Much has been written in the last few years about “informal learning” and the need for a culture of learning in organizations. We know from our research that today’s tight labor market and the changing demographics of the workforce are creating an even greater and greater need for a new model. Let me discuss our findings briefly:
The Multi-Generational Workforce
First, we must realize that today’s corporations are not “aging,” they are becoming “multi-generational.” I was recently speaking to a large group of employees at a major US defense contractor and they told me that the average of their employees is 52. When they looked at the average age in the next 10 years, it was likely to drop, not rise.
Why was this? While the average age of the working population is going up, organizations are now going through a massive influx of younger workers. The result is that today’s corporations are likely to have four distinct demographic groups all working together.
Fig 1: The Multi-Generational Workforce
These groups each work differently and have different motivations and learning styles, and we as L&D professionals must consider this in each and every program.
How People Learn in Organizations
Given this trend, let us now look at how people in corporate organizations learn. Well it turns out that there is no “right answer,” but our research clearly shows that the typical experience of a corporate employee is something like this.
Fig 2: How Corporate Learning Occurs
Approximately 10% of all learning takes place in formal training. This formal training, typically done very rarely in a person’s career (at most a week or two per year) forms the basis for foundational knowledge about the job, organization, and technical topics. In support of this, we believe about 20% of learning comes from materials and systems: existing processes, books, manuals, procedures, systems, and embedded methodologies. Here workers learn by doing and reading – and such information is provided in both structured (ie. a website) and unstructured (a manual) form. The third, and most important place where learning occurs, is “on the job.” In this third area people learn by talking with their managers, talking with peers, finding experts, and quite frankly, by making mistakes.
If we consider the goal of corporate training to create “masters” in each discipline, then we must realize that we cannot optimize the 10% formal training and 20% of process and information without focusing just as heavily on the third area, the “coaching” and “on-the-job” learning activities.
How This “On the Job” Learning Takes Place
If we now consider this “on-the-job” learning, how does this really work? Well again, as we all know from experience, there are several places where learnign comes from. It comes from many sources: a manager, a mentor (someone who take a personal interest in the employee), from peers, and from some “experts.”
Fig 3: How On-the-Job Learning Works
Each of these people plays a different role. Ideally the manager is a “coach” who helps the employee decide what to learn and when to look for improvement. A mentor, (if one is lucky enough to have one), takes a special interest in the person and actually monitors an employee’s progress against specific goals (many organizations now have formal mentoring programs, which match executives with high-potential individuals, for example). Experts typically help out when asked, but they are usually busy doing their “expertise.” And peers are always around — some of whom teach us the right way to do something, and some of whom teach us the wrong way.
Through all these interactions an individual can improve their performance, learn new skills, and advance their careers. Of course many other factors also play a role: how well does the culture allow learning to take place (are people given the time and freedom to focus on capabilities and not just output), what tools and established systems does L&D provide (mentoring and coaching program), and how easy is it to find experts (expert directories and communities of practice support this).
If you work in L&D, you must expand your thinking to consider this network. How are you going to facilitate and create this network in your organization? For a given learning program, how are you going to make this network take place? Should you create expert directories and communities of practice to improve your technical training? Should you include peer reviews and peer assessments in the process? (Cisco uses peer “gated peer-assessments” in their sales training to measure the progress of individuals through the sales training pipeline.)
The Learning On-Demand Model
Which leads us to our “Learning On-Demand” model. We have been introducing this to organizations for the last year or so and we believe it well captures the “next-generation” of blended learning in corporations.
Fig 4: The Learning On-Demand Model
The idea is as follows: a new employee (novice) starts on the lower left of the chart and then moves up the learning curve (in the gray area) to a plateau. At that plateau they find that they are no longer performing as well as they want, so they need some training and they attend a “training event.” Right after this event their learning shoots up to the top of the gray area, and they feel very comfortable with the material. They go back to their jobs, and of course in a short period of time they forget 70-80% of what they learned, arriving at the right side of the gray area – more capable than when they started, but not nearly as expert as they felt during the training period.
The idea of “learning on-demand” is to create a wide variety of tools and processes to support the continuous learning process we described earlier. The orange area “fills in the blanks”before and after a training event and includes many opportunities to learn and gain expertise.
People still need career development models which evolve their skills against known competency models over time, but within each stage of career development we must consider providing a “learning on-demand” model to support each and every employee.
We have many examples of such models in our research library. Technical professionals use communities of practice, for example, to provide their on-demand learning needs. Sales people rely on a weekly “sales training meeting” with their team to work on key skills or topics. Customer service representatives chat online with peers to help each other through thorny issues. And many professionals now use online books, podcasts, and other reference materials in the context of a role-centric portal to provide on-demand resources.
Learning On-Demand is not easy. It forces the L&D organization to try to organize many new forms of content into a seamless environment, which in most companies is still very much a work-in-process. But if we want to meet the needs of today’s fast-moving business environment, we must embrace this model and start implementing it today.