonstrate their value as learning solutions.

“Anything that doesn’t support the business will be subject to intense scrutiny,” she said. “What can’t be articulated as driving business will be scrapped.”

Riding Out the Perfect Economic Storm
Economic troubles have dominated discourse in the business world lately, and for good reason. The global economy is facing the most disconcerting developments in the past 25 years, and perhaps even since the 1930s. These problems will preoccupy learning leaders in the near future, said Ed Cohen, CLO at India-based Satyam Computer Services.

Throughout this period of economic uncertain[ty], we will be distracted and sometimes overwhelmed as we strive to successfully help our people weather the economic storm,” he explained. “We all need to keep in mind that there is another storm waiting, brewing and growing. [It] is only slightly delayed as a result of the current economic storm. This storm has been brewing for years and has the potential to derail businesses around the world with potentially greater impact than we are seeing today.

“Some are calling it the ‘perfect storm,’” he added. “A perfect storm is the convergence of multiple storms that, when they collide, cause massive amounts of destruction and damage. Retirements of the baby-boomer generation in developed countries; aging populations worldwide because of declining birth rates; longer average life spans; a widening skills gap; and insufficient numbers of people entering the workforce are all factors which, when combined, are leading to this perfect storm.”

According to Cohen, the keys to getting through this storm will be extreme awareness of costs, knowing as much about the business as possible and taking care of employees, which in the end will better position the organization for the eventual upswing.

The Convergence of Learning and Work
The core aspects of traditional L&D are rapidly going out of date, said Jay Cross, CEO of Internet Time Group. Things such as courses, curriculum, instruction manuals and learning events are less important than ever, and they’ll continue to move in that direction.

“Corporate learning used to be based on the proposition that knowing how people did things in the past was adequate preparation for doing well in the present,” he said. “This worked when there was generally one way to do a task, and it remained the same for decades. Today, incessant change is baked into everything. About all we can say is that the future won’t be like the past. The focus of learning must shift from what used to work to what works now.”

So the question that presents itself is: What works now? Cross said the answer lies in the convergence of learning and workflows.

“Corporate learning is a continuous process,” he said. “People learn to do their work in small chunks: a tip from a pal, an ‘ah-ha’ moment after trying something new, a factoid from Wikipedia or Google, or a story told over lunch. But training departments rely on offering workshops and courses, and CLOs fixate on learning management systems. These things are necessary, but they are a small part of improving organizational learning and performance.”

Showing Learning’s Value
As organizational leaders consider where to make cutbacks in a tighter operating environment, their eyes will no doubt fall to the learning function, as has been the case in the past. However, reductions in employee development are not inevitable if learning executives can clearly demonstrate its value, said Patti Phillips, head of the ROI Institute.

“Along these lines, the learning industry will need to place greater emphasis than in the past on achieving business alignment, particularly with major programs,” Phillips said. “This will require [an] emphasis on clarification of economic and business needs, as well as job performance needs. It will require positioning programs to achieve these needs by developing program objectives that reflect the needs. Emphasis on isolating the effects of programs on business outcomes will be an imperative for evaluation processes.”

That might be even harder to do than usual, as Phillips said more and more learning leaders are reporting to their organizations’ chief financial officers.

“This reporting relationship will position learning as an important player in the business game and will require an even greater emphasis on connecting programs to business outcomes and showing the return on investment in learning,” she said. “Another important trend over the next five years is the merging of workforce development and economic development. Learning and development will become an important partner of economic development efforts within the organization and the community.”

Next-Gen Learners
For Karie Willyerd, Sun’s chief learning officer, one of the pre-eminent talent issues of the next decade will be the demographic shift in the workforce from the baby boomers to generations X and Y.

“Foremost, we need to expand our thinking from an emphasis on leadership development to an emphasis on knowledge transfer, broader skill building, just-in-time learning and breaking content into smaller, more digestible and incremental units available online and to mobile learners,” she said.

This trend, combined with the continual progression of learning programs to more virtual, mobile platforms, will lead to more focused, accessible and engaging content, she said.

