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Talent Development Leader

Can Innovation Save L&D’s Future?

Monday, April 22, 2024

Talent leaders can ensure the longevity of training programs by incorporating solutions in six areas.

When was the last time you were eager to attend a mandatory training session? Employees frequently must squeeze in another e-learning class, mindlessly clicking through to the end so they can complete the multiple-choice questions and rush to get back to work.


Contrast that with the voluntary decision by employees to open applications off the clock such as Instagram, YouTube, or Duolingo where they constantly scroll through feeds or click through activities and contests to get to the next level. That is because those applications are engaging, fun, and novel; L&D teams design them to lure audiences into near-hypnotic states.

How can the talent development function apply the same addictive gaming strategies and psychology principles to the corporate training world?

The modern learner is much more proactive and self-directed compared to the brick-and-mortar era of L&D. A more sophisticated audience demands higher levels of creativity, interaction, storytelling, social engagement, and multimodal use of technology.

As a learning experience and innovation executive, my directive is to figure out new ways to engage my company’s audience more deeply. My organization designed the learning activities offered through our software platform to reach various roles across a multitude of technologies and industries. For employees, L&D is an essential yet often boring or angst-inducing experience.

It has been a long-standing goal of mine to bring excitement and innovation into the world of L&D so that training no longer seems like drudgery but more like a rewarding pursuit of enlightenment and nirvana.

Maybe that dream is a tad unattainable—but at the very least, the TD function should want to produce learning experiences that are engaging and meaningful rather than a tedious chore.

What would it take to generate rabid, viral-type reactions to a training program? How do you incorporate innovation into your solutions when you have dwindling resources and tightening funds? My team and I researched and tackled those challenges for the past two years, then implemented innovative solutions for our learners in six distinct areas.

In the background, an AI-generated image of bees looking at a technological map of their hive. In the foreground, six hexagons contain the Areas of Focus: Graphics and videos; social media and evangelism; social learning framework; VR, AR, MR, XR; partnerships; and GenAI

1. Enhanced graphics and videos

One of the easiest ways to innovate learning content is to incorporate enhanced video and graphics, which is doable if you have existing staff to implement it such as graphic designers, content producers, and e-learning specialists.

The default approach to creating content, even after decades of innovation, is to put text and stock pictures or art onto a slide. My team of content producers created engaging videos and presentations that became templates for other teams (such as marketing, sales, and services) to use in their daily work. Consulting more eyes to elevate your content will better engage a diverse audience.

2. AI and generative AI

Advances in artificial intelligence are challenging the long-standing metric that an instructional designer must expend 40 hours of effort to create one hour of new instructor-led content (also known as the 40:1 ratio). Simple solutions, such as leveraging existing AI platforms, will help you generate foundational text to include in textbooks and course materials. While working on those types of projects, my team saw a 40 percent reduction in the amount of time it took to create content from scratch. Note, however, that you must check any content from generative AI for bias, factualness, plagiarism, and other ethical concerns. Generative AI is a tool, not a catchall.

Another solution is leveraging speech-to-text applications. (Disclosure: I used such an application to save time writing this article section.) Other platforms make it easy to translate text into local languages. Of all the areas my team pursued, speech-to-text apps are changing the fastest. If you do not have the bandwidth to experiment, start with some low-hanging fruit to get projects off the ground such as:

  • Leveraging Grammarly to edit content
  • Using Zoom's voice-to-text feature to help transcribe sessions with subject matter experts; run the transcripts through ChatGPT to help create outlines or headlines for courses
  • Leveraging Googe Translate for simple localization needs, such as in translating text for PowerPoint presentations

3. Content partnerships

A cost-effective and efficient way to implement innovation solutions is to rally your existing internal or external partners to help. When companies partner with each other to provide a joint solution, rarely does a joint training solution accompany the implementation.

Usually, companies initiate training on each component in silos. It’s like trying to bake a pizza but rolling the dough and cooking the sauce in two separate kitchens. Collaborating with key stakeholders can help augment your existing portfolio, especially if they offer expertise that your existing team does not possess.

