What the Future Holds for Learning and Development

Millennial L&D leaders share their perspectives.

In learning and development these days, it seems that change is the only constant.

Here, three millennial L&D leaders — Larry Nicholson, training manager at American Integrity Insurance; Giselle Mota, learning strategist at Preductiv; and Nick Elkins, digital design manager at PwC (previously learning and performance experience designer with Coca-Cola Beverages Florida) — sound off on what they believe the future holds for the profession.

What are some current trends that you are optimistic about in the L&D industry? Are you currently using or do you expect to use any of these trends in your job? If so, how? 

Mota: I am optimistic about the emerging emphasis on digitization, automation and analytics that is impacting L&D. Currently, there are organizations embracing more of an adaptive approach to scalable workplace learning, but not enough in my opinion. I consult on the use of adaptive learning, analytics and AI in L&D systems and e-learning platforms. I notice many organizations putting more of an emphasis on the need for digital training, and so one should expect to see more content around this, as well as the embracing of automation in both work processes and training/L&D functions.

Elkins: I’m a big fan of the microlearning and performance support trends that are hot right now. In their everyday lives, people go to YouTube or Google to find the answers to things at the time they need them. They look for short, quick doses to solve their problems. They don’t want to have to take a full course. I also love the AR/VR trends right now. These tools allow you to work in your normal environment or in a digital environment and get instant feedback based on choices made, which brain science tells us is the best way to learn.

Nicholson: In the insurance and financial services industry, L&D trends tend to develop much more slowly than in other industries. However, lately I am seeing a move toward on-demand learning where learners prefer to take training at their pace stemmed by video, interactivity and instant feedback. Another trend I am seeing is small- to midsize insurance companies scaling back their training endeavors, which is never good for the workforce. Many of these firms simply view training as a cost center rather than a profit center and therefore choose not to implement employee training programs. Yes, at my company we have already incorporated on-demand learning for employees who prefer this option and we also utilize classroom learning as a blended learning approach, which we have found to be most effective. Going forward, I hope to utilize more video trainings in a microlearning approach and offer a way for employees to access training via mobile devices.

What do you feel needs to be improved right away in the workplace? What should companies continue doing with respect to L&D?

Mota: The marketplace and even consumer behavior are demanding more automation and AI in the same way they interact with the world in daily life. This does not exclude the way that people would like to learn and, more specifically, the way they would like to learn and work. The antiquated concept of standardized one-size-fits-all training and development programs in the workplace needs to change. Organizations should continue to hold on to the simple methodologies and practices that have been working for them regarding L&D. To transform, innovate and adapt to the changing environment does not mean that changes need to be complicated or move away from the simple human aspects of learning and development (i.e., social learning, real-time feedback, coaching) that already work.

Elkins: The workplace needs to put less of an emphasis on “seat time” for training and a larger emphasis on solutions. An L&D team’s role should focus on solving business problems, not on creating a course. The solution might be a PDF, course, video or series of videos, a full-day class or hour-long one-on-one coaching session, or it could even mean changing the process to be trained on in the first place. Focus on solutions! 

Nicholson: I believe influencing the mindset of leaders and learners as it relates to workplace learning is mission critical. There tends to be a lackluster mentality regarding training programs, specifically compliance training among learners in virtually every industry. Influencing the mindset of the organization starts from the top and should cascade down throughout the organization. Learning leaders should not have to create buy-in from the other executives; learning should be a mindset of the organizational culture and supported by the executive members. In my opinion, companies should continue incorporating the use of software and technology into their learning strategy as well as keep up with software trends. There are some very expensive software programs on the market and companies should consider the return on investment prior to purchasing any learning software. Even after the purchase, ROI of the software tools should be re-evaluated on an annual basis. Quite a few companies are paying substantial renewal costs and fees for L&D software that are only used by a small percentage of employees within the organization.

Regardless of the industry, what should every company be doing today with respect to L&D? What should companies be thinking about when planning for the future? 

Mota: Regardless of the industry, organizations should keep it simple by refocusing on the “why” of their L&D efforts. They should have a design-thinking approach and always think ahead to avoid stagnating and falling into L&D practices that are irrelevant and ineffective. Organizations should be thinking about learning as an asset that will ultimately lead to competitive advantage from an external and marketplace view and organizational productivity from an internal view.

Elkins: Solving someone’s problems or fitting a need they have in a way someone else isn’t. If you can solve someone’s problems at a price they can afford, you have a business model.

Nicholson: Organizations should continue listening to learners regarding their preferences on receiving new information and knowledge gain. The more insights a firm has about how employees prefer to learn, the greater they will gain influence, engagement and increased retention of learning programs and content. I view learners as the customer, and if the customer is not happy, you will lose all engagement. Organizations should also view the learning leader as a consultant who asks the appropriate questions and recommends the best solutions regarding the learning needs of the company rather than simply requesting a training and expecting that it be done. In planning for the future, companies can benefit by thinking about what their predominant workforce will look like and aim to create learning strategies that are immersed within the workforce. The “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset will no longer work. Learning leaders should also be mindful of the nature of their respective businesses and how change will occur in coming years so they can develop learning strategies that will meet their changing needs. Historically, the learning leader operated in a silo away from the business and was not completely up to date with changes impacting the organization. The learning leader must be at the table during the business planning process.

