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L&D leaders must go with the flow

Laura Baldwin, President - O’Reilly

The technological innovation happening right now is, put simply, vast. And it’s creating an equally overwhelming skills gap that’s driving a complete revolution in how we work. According to the CIPD, nearly 70% of organisations are responding to this gap by training and developing existing employees. Which is a smart move, especially when it’s so difficult to find and hire new talent.

But this approach requires a new model of learning and development (L&D). Josh Bersin coined the phrase “Learning in the Flow of Work” to refer to a paradigm in which users learn something new, quickly apply it, and get back to the work in progress. It means empowering employees with tools to quickly locate contextually relevant answers to their questions at the point of need. This simple idea is the next step in continuous learning—a value that so many businesses state is core to their organisations but that fewer are able to tangibly support.

In-the-flow learning is different from traditional learning approaches, like reading a book or attending a seminar or conference. Those formats absolutely have their place, but many people don’t have that kind of time to dedicate. They want the opportunity and tools to learn as they work, individually deciding what they need and when. That’s why it’s essential to provide employees with multiple learning modalities—so they can apply what’s appropriate for the task at hand.

According to the CIPD’s recent Creating Learning Cultures report, “Many employees want to choose how and when they learn.” But unfortunately, as the report points out, “individual learning is not the norm in every organisation, and businesses do not always support this learning and use it to continuously improve the way they do things.” This needs to change. Upskilling and reskilling employees is such a huge concern, especially within the realm of tech, and enterprises must better support their employees and encourage them to learn in the flow of work.

Create a culture of learning
Your learning culture starts from the top. So communicate your initiative with employees and back it up with the resources they’ll need. Encourage them to drive their own learning, and emphasize that time spent learning is time well spent. And give them the tools and technologies that will help them accomplish their daily tasks and build new skills, whether that’s access to a learning platform, the opportunity to attend virtual or live industry events, or support for earning professional certifications.

Designed with learners in mind
User experience (UX) is just as crucial for L&D systems as it is for customer-facing technology. To encourage usage, you must meet learners where they are. For example, if an engineer is looking for a quick line of code to complete a project, pointing them in the direction of a 250-page ebook or a two-hour recorded conference session might not be so helpful. That’s why it’s essential to provide employees with multiple learning modalities so that they can choose what’s most appropriate at the moment.

Make use of innovation
Technologies like AI and machine learning are already helping businesses with a range of tasks, the most important of which is making sense of large amounts of data. AI-enabled L&D tools allow users to fine-tune their learning queries to quickly access the right resources in the flow of their day-to-day. Using advanced natural language processing, there’s no need to search textbooks for opaque answers. Quick, contextually relevant solutions to challenging technical questions can be delivered the moment they’re required, helping to bridge the gap between learning and doing—and eliminating the need for lengthy training sessions. It’s all about helping employees get back to work by providing them with the tools they need to get the job done.

Bring measurement out of the dark ages
Inadequate measurement is one of the main roadblocks to executing this new paradigm. Historically, learning retention and application have been measured by completion data or time spent on learning. But that only gives you part of the picture. Leaders need to move beyond traditional completion metrics and access deeper-level insights into specific learning behaviours. By leveraging data science-driven insights, enterprises can pinpoint significant trends in learning and align those initiatives with corporate strategy. For example, L&D teams can analyse user behaviour on learning platforms to discover the topics and trends most pertinent to employees.

It also becomes easier to recognise the impact of learning in the flow of work on your organisation. One of O’Reilly’s multinational investment bank and financial services clients was able to save hundreds of thousands of pounds when one of its software engineers was able to quickly find the source of a chip-and-PIN system malfunction, getting operations back up and running quickly. While not all instances of learning in the flow of work are so extravagant, the point stands that the ability to save time, even in small increments, can have big returns.

To fully realise the returns L&D promises, smart businesses should adopt an employee-first approach to learning, providing workers with the opportunities, tools, and technologies they need to succeed and grow—both within their roles and beyond. This “new paradigm” L&D isn’t a nice-to-have; it’s a business imperative. A great first step is to meet learners where they are: in the flow of work.

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