The Disruption of Digital Learning: Ten Things We Have Learned
Over the last few months I’ve had a series of meetings with Chief Learning Officers, talent management leaders, and vendors of next generation learning tools. My goal has been simple: try to make sense of the new corporate learning landscape, which for want of a better word, we can now call “Digital Learning.” In this article I’d like to share ten things to think about, with the goal of helping L&D professionals, HR leaders, and business leaders understand how the world of corporate learning has changed.
First, as a preview, let me explain why this topic is so important. The corporate L&D industry is over $140 billion in size, and it crosses over into the $300 billion marketplace for college degrees, professional development, and secondary education around the world. Thanks to the emergence of digital content and tools, all these programs are being reinvented for digital access, enabling businesses and employees to learn like never before.
Second, this topic is now the #2 topic on the minds of CEO and HR leaders. The 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends research discovered that 83% of companies rate this issue important and 54% rate it urgent up 11% from last year. In this world of automation, business transformation, and continued obsolescence of skills, companies are realizing that delivering on a compelling, digital learning experience is critical to business success.
As a start, let me offer some context.
Digital Learning does not mean learning on your phone, it means “bringing learning to where employees are.”
It is a “way of learning” not a “type of learning.”
People have been trying to apply technology to corporate learning for more than 30 years. From the original video disk to CD-ROMs to e-learning to YouTube, we have been through a rapid shift in technology enabled training and education. Today’s “digital learning” does not simply mean producing videos that are easy to view on your phone, it means “bringing learning to where employees are.”
In other words, this new era is not only a shift in tools, it’s a shift toward employee-centric design. Just as we use apps like Uber to locate a ride or like Doordash to order food, we need learning and information support to be as easy and intuitive to use. Shifting from “instructional design” to “experience design” and using design thinking are key here. And we have to look at employees’ journeys at work, so we can produce learning that is simple and easy in the flow of work.
Consider how quickly corporate learning has evolved. In only one generation we have gone from traditional corporate universities to e-learning, blended learning, talent-driven learning, and then continuous learning. Tools like Google, YouTube, Workplace by Facebook, Slack, and others have totally changed the learning landscape, so our job now is simply to “deliver learning to where people are.”
Fig 1: The Evolution of Corporate Training
I’m not saying this is going to be easy, it takes a lot of new technologies and approaches – but it’s clearly where things are headed. Because if we don’t make an effort, people may not use the L&D department as much, and a lot of the investment we make will likely go underutilized or unliked.
1) The traditional LMS is no longer the center of corporate learning, and it’s starting to go away.
For many years HR and L&D professionals focused on the Learning Management System (LMS) as the center of corporate training. We pioneered much of the research on this market and today it makes up more than $4 billion of enterprise software products and services. While I don’t expect the market to disappear overnight, it’s no longer the center of action.
Why? As I will describe below (in a topic I call the “new learning architecture”), LMS platforms were designed around the traditional content model, using a 17 year old standard called SCORM. SCORM is a technology developed in the 1980s, originally intended to help companies like track training records from their CD-ROM based training programs. The LMS industry, which really started with companies like Saba and Docent (now SumTotal), emerged because companies wanted to track all their various forms of instructor-led and online learning, and much of that tracking used the SCORM standards.
Unfortunately, the paradigm that we built was focused on the idea of a “course catalog,” an artifact that makes sense for formal education, but no longer feels relevant for much of our learning today. As a result, LMS systems tend to be very hard to use, there are often thousands of courses to look for, and most employees simply find them of limited value (except for mandatory or compliance training).
As I talk with companies all over the world I hear a continuous story that “employees simply do not use the LMS unless they have to,” and this has caused a lot of pain in L&D. Companies spend millions of dollars on these systems and to find that employees don’t use them is a painful process. It also impacts employees’ perceptions of the HR and L&D department. Perhaps largely because of the state of the LMS market, our newest research (High-Impact Learning Organization 2017) shows that employees we surveyed rate the L&D department a -8 Net Promoter score (extremely low). I suggest this score is lower than most of us would even rate the IRS.
I’m certainly not saying the $4 billion LMS market is dead, but the center or action has moved (ie. their cheese has been moved). Today’s LMS is much more of a compliance management system, serving as a platform for record-keeping, and this function can now be replaced by new technologies. And these systems have typically been very expensive, so companies are now starting to find ways to turn them off. IBM, Visa, Sears, and others have now done this, and I expect more to follow.
Consider how quickly things have changed. We have come from a world of CD ROMs to online courseware (early 2000s) to an explosion of video and instructional content (YouTube and MOOCs in the last five years), to a new world of always-on, machine-curated content of all shapes and sizes. The LMS, which was largely architected in the early 2000s, simply has not kept up effectively.
