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Article: Next-level corporate learning

Written by Steve Goldberg

Observers of the corporate learning domain over the last decade or two, ranging from HCM / HR Tech industry analysts like this author, to corporate buyers or sponsors, have largely been unified in highlighting some key harbingers of critical changes and demonstrable progress needed in order to elevate the impact of enterprise learning initiatives and investments. The representative sampling of industry research findings that follows does a reasonable job underscoring the inevitability of various new paradigm or mindset shifts in corporate learning which have been the catalysts for breakthrough, built-for-purpose learning technologies increasingly seen by and, more importantly, increasingly being experienced daily by corporate citizens today.

First, citing some stats from Harvard Business Review a few years back that were based on research by McKinsey and others:

  • 75% of employees surveyed were dissatisfied with their company’s L&D function.
  • 70% of employees reported they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs.
  • Only 12% of employees applied new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs.
  • Only 25% of employees believe that training measurably improved performance at work.

Indeed, fundamental strategic shifts in learning-related strategies, program designs and enabling technologies are increasingly appearing on the scene these last 12–24 months, effectively ushering in a new era of “next level” corporate learning approaches and solutions. These additional findings from Mercer’s Global Talent Trends research have further buoyed the urgent need for such radical changes. I have accompanied each of these findings with my quick take:

  • 47% of executives cite skill shortages as one of their top workforce challenges in 2024.

Quick take: Interestingly, these executives weren’t even able to narrow down in which areas these gaps would exist, perhaps because the shelf life of so many skills is just changing too fast.

  • 60% of C-Suite respondents believe Gen AI will lead to less need for continuous reskilling.

Quick take: While this finding may seem at odds with the previous one, there might also be an underlying assumption or belief that GenAI has the ability to deliver a learning experience around new skills in such a non-disruptive, seamlessly integrated manner that it won’t even seem like a learning or reskilling event is even occurring.

  • If faced with economic pressures, 40% of the C-Suite would increase investment in reskilling or learning in general, with only 13% reducing spending.

Quick take: Clearly a finding that spurs optimism to those operating in the learning domain, as a logical inference here is that a sizable segment of executives are no longer routinely cutting corporate learning program spend, and in fact, are seeing fit to do the opposite during business downturns!

Let’s now delve more deeply into four examples of the dynamics highlighted above.

  1. Immersive technologies such as virtual and augmented (or extended) reality, as well as gamification in learning, are not only viewed by most as much more engaging, but also the closest thing to real-life, thus more memorable — a key for enabling learning retention. A Microsoft study revealed the human attention span has reduced from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in a decade due to digital technology. Hence, it can be all the more impactful to hook learners through immersive learning experiences as opposed to traditional page-turning modules. I’ll note that simulations can be reasonably challenging — by design. This allows learners to explore and avoid problems through the simulated experience. This can help in developing business competencies for better performance on the job. Related to this, simulated learning often results in learners being more emotionally connected to the training, more focused on what is being conveyed, and in many cases, more confident in mastering the material covered.

    Learners might engage in role playing or a one-on-one learning/coaching session with virtual human characters. Another form of VR / AR that is related and certainly on the rise is gamification (although it can be more costly if tailored to each organization unless the platform enables “build-it-yourself”). An example of gamified learning might be to have one’s AI-created likeness engage in a simulated conflict resolution training session, where the participant engages in exercises by choosing how to respond to situations. As with most tech-based games, points are earned and leader boards provide proof of learning progress in a fun way. Another example would be a networked or team-based gamification experience where colleagues compete against other teams in different exercises aimed at learning any of a fairly wide range of skills.

  2. AI-powered virtual assistants or ‘learning co-pilots’ represent a revolutionary approach to personal and professional development within organizations. This AI-driven technology can personalize the learning experience to unprecedented levels, reflecting different learning approaches and/or capacities, simply by the medium of conversational learning and knowledge acquisition. Situational context such as the time available to learn is also generally accounted for. Moreover, by analyzing vast amounts of data, including individual learning styles, performance metrics, and even career aspirations, “learning co-pilots” can curate individualized learning paths that, in their ideal form, also serve to align an employee’s career and growth goals with their employer’s business goals. From a broader lens related to education in general, the master-apprentice approach has been shown to be the most effective at ensuring someone masters the right skills before moving onto the next level of learning (instead of our education system today, which lets you barely pass algebra before pushing you to learn trigonometry). AI learning co-pilots represent a great opportunity to move closer toward that master-apprentice approach. So, we’re not just talking about ensuring that a workforce is equipped with the right skills at the right time, but that employees are also better able to take charge of their career pursuits and progress.

