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ATD Blog

A New World of Learning Clusters for L&D

By and

Wed Mar 21 2018

A New World of Learning Clusters for L&D

Has L&D already given up on having a presence in informal learning? Are we going to remain stuck in our world of classes and courses, the world of counting seats filled and clicks on e-learning?

We’re seeing some L&D professionals willing to embrace new possibilities, but most are struggling to find a way forward. That’s no surprise; our industry is facing a staggering increase in complexity as well as organizational expectations that reduce L&D’s control of learning experiences.


As a result, the L&D profession is becoming less relevant for employees. Research by Degreed shows that modern learners use L&D’s traditional course solutions about once a quarter. But modern learners need to learn daily to do their job in an ever-changing environment. Once-a-quarter learning won’t cut it in the modern world. In addition, when asked if they would recommend their L&D department to others, 49 percent of employees said no! If L&D is to remain useful, we need to adjust—and quickly.

Here is an alternative: Stop designing just classes and courses, and begin designing learning clusters.

Through ATD’s LearnNow program, we are sparking a positive trend by sharing the Modern Learning Design Process (see LearnNow: Designing for the Modern Learner and the TD magazine article, “Modernizing the Learning Design Process"). In this LearnNow workshop, participants convert their class or course into something much more powerful: a learning cluster.

What Is a Learning Cluster?

A learning cluster is a new L&D product that includes and goes beyond classes and courses. It is a curated set of learning items that are focused on a particular performance gap and include formal, social, and immediate learning touchpoints. A learning cluster is more than blended learning, which incorporates multiple learning items that are typically experienced online before and after a class or other event. A learning cluster provides a set of learning items that enable modern learners to learn when, where, and how they want or need to learn. That means learning that can occur independent of a course or program, but still address a business-critical performance gap.

Why Do Learning Clusters Work?

A learning cluster designed for a specific skill-gap works because it:

  • targets on-the-job behavior, not just meeting learning objectives by the end of the course

  • designs with the learner in mind by first selecting a strategic combination of formal and informal learning items

  • filters all the possible learning opportunities to provide high-quality resources, which the learners can self-select, easily access, and use with confidence

  • optimizes L&D resource constraints through the explicit use of repurposing, crowd sourcing, and social media

  • measures L&D’s work more comprehensively and meaningfully by considering success of both formal and informal learning methods and both business KPI measures and L&D measures.

Example of a Learning Cluster

Imagine that a leader at your workplace asks you to provide safety training to reverse the recent rise in safety incidents. In the old world, you would have designed a mandatory class where everyone had to sign in, or a mandatory e-learning program and test. But as an enlightened L&D professional, you know that a one-and-done class will not be sufficient to change behavior. Yet classes and courses are the realm that you control, and that’s what management expects you to deliver.

With competency in building learning clusters, L&D professionals can respond differently. Modern L&D professionals can design a learning cluster and return to leadership and say, “I understand the business need is to reduce safety incidents. In addition to an e-learning module, I’ve created a learning cluster based on my analysis of the target users and the most effective learning tools, inside and outside the class.” See Figure 1. Which deliverable package do you think would engage the leaders more?

A New World of Learning Clusters for L&D-Learning Cluster Figure 1.jpg

Some L&D professionals tell us they have no authority in their organization to do much more than classes and courses. Things they might want to do outside of that are often under the responsibility of other organizations, such as IT, the knowledge management group, or another part of HR. Worse, they may say it’s the employee’s responsibility to figure out the myriad learning avenues on their own! We are hearing from past LearnNow participants that the concept of learning clusters can cut through the issues and provide helpful solutions.

By reframing our L&D job, we can gain authority to shift into new areas to do our job well—the job of helping people close skills gaps in the workplace for the sake of the business. The best L&D organizations realize that their ability to reach out and touch learners has grown, due in large part to digital technology. They are excited by the prospect.

Isn’t it time for L&D to own shaping their role in our evolving, digitally impacted, VUCA world? Isn’t it time L&D had a new instructional design process, strategy, and language to help us evolve? We think so, and would like to help get us there! Check out LearnNow: Designing for the Modern Learner to discover more.


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