“[R]ight now, the bulk of online learning consists of slides, with an audio track replacing slides delivered by a human being. In time, I expect shorter, snack-sized learning modules that learners can pick and choose from to assemble their own curriculum,” she said. “I anticipate more interactivity to replicate the in-room experience of labs and workshops. I also think learning in the future may look more like what we think of as play: games, quizzes, self-directed exploration and peer collaboration.”

Integrating Learning With the Talent Suite
For years now, thought leaders in learning and HR have talked about integrating the so-called talent suite, which includes recruitment and retention, compensation and benefits, performance management, succession planning and — of course — learning and development.

The economic downturn will create a sense of urgency around that integration, as resources in organizations will be pooled and shared, said Allison Rossett, professor of educational technology at San Diego State University.

“Into the future, leadership will focus on integrated services, with learning and support taking their place within the larger talent initiative,” she said. “How does learning differentiate the organization in the marketplace? How does it make a case to attract great people to our organization, not our competitors? How does our learning effort contribute to retention? How does it make sure our people are ready to work and [are] excellent at it? How do we know? How are we continuously improving our systems?”

In addition to functional blending, new and interesting combinations of technical platforms will make learning much more dynamic.

“It is not the proliferation of technology that intrigues as much as the impact on the how, where and when of learning,” she said. “Now, development and support happen where work and life happen, and with help from experts and peers.”

Organizational Alignment
According to Frank Anderson and Christopher Hardy of the Defense Acquisition University (DAU), the biggest imperative for the learning industry in the next five years will be delivering learning to employees when and how they need it. DAU provides training to all levels of the United States Department of Defense’s acquisition, technology and logistics workforce.

“Learning at the point of need is the goal, and integrating and optimizing learning, facilities, technology and business processes will be the means,” they explained. “We need to create a physical work environment that provides for both formal and informal interaction on the job and in the classroom. We need to be able to connect to technology easily and naturally throughout our workspace and our learning space. Innovation, learning, communications and work results will greatly improve if we deliberately optimize architecture, furniture and technology with communications, learning, social patterns and work.”

As a result, the phrase “blended learning” will take on a much broader meaning, no longer referring to the combination of classroom instruction — which will decline in use and importance — and other modalities.

“‘Blended’ will describe the blending of reality with virtual immersions and games within all learning products,” Anderson and Hardy said. “The informal learning space will not only be deliberately integrated for 24×7 reach-back on the job, but also will become emulated by simulations/games to leverage the huge benefits of cognitive immersion and engagement in the learning activity.”

Stretching the Learning Function
Two developments in the corporate world will continue to put pressure on learning functions: the pace of change in business and the flattening of the enterprise. Jeff Tritt, executive vice president of human resources and organizational development at Leo Burnett/Arc Worldwide, said this will mean leaders in learning and other parts of the business will have to do more with fewer people.

One way this has changed the way learning is delivered is a rise in stretch assignments, Tritt said.

“It is important that these assignments deliver against the strategic goals of the organization, the employees’ own development wishes and the needs of the particular business unit or functional area,” he said. “To date, this kind of learning has been the domain of highly skilled managers or the best employees, who have always taken it upon themselves to stretch. In the future, this process will be increasingly vital to delivering not only the work of the organization but to developing its people.”

In addition to increases in stretch assignments, Tritt foresees more coaching programs in the next few years.

“[Coaches]can help to facilitate the learning process and individuals’ ability to be transformative change agents for themselves and their organizations,” he said. “If people experience personal growth, their desire and ability to contribute to their organization increases, and their desire to look elsewhere decreases.”

Combining the New With the Tried and True
The learning industry is constantly changing due to the introduction of new techniques and technologies, which often is a good thing. And as the speed of innovation accelerates, we can expect to see the changes come fast and furious in the future.

In this situation, it’s all too easy to get carried away, said Kevin Wilde, head of learning at General Mills and Chief Learning Officer magazine’s 2007 CLO of the Year. While it’s important to innovate and keep an open mind about new ways of developing individual competence, he said learning leaders need to “hold true to what we know makes a difference in learning.” In other words, avoid fads.

“I’m sure there will be best-sellers, flashy speakers and ‘new way’ best practices emerging in the coming years,” Wilde said. “As with the past, it’s a matter of incorporating the best of the new while holding true to what we know works. In the end, consistency matters in truly developing talent.”