    Another true breakthrough element associated with learning co-pilots beyond the extreme level of personalization (even to the point of an experience being naturally tailored for different types of neurodiversity) is when there are periods of change when employees are usually distracted by the many questions they might have about how they and their jobs will be affected. These circumstances are often characterized by HR and/or managers just not being able to reach and therefore de-risk all employee situations, leading to employee churn and/or productivity loss. As large learning models “team up” with Gen AI platforms, they can over time develop a repertoire of answers to not just common questions and concerns during such events as restructurings, business transformations or M&A’s, but the most context-specific answers and other helpful information that can easily preempt the negative fallout that often accompanies periods of waiting for personally relevant answers and guidance, including as it relates to one’s career goals related personal growth activities and how they might be getting impacted.

  3. The third example of mindset and paradigm shifts — Geofencing — is not necessarily a brand-new way of thinking, it’s more of a very tangible extension of the long-cited benefits of learning in the flow of work. Geofencing has fully made its way to the list of emerging trends in employee learning and development. Through the ubiquitous smartphone, geofencing allows not just learning when and exactly where it’s needed, but also includes the technology’s ability to determine which bits of learning are most critical given the surrounding environment, e.g., entering a certain jobsite which based on its location, might be subject to certain regulations; or the increasingly prevalent return to work scenario where new knowledge or skills — some of which has perhaps eroded with time — become relevant if not urgent once again; or some other surroundings experienced for the first time and in which certain information is essential for getting up to speed quickly or simply avoiding operational risks. A basic type of such new information might be who is an appropriate person to seek out for guidance on work tasks given the location.

    In short, Geofencing takes full account of the implications of one’s immediate location in their just-in-time learning experience.

  4. My final example of a shift in thinking effecting a new type of learning and development offering takes us to the realm of personalized learning once again, but in this case, in the much newer form of allowing individually tailored (yet cost-effective and scalable) human to human learning programs to be designed by HR teams themselves, essentially from the ground up via smart technology. Historically, a technology-enabled or manager’s matching of a coach, mentor or workshop with a learner likely did not consider much beyond relevant expertise readily available, applicable budget and an employee’s key learning or skills gaps. These days, technology can support a ground up approach and also factor any other relevant data points in the matching process, e.g., a combination of a conversational approach, plus what the technology has already learned about the individual AND the organizational context, including an employee’s proficiency in job-relevant skills, performance patterns or gaps, and how each person tends to learn best (medium and length). And when we think of human-to human learning, coaching or mentoring quickly comes to mind, possibly as well as group workshops with facilitators.

    Additionally, with respect to this type of technology-enabled corporate learning, one which has actually been around for decades, this model or approach certainly has to remove cultural and personal biases. This is significant as it is commonly believed that when the technology component is removed, executives often choose to mentor people that look like them or come from the same background.

Key takeaways

Paradigm and mindset shifts in corporate learning, no doubt influenced by a preponderance of research findings around what has or hasn’t met expectations and why, have now paved the way for technology advances that seem destined to yield better results for the enterprise learner and their sponsor, even the enterprise technology buyer. In some cases, the word breakthrough is appropriate, especially when the mindset shift reaches the point of critical mass where adequate investment is eventually made by solution providers committed to finding new learning and/or knowledge acquisition pathways that were believed to be much more effective. That said, as with all types of enterprise technology solutions designed to optimize the contribution and productivity of the workforce, the operating context of the business and the worker absolutely matters.

For that reason, here are three recommendations that serve as a quick checklist for professionals:

  • Track learning effectiveness: Organizations should ideally track where different types of learning experiences - such as AR/VR/Gamification or Human to Human - tend to have the most benefit, and do so at the employee, job/role, target skill/content and business function level.
  • Flex support and focus, when needed: When a given learning format or model appears less effective, pay attention to support elements, such as whether management support and/or other change management aspects have not eroded. Jumping to quick conclusions prior to analysis could erroneously focus improvement efforts in the wrong place.
  • Consider appropriate timing: Finally, if there are potentially major distractions or dynamics that would likely impede one’s ability to focus and retain learning material, such as during an M&A, corporate restructuring or rightsizing, it would be prudent to consider addressing those first (thereby achieving a reasonable level of environmental calm and stability) before endeavoring to benefit from major learning/training initiatives.

Harvard Business Review, Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development, 2019
Mercer’s Global Talent Trends, 2024
Microsoft, Human Attention Span Shortens To 8 Seconds Due To Digital Technology: 3 Ways To Stay Focused, 2015