Transforming Learning for the Digital Age
Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The learning organization is not a new concept. General Motors, GE, and other manufacturers began offering standardized training more than 100 years ago, and by the mid-1900s full-fledged corporate universities started to emerge. The May 2016 McKinsey Quarterly article “Learning at the Speed of Business” explores how a new phase of learning is unfolding thanks to emerging technologies.

Specifically, McKinsey surveyed approximately 120 senior learning and development (L&D) executives to gain a more in-depth understanding of the present state and probable trajectory of corporate universities. It also conducted multiple benchmarking visits at best-in-class organizations and interviewed more than a dozen chief learning officers with experience at some of the largest, most successful companies around the world.

Not surprisingly, the majority of respondents to the McKinsey study expect corporate learning to change significantly within the next three years. Today’s organizations “must grapple with tools and platforms that facilitate knowledge sharing and employee interactions on an almost limitless scale, challenging—and sometimes appearing to sweep away—the old brick-and-mortar model,” write authors Richard Benson-Armer, Arne Gast, and Nick van Dam.

Enter Digitization

The authors write that “digitization offers a huge opportunity to transform learning and address some of its current deficiencies.” They are quick to note, however, that such technology is not new to the learning industry. What is new, they say, is that an increasing amount of learning content is moving to the cloud and becoming accessible across multiple devices and environments.

But McKinsey explains that integrated cloud-based platforms enable more than just cool smartphone apps. Leading-edge organizations can leverage the cloud to more easily expand their suite of offerings to include MOOCs (massive open online courses), instructional videos, learning games, e-coaching, simulations, virtual classrooms, and so forth.


What’s more, digitization can help organizations “unleash the power of collective intelligence,” in which learning content is often generated, shared, and updated by the users themselves. The article notes: “Increasingly, the learner and the learner’s inner circle—colleagues who send each other articles or recommend content through a central online-learning system—act as curators.” And McKinsey isn’t alone in this prediction. “Curation will play a major role both in the way we teach and in the way we educate ourselves on any topic,” says Robin Good in the ATD Press book Ready, Set, Curate.

What’s Next?

McKinsey expects L&D to become “less the authors of what gets taught in digital formats and more the facilitators who ensure that employee-generated content can be seamlessly dispersed throughout the company.” Although study respondents rated their companies highly on designing and delivering learning programs (more than 75 percent said they were effective on both counts), digitizing learning will likely require more technical capabilities.

So for all the notable advances that digitization promises the learning organization, comprehensive employee development and knowledge sharing cannot be based on the cloud alone, claims the article. In the meantime, corporate universities and traditional training methodologies will continue to educate and develop employees, enabling them to share experiences with each other and connect with organization leaders.

The article contends that change isn’t too far in the future. But achieving this next level of learning “will require a nimble balance between digital and physical platforms, cultural messaging and technical content, and real-time and actively shared learning. . . . Successfully navigating the coming transformation will require not just a shift in tools and approaches, but also an agile, engaged organization.”

Stay tuned.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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