Employees are learning on their own, independently of formal L&D programs. Here’s how you can meet them where they are and adapt your L&D offerings to their new needs. 

The near future of corporate learning is already here, and it’s not just new content or innovative digital platforms. Employees have changed the way that they learn on the job, with many seeking answers individually instead of looking to learning and development (L&D) departments. That doesn’t mean the L&D department is obsolete. But it does mean that it probably needs to evolve.

But how? Every chief learning officer (CLO) knows L&D is becoming more digital. Which means almost anyone can now learn pretty much anything they need, any time they want, all by themselves. What isn’t quite clear is how L&D teams should adapt to this new reality. To help answer that question, Degreed surveyed 512 Millennials, GenXers and Baby Boomers to understand how today’s workers really build their skills. These people work at all levels of organizations, in big companies as well as smaller ones, across a range of industries and job functions.

Here’s what we learned about the digital, democratic, near future of learning for work:

How we invest in people in the on-demand economy

Only 18% of the people we surveyed said they would recommend their employer’s learning and development opportunities to a colleague. But let’s be honest, most chief executives don’t invest in people out of benevolence or social conscience. They do it to drive productivity and performance. Chief executives are paid primarily to deliver value to shareholders and that value comes largely from growing profits.

So why does it matter if employees aren’t happy with their training? Because learning and development are among the most powerful tools that organizations have to spur productivity – and research shows that engagement is a predictor of future financial performance.

People are a big expense – up to 70% of operating costs in many organizations. So efficiency is why we talk about managing human capital ten times more than we talk about investing in people. As part of the ongoing efficiency drive, employers have shifted $3.3 trillion off payroll and into the ‘contingent workforce’ in recent years. Today, 34% of American workers are freelancers, contractors or temps. Within the next decade, some forecasts predict that the figure could swell to 50%. In the on-demand economy, when it comes to people, organizations value efficiency above engagement.

This drive for efficiency has completely reshaped L&D, too. Almost half of corporate training is now delivered using technology, up from 26% a decade ago. And all that new technology is three to six times more likely to be used to enhance reach, lower costs or improve consistency than to meet the specific needs of Generation X, the Millennials, or the Homeland Generation – those born after the mid-1990s.

That’s why only 18% would recommend their L&D offerings to a colleague – investing in efficiency alone doesn’t work so well for today’s workers. But the demand for efficiency isn’t going away. So the conventional tools of the trade – instructional design, facilitation, learning management systems (LMS), e-learning courses, virtual classes, rapid authoring tools – are not obsolete. They’re just incomplete. Tools need to address engagement alongside efficiency.

L&D of the people, for the people, and by the people

Workers need more than the typical training solutions because we don’t just build expertise through formal training. We also grow every day via informal experiences and interactions with other people. To really drive productivity and performance, you need it all. Formal and informal. L&D and self-serve. Efficiency and engagement.

The operative word here is ‘and’. According to our research, formal training is still an essential part of how workers develop new skills and keep their old ones fresh. Around 70% of the people we surveyed told us they take live, virtual or e-learning courses at work at least once a year. However, this still works out to be only every few months.

In between, workers rely on social and on-demand learning. Almost 85% said they learn things for work at least once a week by searching online. Nearly 70% learn from peers, articles or blogs each week, and more than half from videos (see graphic, above). Learning and development are not exclusively the L&D team’s job anymore. They’re intertwined with everyone’s job.

As a matter of fact, people told us that, on average, they spend five times more time learning on their own each week than from their employers’ training. Yet, they still need – and want – direction. Workers who told us they have adequate guidance are significantly more satisfied with their employers’ training and development opportunities than those who don’t.

These days, however, that support is more likely to come from their managers, peers or technology than from their CLOs. Fewer than 30% turn to their L&D departments or search their LMS first when they need to learn something new for work. Meanwhile, 69% ask their boss or mentor, 55% look to colleagues and nearly half seek out answers or resources online.

That is an opportunity for CLOs and their teams, not a threat. People still need operational knowledge and skills training to do their jobs. But today’s workers also need to learn and grow every day, not just once in a while. So the role of the L&D function – creating and delivering programmes, classes and courses – is expanding, not shrinking.

Smart CLOs now do more than just supply learning, they enable it. They build diverse ecosystems and cultures that empower everyone to access the best learning resources from anywhere, on-demand, to link development to both career goals and organizational priorities, and to connect with each other for guidance, coaching and collaboration.

Towards a more perfect union of L&D, workers and managers

For most CLOs, sharing control with workers and managers is easier said than done. Mindsets about training are often fixed, budgets always get squeezed, and processes are typically set. So a growing number of learning teams are embracing their new role by thinking, investing and working differently.

Take one technology company we work with. As their VP of talent development says, “I don’t just want to tell employees what they have to learn. I want to show them what they can learn.

“Our role,” he adds, “is to provide employees with the resources, tools and connections they need to do their jobs and build their careers.”

Prioritizing workers’ needs together with the company’s has led to a diverse portfolio that targets different groups with specific solutions. That portfolio still includes live workshops and online classes. But it also includes short-term assignments, massive open online courses, mobile performance support, digital communities, and on-demand books, articles and videos.

Sometimes, that diversity comes at the expense of efficiency and control. The entire talent development team is constantly exploring new tools and methods. They recruit people from outside of learning to experiment with fresh ideas and new skills. And they share responsibility for curating learning experiences with employees.