A project in which our training innovation team was most effective was extending role-based training for our audiences through online course providers while partnering with Microsoft and its subsidiary, LinkedIn Learning. Capitalizing on our company’s strategic partnership with Microsoft, we created joint offerings to deliver a time-saving solution for software users to simultaneously learn both of our ecosystems.

Collaborating with other organizations not only served our learners better, it also leveraged our internal resources more efficiently. We were able to increase the size of our portfolio while not requiring any additional headcount or funding.

4. Social media and evangelism

There is a common misconception that thinking about social media implications inherently belongs to the marketing or external communications teams. The truth is that content creation teams are already experts at generating content suitable for social media outlets. Graphics, videos, or text snippets from the training course are the perfect foundation to start marketing campaigns, either internal or external.

Creating avenues to tout the L&D portfolio enables you to reach your learners where they are already clicking and scrolling. By simply reusing content that we had already created for other purposes and posting them on social media outlets, we generated more engagement in our programs. One of the highlights is a post we published on LinkedIn that received almost 500,000 impressions.

5. Social learning frameworks

In an age of self-directed learning, L&D leaders should not ignore the importance of social influence and peer pressure in the learning process. Spend time understanding more about social learning theory, as researched by scholars such as Etienne Wenger and Albert Bandura. In virtual environments, pay particular attention to methods of connecting audiences to maximize results.

My team leveraged that idea for our highly technical audiences and created cohorts of 10 to 20 individuals who would progress through learning paths together. Partnering with a learning consultancy, we incorporated a flipped-classroom approach to traditional learning paths. Student satisfaction improved by 9 percent; initial pass rates of capstone projects rose by 16 percent; and on-time completion of assignments increased in general.

Side benefits of implementing a collaborative framework include decreased administrative overhead due to peer working groups and greater learner engagement from the implementation of gamification points and leaderboards on the learning journey.


6. Virtual and augmented reality

The potential of the metaverse, coupled with what the virtual world already has available, is intriguing for L&D leaders.

Few people enjoy going through annual compliance training. I will never forget when our HR team asked me to participate in a pilot for a new harassment training format. Most of the time, learners read through text, consider some awkward scenarios, answer a few multiple-choice questions, and submit a completion certificate.

But putting on the VR goggles was a completely different experience. The technology transported me to a simulated real-life situation, where another person condescendingly spoke to me. I took the training more than one year ago, and the emotional impact of the immersive encounter has stuck with me to this day.

Companies are starting to leverage the technology around augmented reality, which applies digital elements to coexist within a real environment. Training teams can find new and creative ways to design engaging content for in-person events and conferences.

My team created customized VR and AR environments and took them to our annual user conferences. We showcased how to partner with sales and marketing teams to help drive business. During the past two years, the VR booth helped evangelize our company’s vision of enabling 1 million new people over the next three years.

Infrastructure that fuels innovation

Now that you are aware of some of the creative solutions for training innovation, realize that a variety of gadgets in the toolbox is not enough to build a barn. To implement innovative solutions, training leaders must create a culture that values experimentation and form an organizational structure that operationalizes and maintains the strategies in the long term.

The setup for traditional L&D teams consists of two primary pieces: the content creator and their manager. That model means that the creator is either a SME or, in most cases, a highly experienced instructional designer, updating products as needed.

In an era where technology is outpacing the industry’s ability to keep up, it is critical to think differently about your team structure—or at least create some space to enable a group of individuals to focus primarily on innovative pursuits. As you reorganize your team to make room for innovation, it may take several shapes and forms depending on what you want to accomplish. For example, setting up small pods that combine SMEs with content creation experts is one way to break the model that divides individuals only by subject matter expertise.

Another often-overlooked area is the need for a content strategy. One of the first hires I made when establishing an innovation team was a full-time content strategist whose primary role was to focus on our current portfolio, catalog assets appropriately and responsibly, and determine the gaps we needed to fill in the coming months.

Hopefully, these ideas stimulated your thinking, and you are excited to tinker with a few projects that will better engage your audience.

Read more from Talent Development Leader.

About the Author

Andy Ho is an executive leader in the technical training industry primarily focused on enterprise software and cloud solutions. He has been a keynote speaker at conferences and has been a mentor for the Asian American Pacific Islander community.

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