(A new category of software, called the “Learning Record Store” or LRS (not a place to buy stuff, but a place to store data), is now available, and these systems are likely to replace much of the compliance functionality in the LMS over time.)
2) The emergence of the X-API makes everything we do part of learning.
I don’t have to write this, but let me say it: everything you do is part of your learning experience at work. When you talk with your boss, attend a meeting, read an article, or view a video – you are learning something. And of course when you finish a project, get feedback from a project lead, or complete a new design, you are creating a part of your “credentials” that help you show others what you know how to do.
In the days of SCORM (the technology developed by Boeing in the 1980s to track CD Roms) we could only really track what you did in a traditional or e-learning course. Today all these other activities are trackable using the X-API (also called Tin Can or the Experience API). So just like Google and Facebook can track your activities on websites and your browser can track your clicks on your PC or phone, the X-API lets products like the learning record store keep track of all your digital activities at work.
Fig 2: Evolution of Learning Technology Standards
Right now this means it’s possible to track everything you read and all your digital consumption. I don’t think it will be long before performance management systems, goal management systems, and other tools are X-API compliant, letting you track that too. So this new technology standard now helps free us from the traditional LMS, presenting the opportunity to track all your learning at work.
3) As content grows in volume, it is falling into two categories: micro-learning and macro-learning.
The world is awash with instructional content, and it’s falling into two broad categories.
One is what I call “micro-learning,” things we can quickly read, view, or consume and they only take 10 minutes or less. These may be a video, a blog, or a set of instructional questions that help us think differently than we did before. We as information-seeking animals consume this kind of material all day, and most of the news sites and social networks now offer such learning in a massive, curated stream. Twitter offers a primary example of a micro-learning experience.
Vendors of Micro-Learning solutions include YouTube, and vendors like Grovo, Axonify, Qstream, Pathgather, and Edcast.
Macro-learning, on the other hand, is something we do when we want to truly learn a whole new domain. If you want to learn all about SEO, or digital marketing, or cyber-security, or the new sales methodology – you are going to have to commit some time. The content may be a MOOC, a series of small videos (ie. Lynda.com, Udemy, etc.), or an instructor-led program that includes simulations, group discussions, and exercises. While we used to call these “courses,” in the context of digital learning they are simply “macro” in size, and they should be designed for use in special ways.
This includes vendors like Coursera, Udacity, EdX, Udemy and libraries of content like BigThink, Lynda.com, SkillSoft, General Assembly, Pluralsight, CrossKnowledge and hundreds of others.
We need to make sense of these two formats, and agree that the two work together. Consider the actual path we take as we progress in a job or career.
Fig 3: Macro vs. Micro Learning
Early in a role, we need “macro learning” to get started: understanding the job, the domain, the people, the systems. As we progress up the learning curve, we need continuous injections of new skills, information and connnections to proceed – until we become an expert. Then we tend to become the “coach” and we teach others, moving in a more horizontal way, until we reach the next level of proficiency, role, or promotion to energize our career. At that point we may need another “macro learning” intervention to go back up the learning curve, or if we fail we may actually get bored and leave.
In today’s digital learning world, we must think about these journeys in every role, and categorize content so it can be used for all these purposes. One of our clients made a simple design decision: learning would be tagged informational (type 1), instructional (type 2), or expert-level (type 3). This simple framework helps employees find what they need wherever they are and gives the company an ability to organize content for easy discovery by employees.
4) Work Has Changed, Driving The Need for Continuous Learning
Why is all the micro learning content so important? Quite simply because the way we work has radically changed. We spend an inordinate amount of time looking for information at work, and we are constantly bombarded by distractions, messages, and emails.
Fig 4: The Overwhelmed Employee
And all this effort is not necessarily making us more productive. In addition to spending as much as 25% of our time doing email, we’re now taking almost a week less vacation than we did in the 1990s (Project: PTO) and we spend an inordinate amount of time looking for information. Our research shows that in a given week, employees take less than 25 minutes of time to actually slow down and learn.
No wonder we suddenly see so many options for corporate messaging platforms: Slack, Google Drive, Dropbox, Workplace by Facebook, Atlassian, and dozens of companies are now investing billions of dollars in a potential set of replacement systems to make work easier. These tools are expected to radically change the learning landscape too, as I discuss below.Fig 5: Too Much Time Searching
Fig 6: Employees spend 1% of their time learning
5) Spaced Learning Has Arrived
If we consider the new world of content (micro and macro), how do we build an architecture that teaches people what to use when? Can we make it easier and avoid all this searching?