In your opinion and experience, is e-learning superseding instructor-led programs or is the need for both about equal? Do you foresee this changing in the next 3 to 5 years?

Mota: E-learning and instructor-led programs together can be either ineffective or exactly what is needed for the given situation — the key is knowing how to blend the two and adapt or vacillate between them as needed. I foresee a greater emphasis on e-learning as we continue to move toward digital and automated tasks, but there will always be a need for that human interaction or input that comes from an instructor-led program … even if the instructor later becomes an AI version.

Elkins: I see them as equal. E-learning has a specific business case. If I were running a company of 10 to 15 people, I would not be looking into e-learning unless it was relatively inexpensive. Custom e-learning can be very expensive and takes a long time to create. In that case, an instructor-led training might work much better. Where e-learning really shines is when it comes to scalability. When you have a large number of people or a large geography to cover, e-learning can help consistently train the staff. It also can help establish consistency from program to program. Instructor-led trainings may experience some great Q&A in one program that does not occur in another, for example.

Nicholson: The effectiveness of e-learning versus instructor-led training depends on both the content being delivered and the learner’s preferences. By and large, I don’t foresee e-learning completely replacing instructor-led training right now. I do believe there will always be a place for instructor-led training at least during my lifetime. Many companies today can benefit from both an e-learning and instructor-led training approach to create a blended learning strategy. Technical or hands-on training can be delivered effectively in an instructor-led environment, while soft skills or informational training can be delivered in an e-learning format. I do think in the next couple of years technical training will be migrated to an e-learning format which will meet the needs of remote and global learners. Many organizations are deploying more work-from-home programs and hiring employees on a global level to fulfill certain job functions. It is too costly to pay for remote employees to travel to the headquarters office for training, and the utilization of e-learning techniques will help reduce the associated costs.

If you had an unlimited budget, what tools, programs, software and resources would you use as part of your learning strategy?

Mota: I would use the types of tools that organizations like Intel and Google are innovating with when it comes to automation and AI. Outside of the normal instructional design and analytics programs, I currently work with Docebo and Smart Sparrow to offer adaptive learning, AI and simulations in the design and strategy of learning and development.

Elkins: This is one of the problems I have with the L&D industry in general. We’re very quick to find a tool that’s new and shiny and is solving the world’s problems without considering the problems to begin with. Focus on creating a solution to your organization’s problems. With that in mind, training your L&D staff on design thinking methodologies and then giving them the resources available to create solutions to the problems at hand would be my suggestion.

Nicholson: Finding the right software tools or programs goes back to determining the ROI and not purchasing a particular technology or software just because a competitor is doing it. Let’s not forget that learners must also like the technology and be able to engage with it through ease of use and simplicity. The most expensive technology does not always mean it is user friendly. However, I am very intrigued by learning through VR and simulations. The more hands-on the learner can get within the training environment, the better the overall learning outcomes will be. Learning through VR and simulations has been around for decades, specifically among pilots, astronauts, surgeons and firefighters. Only more recently was the idea and practice of virtual learning deployed into corporate learning programs. Companies with big budgets are already utilizing VR to train employees. To make the most of VR learning, include opportunities for the learner to experience successes as well as failures. I am also in awe of the use of mobile devices to help with knowledge retention and peer-to-peer learning. Purchasing devices for all employees isn’t necessarily cost effective for an organization; however, the more we can explore ways to utilize mobile in workplace learning, the greater the value we will be able to add to learning programs.

What career advice would you give to college students looking to enter the L&D field?

Mota: Study design thinking as well as at least basic analytics. It’s important to have a mentality that embraces methodologies, pedagogies and principles of foundations in adult learning, instructional design and L&D in general. Be open to the constant and almost exponential changes with regard to how end-users experience our efforts. Colleges should continue teaching the principles that are universal to how people learn and improve and keep updated on the latest trends in technologies and methodologies to allow students the hands-on experience. 

Elkins: Start creating a portfolio now. Dive in and get experience. Get your hands dirty. Learn what you like doing and what you don’t like doing. Learn what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Do all this while in college so you can more effectively discuss your career aspirations when it’s time to enter the field. Consider freelancing to gain that experience. Colleges should increase practical application and decrease the theory. Too much time is spent on the theory behind adult learning, and not enough time is spent on actually preparing the students to do the work once they graduate.

Nicholson: Seek a mentor while in college who is working in the L&D field. Allow the mentor to critique completed projects or assignments to give you a practical view of how that project or assignment would play out at their organization. If possible, ask whether the mentor would allow you to work on assignments for their company via an internship or part-time job opportunity while in college. The more hands-on and practical you can get with your studies, the more suited and marketable you will be for career opportunities after graduation. In my opinion, many colleges that are creating L&D degree or certificate programs are doing so for the sole purpose of generating revenue and thus not providing tangible results that are beneficial to students. Professors who teach in L&D programs should have some real-world experience working as an L&D professional at some point during their career. This way students not only receive theoretical knowledge but also practical knowledge and an indication of how what they are learning will apply in the workplace.

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