Winter 2015
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CTDO Magazine

Boundless Options, Critical Choices

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The new learning content landscape comprises a multitude of content and delivery options that talent development functions must learn to navigate.

For a time, the landscape for learning seemed to have reached a steady state: Traditional instructor-led training remained the go-to option for priority programs, alongside classic coaching and mentoring initiatives for one-on-one (personal) development. E-learning courses, supported by a learning management system, provided self-directed alternatives where scalability or cost concerns dictated. Nagging questions about usage and impact remained, with some resources grossly underused and key metrics on such areas as leadership pipeline remaining stubbornly unchanged. But there was at least a degree of predictability, and learning functions had shifted their staffing and structures to manage the work.

Now those days are gone. The pace and high demands in today's global organizations are forcing us to decrease reliance on classroom training and target ever-smaller chunks of content to specific learner needs. There has been an explosion in learning content and delivery options rising to meet the need. Virtual instructor-led training, massive open online courses, video, simulations, mobile apps, and games all promise new paths to heightened learner engagement. Along with internally developed content and what they source from suppliers, talent development organizations are enriching their programs with the help of vast amounts of free content on the web—from articles and blog posts to Wikipedia and YouTube.

Beyond that is a growing tide of user-generated content in a whole variety of formats. The ubiquity of social media and this vast amount of content make the so-far elusive promise of informal learning seem closer than ever.

Opportunities and challenges

This unprecedented array of options presents tremendous opportunity for talent development leaders. Forward-thinking talent development functions are using this moment to revamp existing programs that haven't lived up to their potential.

There are more quality options than before, which presents the opportunity to tailor learning experiences to the needs of the organization and the multiple audiences within it. Finding the right combination of content and delivery style can make the difference between delivering measurable business impact and throwing away money on activities that create little value for the organization. Progressive organizations are finding that the potential for new and more effective solutions is real.

At the same time, there also are very real challenges. The task of evaluating all these options has become exponentially harder. Learners' expectations also have increased as they compare the organization's offerings with what they can access outside as individual consumers. Add to that the fact that we have four generations of learners, with a range of preferred learning styles, and the challenge is only increased.

From an infrastructure perspective, legacy learning systems are in some cases not able to accommodate the range and mix of content now available. As a result, many organizations already have seen enrollment in traditional training decline, and usage of online content fails to meet expectations as individuals and departments cobble together local solutions.

So, are talent development functions doomed to irrelevance in an increasingly "bring-your-own-learning" world? Should we just open the gates to this new world of learning options and trust that it will all happen organically?

We certainly don't think so.

There always will be a vital role in diagnosing and anticipating the needs of the organization and mobilizing resources to develop capability and capacity where it is needed. Savvy talent development departments will use new content and delivery options to increase their value to the business. Doing so, however, will require increased focus in critical new areas. To successfully navigate the new content landscape, there are three key roles talent development functions need to fulfill.

Learning strategist

Whenever new tools or methods come on the scene, there's an understandable rush to adopt them. Nobody wants to miss the opportunity to bring new value to the organization. But we run the risk of spinning our wheels chasing bright, shiny objects.

The level of scrutiny on talent development budgets is high—47 percent of organizations manage them at the C-level, according to Brandon Hall Group's 2015 Training Study. In 18 percent of organizations, the CEO has primary responsibility for the budget. Talent development leaders need a strong business case to secure the necessary investments and avoid costly missteps. With so many potentially exciting options to pursue, the only way to ensure that we are making wise choices is to ground our decisions in a well-articulated talent development strategy.

Unfortunately, more than 41 percent of companies do not have a learning strategy at all, according to Brandon Hall Group's 2015 State of Learning Study. In contrast, high-performing organizations are 61 percent more likely to link learning objectives with business goals than low-performing organizations. It is precisely this process of identifying key business issues, priority learner populations, and critical competencies that will enable talent development leaders to prioritize their investments in new approaches. A formal process of aligning learning strategy with business strategy is an essential place to start.

However, the most effective talent development teams will not view learning strategy as a static document to be set and forgotten. They will develop a discipline of continuously reaching out across the organization and engaging with senior executives and line leaders to understand business objectives and talent needs. While chief talent development officers, chief learning officers, and chief HR officers must lead the charge, this task is too large to rest in one set of hands.

Forward-thinking talent development functions are working to embed a strategic mindset at all levels. As critical as it is for the senior team to set direction and allocate investments that line up with organizational priorities, it's just as important that designers and facilitators understand the true business objectives they are driving toward, or they won't be reflected in the end product that learners experience.

HP recently undertook a review of its large library of training solutions to evaluate the extent to which each was focused on the needs of learners, reflected the transformation of the IT business, and delivered impact on company performance. With an inventory of more than 10,000 courses, not surprisingly, the company found its marks were mixed. As part of its long-term transformation effort toward participant-centered learning, HP has revamped key sales training programs and has been able to demonstrate increases in revenue and pipeline growth directly attributable to its new talent development programs.

Content curator

Finding and vetting the right content from a vast sea of options is no small challenge. To fully leverage the power of these options, learning organizations will need to approach content selection and development differently from how they have done before.