The answer is complex, but we have some new tools. Enter the world of “spaced learning.”
Neurological research has proved that we don’t learn well through “binge education” like a course. We learn by being exposed to new skills and ideas over time, with spacing and questioning in between. Studies have shown that students who cram for final exams lose much of their memory within a few weeks, yet students who learn slowly with continuous reinforcement can capture skills and knowledge for decades.
The original research behind this is called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, named after Hermann Ebbinghous, a psychologist who published his research in the late 1800s.
Fig 7: Ebbinghaus forgetting curve
As this curve shows, progressive injections of new knowledge have a rapid memory decay in our brains, and only if we repeat the content over time do the curves start to flatten out (the gray curves). In fact Ebbinghaus’s students studied our ability to memorize highly technical anatomical knowledge, and found that only by repeated “practice” could people obtain any real ability to remember.
But the research shows that when we repeat information well, with timed intervals between, and we ask people questions (to force our brains to “retrieve” information), we actually create new learning pathways, just the same way we learn certain “on the job skills” through practice, repetition, and continuous questioning about why something didn’t work.
Fig 8: Spaced Learning: Repetition, Spacing, Questioning
The vendors shown on the left of this curve offer tools to help develop spaced learning, and I suggest that this new approach is now revolutionizing sales training, safety training, and soon even management skills development.
6) A New Learning Architecture Has Emerged: With New Vendors To Consider
As I described above, one of the keys to digital learning is building a new learning architecture. This means using the LMS as a “player” but not the “center,” and looking at a range of new tools and systems to bring content together. Guillermo Miranda, the current CLO of IBM, describes the learning architecture of today like digital marketing: it embraces many types of content, it collects data on interactions and activities, it uses intelligent systems to promote content and monitor employee usage, and it is personalized for everyone.
Donald Taylor, a leading L&D analyst, recently conducted a survey of L&D leaders and found that the #1 growth area in the future is not MOOCs or Video, or even mobile learning – it’s the topic of personalization. We now live in a world where each employee’s learning needs are unique to them, and while we should architect a meaningful set of programs around macro and micro-learning for them, they want to learn when they want in the most natural way possible. Today learning is about “flow” not “instruction,” and helping bring learning to people throughout their digital experience.
Fig 9: The New Learning Landscape
While we have not yet published our detailed landscape of the market, let me suggest that the categories are breaking out as shown above.
On the upper left is a relatively new breed of vendors, including companies like Degreed, EdCast, Pathgather, Jam, Fuse, SkillSoft Percipio, and others, that serve as “learning experience” systems. They aggregate, curate, and add intelligence to content, without specifically storing content or authoring in any way. In a sense they develop a “learning experience,” and they are all modeled after magazine-like interfaces that enables users to browse, read, consume, and rate content.
Today these vendors sit in front of the massive amount of content we have to serve (internal and external), and offer easy-to-use interfaces (including mobile apps) with context and simple pathways to help people find what they need. Most of these vendors are using machine learning (or starting to) to make recommendations more efficient, and they are now mapping skills libraries against their content to help make it easier to map content to different jobs and roles.
Let me warn vendors like these – if they continue down this path without being careful, they are likely to build an LMS. Compliance tracking, certification paths, pre-requisites, assessments, learning credits, and all the other business rules people want are still stored in the LMS, and the jury is out whether these companies will try to replicate that functionality or perhaps the larger LMS vendors will simply copy, acquire, or mimic what these companies are doing.
The second category I show is what I call the “program experience platforms” or “learning delivery systems.” These companies, which include vendors like NovoEd, EdX, Intrepid, Everwise, and many others (including many LMS vendors), help you build a traditional learning “program” in an open and easy way. They offer pathways, chapters, social features, and features for assessment, scoring, and instructor interaction. While many of these features belong in an LMS, these systems are built in a modern cloud architecture, and they are effective for programs like sales training, executive development, onboarding, and more. I believe they have a role to play, and companies are using them for many purposes (including content providers using them to build content offerings). In many ways you can consider them “open MOOC platforms” that let you build your own MOOCs.
The third category at the top I call “micro-learning platforms” or “adaptive learning platforms.” These are systems that operate more like intelligent, learning-centric content management systems that help you take lots of content, arrange it into micro-learning pathways and programs, and serve it up to learners at just the right time. Qstream, for example, has focused initially on sales training – and clients tell me it is useful at using spaced learning to help sales people stay up to speed (they are also entering the market for management development). Axonify is a fast-growing vendor that serves many markets, including safety training and compliance training, where people are reminded of important practices on a regular basis, and learning is assessed and tracked. Grovo just introduce their new micro-learning platform, and it looks like a fantastic new content development environment. Vendors in this category, again, offer LMS-like functionality, but in a way that tends to be far more useful and modern than traditional LMS systems. And I expect many others to enter this space.