This is what the near future looks like. The most mature L&D teams already deliver 20% less training in classrooms and LMS than less sophisticated ones do. They also provide up to 30% more learning on-the-job, 13% more via coaching and collaboration, and nearly 100% more through on-demand resources like videos, articles and books.

These next-generation L&D teams aren’t going through this transformation out of benevolence or social conscience, either. They’re doing it because it makes them more effective, both at growing employees’ capabilities and at driving business results. It also makes them more cost efficient.

Rebuilding L&D for digital and democracy

Getting and keeping people engaged in their work is more vital than ever, and L&D is essential to making that happen. However, the ways we train and develop workers need to adapt.

L&D leaders see the need to evolve. Over 60% of those we polled are rethinking their learning strategies to engage today’s workers better. Almost half are investing in more modern content or new technology. However, fewer are updating their own teams. Only 42% are reorganizing, just 31% are re-skilling their staff and barely 21% are recruiting for new capabilities.

The reality is that entertaining, snack-sized content and gamified social learning systems aren’t enough to get you ready for the near future of L&D. You also need to embrace new ways of thinking and working to better balance organizational imperatives with individual ones.

— Todd Tauber is VP of product marketing at Degreed


‘Encourage employees to find content and teach themselves’
Janice Burns, chief learning officer, MasterCard

“We encourage our employees to look at learning resources both inside the company and outside, such as TED Talks. It’s all self-driven, encouraging individual passions and learning. They can view anything they like – they’re going to do it anyway – it’s not monitored. Our fundamental messages are: 1) innovate yourselves or you won’t keep up; and 2) make learning a habit.

“The gig economy, where temporary positions are common and people don’t want full-time employment contracts, has begun. We are competing for talent and for employee affection. At MasterCard, we have three generations all working side-by-side. Our learning strategy helps to feed their thirst for knowledge, while driving referrals and attracting new employees. When we started this journey towards learning freedom three years ago, 70% of our employees were engaged in formal learning that we provided, and 0% were in collaborative learning social forums; the figures are now over 90% and 60%. We are clearly meeting some hitherto unmet need.”

‘You need to balance self-discovery with rigour’
Mike Conner, chief evangelist, BlueBottleBiz

“Companies and their needs evolve faster and faster. L&D has always had to adapt and play catch-up to be seen as a source of value-add rather than as a cost centre. There’s nothing new about going digital, but we are all overwhelmed with content and data, to the point where it can make us more inefficient, rather than more productive. Going back and forth searching for ideas can waste a lot of time. Not just that, but employees will share content they find when it resonates, and sometimes it’s just plain wrong and could take our company off at a tangent. Then we waste even more time unlearning new stuff! So yes – absolutely – you have to balance inevitable self-discovery with some rigour around steering people towards helpful, rather than time-wasting, content. It’s much more about creating a collaborative learning environment, one that gives structure to informal learning and freedom to offer quick feedback.

“The platforms out there that will be most successful in guiding credible self-discovery are the ones that combine expertly vetted content, professional network and collaborative tools. By curating only the most credible content – being sure to not waste anyone’s time – and pairing it with context, or comments that can easily be added by field experts or peers, such content can be morphed into new and innovative ideas.

“When it comes to Degreed’s research, I am not surprised by the findings. Often, learning-management systems contain too much information and too many generic courses, so people choose to circumvent the system. L&D needs to ensure mandatory training, such as compliance, takes place. At the same time, L&D needs to facilitate self-learning. Since 70% of knowledge is retained from informal experiences, it makes sense to guarantee learners some freedom, while providing structure and context. In this way, learners and businesses both win.”

‘Use attractive content to pull people towards strategic learning’
Amit Aggarwal, SVP HR & chief learning officer, Genpact

“We are in the middle of a big debate along exactly these lines, and Degreed’s research has helped to crystallize some of our ideas. When I consult my line colleagues, they favour balancing attractive content that stimulates curiosity and pulls people towards learning with steering individuals towards curated content that is consistent with our strategic focus. Of course, it needs an accessible, high-speed infrastructure to enable easy access and a curator who can work through the masses of YouTube, Khan Academy and other materials to create content relevant to Genpact’s strategic focus. WebEx Q&A with experts would be one, personable way to direct learning towards certain resources. Our challenge is that the world is changing so fast that we need to look ahead constantly at learning content that supports where we are headed – not where we are currently located. We ask people to develop and move fast.

“Personally, I think the role of the classroom is still pivotal to development, because it gives people the mental map they need to navigate all the materials available to them on the web.”

‘It’s hard to learn leadership behaviours on the web’
Andreas Kalverkamp, HeidelbergCement

“There is a good use for the internet when I need a quick solution to a hands-on problem. For example, if I need to set up a project plan or need a solution for a specific calculation using Excel, I admit I am likely to do a quick web search. Unfortunately for a company it gets a lot more difficult if you want to create a movement using e-learning. We do use e-learning to boost the technical and process knowledge of our workers or to share good practice on several business topics. But initiatives like this need to be well embedded and implemented in the organization and expectations need to be clear. Where the internet then really stumbles is on the complex issues, like aligning leadership behaviours, shaping the culture, and behaving in the way we expect from our managers at HeidelbergCement. We don’t need our employees to search online and then decide if they prefer the Welch or the Goleman approach. We know what kind of behaviours we expect from them, such as reliability, thoroughness and transparency in decision-making. And this is not just important for our 700 top and senior managers, who lead the way. It’s just as important for our middle managers, where money is made or lost. Being specific and deliberate about what management style we want is important to keep us on track.”

An adapted version of this article also appeared on the Dialogue Review website