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ATD Blog

Rethinking Design for Sustainable Learning

Thursday, May 26, 2022

The past two years have shown that L&D can deliver experiences, at scale, with a hybrid strategy when needed. Historically, it wasn’t clear what types of programs organizations could deliver from a distance, but when faced with the recent challenges across the industry, every organization implemented some form of virtual learning and work.

As organizations transition from a survive to thrive strategy, learning teams are reaching the inflection point and challenge of creating sustainable learning. Learning teams need to think differently about how organizations deliver, enable, and support the workforce at a distance.

An Example of Transformation From the Supply Chain and Logistics Industry

Other industries have transformed. The supply chain and logistics industry previously focused on the location of warehouses, price of gas, and union relationships. The strategy focused on distance and cost containment.

But some companies like Walmart and Amazon started to think differently about how they could tackle supply chain and logistics. They looked at everything from negotiating with vendors to the infusion and expectation around using data to drive informed decisions around logistics, enablement, and more. They started to solve problems in new ways.

Now that these ideas have been around for a couple of years, instead of continuing with older practices and mindsets for what success looks like, organizations are changing, bringing in new skill sets and new ways of thinking, and integrating those relationships to continuously evolve the industry approaches over time.

Similarly, L&D as an industry will evolve continuously and need new skill sets and mindsets. Organizations will always need humans in the workforce who need to learn new skill sets for every disruption. Learning teams need to think differently about how organizations are solving those problems.

L&D has proven that they can solve problems differently, but the critical question is how can they do it differently well?


From Accommodation to Intentionality

The difference between virtual learning and hybrid learning is the intentionality behind it. Virtual learning was considered an accommodation; it was left up to the individual worker to figure out how to be productive and successful.

Now that organizations are working and learning virtually at scale, it’s up to organizations to create productive environments when people are not working at the same place or time.

For hybrid working, it’s not just the work that’s changing. It’s the when, where, and how along with the environment they’re working in. All three elements of the equation—the work, the worker, and the work environment—are changing. This is where learning teams need to bring intentionality into their strategy and design for equity in hybrid classrooms. This strategy is about enabling an overarching view of the organization and how the workforce can be productive at a distance. And the strategy should include a way to grow and respond to the next disruption.

Upskilling L&D for Sustainable Learning

Organizations need to take time to upskill L&D teams looking ahead and beyond 2022. For the longest time, the L&D industry hasn’t had time to upskill itself and has been focused on meeting workforce needs.

Instructional design skills have always been important, but new skills are in demand to enable the business from the learning perspective. This includes:

  • Commercial acumen–how well teams understand the competitive environment
  • Where the business goes to market
  • How the business wins

When disruption happens, understanding the commercial side helps to understand how it affects the business, the business decisions needed, and how its needs cascade to help the workforce prepare and respond to the business and commercial aspects.

Learning teams need to spend time upskilling on data analytics. Practitioners need to understand and better use data to provide more insights. It shouldn’t be limited to learning data but also should include business and HR data. Collecting the right data will help prove that learning interventions and systems are working and how to improve them over time.

Understanding cloud-based systems and platforms will help with the IT partnerships when determining what is needed along with HR partnerships. This will help learning teams provide a clear direction for what is needed out of tools and new technologies they are integrating. In turn, these insights and close partnerships will help learning teams drive adoption and engage the workforce.

From Survive to Thrive

We are starting to see classrooms where some people are co-located physically in the same space and some of their counterparts are participating virtually. Going from a survive to a thrive mindset means learning teams need to design learning that brings them together in an equitable experience. This experience shouldn’t be disadvantageous to physical or virtual participants. It’s more than the conveyance of content or concepts. It’s important to build connections both physically and virtually as new ideas are introduced and practiced.

Learning’s most precious commodity might be same location opportunities, where people are brought together. But it will need to be more reserved. Historically, concepts were taught between one and three weeks, pouring content and ending with an exam. Learning teams need to change the way learning is designed, resetting expectations of participants, building for engagement and connection, and creating equity in the experience.

About the Author

Matt Donovan is the senior vice president and chief learning and innovation officer Matt Donovan He is a recognized name in learning, bringing more than 25 years of experience crafting learner-centric solutions and leading high-impact development teams. Not only has he received a large assortment of industry awards, including being named one of Training Magazine's Top 10 International Trainers under 40, his articles are regularly published and presented at a variety of national and international conferences. In his current role, Donovan has collaboratively implemented and grown GP Strategies’ Innovation Kitchen. You will often find him presenting at global industry conferences or writing articles for industry-specific publications.

In his former role as the global leader for digital learning strategies and Solutions, Donovan oversaw the multifaceted team responsible for creating an extensive portfolio of engaging learning experiences employed by Fortune Global 500 companies. Many of these courses have received industry awards and recognition.

Donovan joined GP Strategies in 2009 with the acquisition of Option Six. He has an M.S. in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University.

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