Fig 9a: New Grovo Micro-Learning Platform
(Content companies, like SkillSoft, PluralSight, Lynda.com, CrossKnowledge, and others, offer integrated delivery systems with their content, so many of them actually have “learning experience platforms” and “micro-learning platforms” embedded in their solution.)
In the middle of the architecture I show two broad category of tools: assessment and content development tools, and of course content libraries. The reason I show them at this layer is that both these market segments are complementary to the top and bottom layers of systems. In the area of assessment and content development there are literally thousands of tools, and many of the most exciting ones are AI driven, built on virtual reality, use gamification, and all support video and micro-learning content. Most of these are relatively small companies (Adobe used to dominate this space years ago), and it’s important for each designer to pick a tool they like.
While I have never seen one company completely dominate the tools market (Articulate has come close), there could be consolidation or growth if companies like Workday, SAP, or Oracle get into the tools market. Workday now offers a light video-authoring tool and Oracle has recently reinvested heavily in its LMS product (a whole new product is now available called Oracle Cloud Learning) but many of the bigger companies find the tools market frustrating (it changes so fast) so they tend to stay out of it.
Perhaps the most exciting part of tools today is the growth of AI and machine-learning systems, as well as the huge potential for virtual reality. I saw a tool last month which can read text and use machine learning to identify the instructional nature of the content, build a series of assessments, and deliver a test on the content in only a few seconds. Imagine the power of this tool for all the “documentation” you use for training. Tyessenkrupp, a global provider of elevator and mobility systems, uses Virtual Reality to train its service teams. (Video overview here.)
At the bottom of the architecture I show the LMS and LRS vendors, who serve the market as core systems of record, systems that store business rules for compliance and e-commerce, and today provide corporate infrastructure for training and often talent management. While I don’t see them going away, they are now only one element of the landscape, as companies move to a more employee-centric model and embrace many forms of content.
While there are many ways to think about this new digital learning architecture, let me just show you how one major global manufacturer has pulled this idea together. This company, which has now pioneered the use of digital learning, embraces employee-authored content, MOOCs, micro-learning, and almost every other type of learning in a new “employee centric” model. I suggest this is where we all should go.
Fig 10: A Digital Learning Architecture
7) Traditional Coaching, Training, and Culture of Learning Has Not Gone Away
While we tend to believe we can do almost everything on our phone, the reality of corporate life is that culture drives almost everything. We have studied the impact of culture on learning many times, and in every study we find find that culture, reward systems, management, and leadership are more important than ever.
Yes it’s important for employees to be able to quickly find the content they want. But when it comes to sustainable development, we believe there are “Four E’s of learning” at work (education, experience, environment, and exposure). People at work must have time to learn, they must feel their new skills will be valued, we must take time for discussion and reflection, and managers must give people space and freedom to discuss mistakes, ask questions, and often experiment with new ideas.
Our newest HILO (High-Impact Learning Organization) research found that among more than 100 different practices in the L&D profession, those with the greatest impact on business fall into the areas of management, culture, and rewards. (More to come on this as we launch the research this Spring.)
Fig 11: The importance of culture and management
Let me just remind you that the practices listed above, which are things we’ve been talking about in HR for decades, continue to just as important as ever. So as you rethink your infrastructure, content, and experience, make sure you focus on these things as well. It’s exciting to see that most companies are reinventing their performance management process to focus on coaching and continuous feedback: make sure you link this to your new “digital learning” strategy, because the power will be amplified.
PS: Over time I believe the digital learning platforms we build today will be tightly linked to the next generation of performance management tools we build, so stay tuned for more interesting trends in the market.
8) A New Business Model for Learning
As we talk with more and more of the pioneers of digital learning, we also learned that the L&D and content business model has to change as well. In the old days we “purchased” an LMS, we bought content libraries, and we entered into subscription relationships with content vendors. This quick resulted in a lot of capital investment tied up in the L&D department, and forced HR and L&D leaders to develop complex business cases and often wait years to get what they wanted.
Today, as content and technology changes more rapidly, I think the business models must change, and you as an L&D leader should be a tougher negotiator with your vendor. Of course vendors need to make money selling their products and content, but you as a consumer should think about your business as one of creating a “marketplace for learning” among your employees. This means you should demand that your vendors give you more flexibility on pricing, including what we used to call “pay by the drink.”