In the past, content decisions often were made once during development and then not revisited for years. If talent development functions truly want to deliver strategic value, then we must be agile enough to keep pace with emerging business issues. The ability to rapidly source and deploy relevant learning content is one approach to doing that. Learner expectations of what constitutes "up-to-date" also are ever-increasing in a world where websites are updated on a continuous basis. Learners expect the ability to voice their judgments about what content is good or bad and even to add their own user-generated content into the mix.

Content evaluation and selection in the future will become a continuous and much more inclusive process as learning organizations work to keep pace with the speed of production and to deal with the ephemeral nature of free content on the web. Forward-thinking companies already are beginning to develop content-curation capability and even staff specialist roles on their teams.

A chief learning officer from a leading health services company headquartered in the northeastern United States shares, "Curating our own content from publicly available sources has enabled us to meet our client and customer needs, put forward content that is more current and accurate and do so at a tenth of the cost that we used to pay to off-the-shelf online content providers. We are able to steer the savings to high priority development needs of the organization therefore delivering significantly more value while maintaining cost parity."

Experience integrator

In the past, learning organizations typically developed a course as a self-contained unit. Whether it was in classroom or online, internally or externally sourced, each course stood on its own. In the new normal, learning experiences increasingly will incorporate multiple elements from multiple sources. They also will be less event-based and more continuous (over longer time periods), which allows for application, reflection, and workflow integration.

Companies are calling for content to be increasingly tailored to fit the subtleties of their industry or organization. The most effective talent development teams will be those that can weave those elements into integrated experiences for the learner.

From a curriculum design standpoint, that means combining and sequencing multiple components to meet learning and performance objectives. Today's designers will need to understand business and performance objectives at a deep level to make the fine-grained choices required in the new learning landscape. They will need to add the critical organizational context and application components to help learners connect what they are learning to their own work. A responsive learner experience also will include multiple options for meeting the same goals. This many-to-one approach to design is a significant departure from that of a traditional course developer and will require a new mindset as well as different skills.


The other side of an integrated experience is how we present content to learners. Today's workforce doesn't have a lot of patience for multiple logins, security barriers, broken links, or manual workarounds. Existing learning management systems already are moving to adapt, and new learning platforms continue to enter the space.

Enterprise talent leaders are asking themselves, do we need a new LMS, CMS, or HRIS? Should they be open source or proprietary? Where can we get the most bang for our technology dollars? The answers aren't one-size-fits-all and can vary based on the organization's size, industry, workforce, and level of maturity.

In spite of this growth of learning platforms, or the promise of emerging standards such as Tin Can, many learning solutions that pull multiple components continue to be kludgy. It's unlikely that most organizations will have a single technology solution for every component of their talent development programs anytime soon. While we must continue to ask whether we have the right systems and tools in place, talent development functions also need to have learner experience specialists on the team who can manage the integration of learning systems and other types of content to enable a smooth experience for learners.

Choose wisely

For talent development to be a driver of growth and organizational success, it is paramount that the function be able to anticipate the needs of the organization 12 to 24 months ahead and respond to emerging priorities as they arise. It also needs to deliver effective solutions to transfer knowledge and experience, cutting through the distractions that permeate our learners' operating environments.

Talent development leaders today find themselves and their organizations at a critical inflection point. Strategic transformations in our organizations have given rise to substantial skills gaps. The demographic transformation of the workforce has created an urgent need to accelerate the development of younger workers and strengthen the pipeline of future leaders. At the same time, a whole array of technology-enabled solutions is rising to provide us with new options.

The choices we make today will have tremendous implications for our organizations' future success. Let's make them count.

Integrated Experiences

There are many examples of organizations working to create effective integrated experiences incorporating multiple components. Two award-winning examples from Brandon Hall Group research include TELUS and Walgreens.

TELUS, a Canadian telecommunications company, supplemented live and virtual instructor-led training in its new-hire onboarding program with e-learning, job aids, weekly practicums, and mentoring, which led to improved customer service scores among new hires.

Walgreens used a leaders-as-teachers program, both in-person and virtual, combined with e-learning support, an arsenal of on-the-job support tools, and a well-defined change management strategy to transform into a customer-centric, multichannel destination retailer rooted in healthcare.

In the future, these kind of multichannel learning initiatives will become the new standard.

Read more from CTDO magazine: Essential talent development content for C-suite leaders.

About the Author

JF (Jean-François) Goldstyn is chief learning officer at Software Quality Systems, a global IT professional services firm headquartered in Cologne, Germany. He is responsible for all internal learning and the Academy, a corporate technical training division of SQS.

About the Author

Sean Kennedy joined Cambridge in 2016 and serves as the senior vice president of Learning Strategy, with responsibility for point-of-view, content strategy, and product development. He is guiding the evolution of the firm’s offerings to serve the changing needs of organizations today.

Sean specializes in taking complex concepts and breaking them down into accessible forms. That means translating great research and theory on leadership into practical and impactful development experiences. He collaborates extensively with clients to tailor solutions. He co-facilitates senior executive programs.

Prior to joining Cambridge, Sean spent 15 years at Harvard Business School Publishing, where he was instrumental in building their Corporate Learning practice. Sean has designed and delivered leadership development programs at many Fortune 500 companies. His work has been recognized with awards and appeared in industry publications.

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