Consider the client architecture I showed above. If you build such a system for your employees (and hundreds of companies are starting to do this today), why would you lay out millions of dollars to buy content libraries and software to make this work? What if the employees don’t want the content you have, or the materials or systems become out of date? Are you going to have to make another “big bang” investment like you did for you LMS, only to be force to keep it for many years as the content and technology changes?
Just as we now “rent” our news subscriptions, our email software, and most of our other tools, it’s time to shift much more of our L&D investment away from capital purchase toward “pay for use.” This particular company renegotiated many of its content licenses around “pay for use,” and as a result uses user-generated feedback to give learning vendors feedback ratings on how well their content is doing. Once per year these contracts can be renegotiated, and over time the buyer has more flexibility to move to new vendors and technologies as needed.
I”m not saying that vendors will stop offering you three-year contracts for their cloud software or content, but I do believe the days of spending millions of dollars on learning platforms is starting to come to an end. We do have to make strategic decisions about what vendors to select, but given the rapid and immature state of the market, I would warn against spending too much money on any one vendor at a time. The market has yet to shake out, and many of these vendors could go out of business, be acquired, or simply become irrelevant in 3-5 years.
9) The Impact of Google, Facebook, and Slack Is Coming
Just as we in L&D ranted and raved about how Google would disrupt learning in the early 2000s, there is a similar shift happening as the new holy war begins for corporate messaging. I have now seen in-depth demos of the new team-based messaging, content sharing, and communication tools from top these vendors, and I see a big shift is about to take place. While we built an entire learning “ecosystem” separate from email and messaging in the past (even buying special virtual classroom tools, most of which are now gone), much of this technology is now becoming standard.
These new platforms, which are now rolling out in a new war for IT dollars, reinvent the digital experience at work. They include integrated tools for content discovery, communication, messaging, and AI-based intelligent access to content. The newest versions of Google Hangouts and Google Drive, Workplace by Facebook, Slack, and other enterprise IT products now give employees the opportunity to share content, view videos, and find context-relevant documents in the flow of their daily work. This is where digital learning will eventually go, and I’d suggest it will happen sooner than you think.
Imagine an engineer who simply uploads an article or video to Slack or Workplace by Facebook to share with her workgroup. Isn’t that an example of curated digital learning?
I”m not saying the market for dedicated learning tools will go away, but I encourage you to talk with your IT department and look at the next generation of messaging tools they are evaluating. These are digital learning environments in the making, and I believe we can think about them as the “future platforms” for learning.
And there is more to come. Imagine if LinkedIn integrates Lynda.com content in the flow of work. (Imagine if you are trying to build a spreadsheet and a relevant Lynda course opens up). This is an example of “delivering learning to where people are.” A variety of learning vendors now offer learning embedded into Salesforce.com and Slack, so we have to expect this to appear soon.
Fig 12: New work environments will be learning environments
10) A new set of skills and capabilities in L&D
Let me close with one of the most important issues of all: digital learning requires a new set of skills, capabilities, and thought processes in HR and L&D. It’s no longer enough to consider yourself a “trainer” or “instructional designer” by career. While instructional design continues to play a role, we now need L&D to focus on “experience design,” “design thinking,” the development of “employee journey maps,” and much more experimental, data-driven, solutions in the flow of work.
While I know many of you find these shifts disruptive, they are happening much faster than you think. I find almost all the companies I talk with are now teaching themselves design thinking, they are using MVP (minimal viable product) approaches to new solutions, and they are focusing on understanding and addressing the “employee experience,” rather than just injecting new training programs into the company.
While the shift in skills seems profound, in many ways I think its a natural evolution of what we do in L&D and HR. Our job is to understand what employees jobs are, learn about the latest tools and techniques to drive learning and performance, and then apply them to work in a modern, relevant, and cost-effective way. We’ve been doing this for decades, and now we just have to learn to do it again – albeit with a vastly new set of technologies and experiences.
Fig 13: New Capabilities Needed
I remember my early days at IBM (in the 1980s) when the first videodisk player came into the office. It was an expensive, complicated, difficult to use system, but it brought revolutionary new approaches to learning to an entire marketplace of IT, software, and project management professionals. Just as we learned to harness learning technology on mainframes, PC, and the browser, now we can learn to harness new models of learning in the digital age – falling back on all our skills in listening, problem-solving, and consulting with employees and managers.
There are some big disruptions taking place in L&D, perhaps more than I have seen in over a decade, but now the future is clear, and I look forward to hearing your stories so we can all learn from each other.