Empowering the future workforce part 2: Rethinking employee development
May 28, 2021
The C-suite is rightfully putting more thought into the skills of their workforce as concerns about losing out on growth due to potential skills gaps grow. Whether it be in technical specialties to contribute to R&D, or more general areas, like leadership, organizations are looking into the future of the skills needed to drive company initiatives. This concern stems from the reality of our near-future job market: millions of jobs will be lost to automation, and even more that do not exist today will be created.
This new future will require a new, more efficient approach to learning enabled by new capabilities, like a more acute understanding of where individuals are and what skills they can further develop for new use. With this insight into where a learner is, modern skills AIs can help connect them through libraries tagged with skills through powerful natural language processing of titles, descriptions, and other metadata.
Better matching development resources to need is important, but it is only part of the equation. Another important consideration is “the last mile,” meaning engaging users, building learning as a habit, and applying development to the job. Thinking through this “last mile” has important repercussions for the learning technology stack since most systems have been developed to facilitate top-down learning first and then tacked on self-directed functionality later. Preparing the workforce for the future of work will require robust top-down and bottom-up capabilities to develop skills effectively.
A new age for practice
Learners, like with any of their other decisions, are actively weighing cost and benefit. Sure, some learners are motivated by just learning for learning’s sake, but for our purposes of skill-building, learning needs to directly connect to demonstration or practice for our purposes of skill-building. Why? Because the ability to do is still the gold standard for evaluating competency and unlocking opportunities with newly acquired skills.
Another important reason to focus on practice is that skills themselves are not being replaced by automation — discrete tasks and the skills required to perform them are. This is also the case for skills that emerge. Skills alone are not emerging, but skills that are required to perform new tasks are emerging. To complete the picture, collections of skills are required to perform tasks, and collections of tasks are combined into a role.
Practice is an important milestone along any learning journey. Practice can provide awareness through the feedback of other areas to develop and provide a visible, tangible accomplishment. The practice also helps to structure learning along the pathway by aligning incremental content to build skills and knowledge required to build the capability.
The future of learning has many exciting opportunities, like micro-assessments, video practice, self-reflection, and virtual reality. Regardless of how the technology surrounding practice and assessment evolves, there is an opportunity for practitioners to think about how to align initiatives through a structure of skills and demonstration.
Learning in the flow of work
The age of asking learners to navigate exclusively to talent management systems to develop is over. The simple truth is that every time they open their phone, a browser window, and their email, their attention is swept away by companies that have learned to remove as many barriers as possible to engage the end-user. If we want learners to engage with development on a day-to-day basis (which we should), we must take learning to where they are already working.
This is the vision for learning in the flow of work. Unfortunately, many learning vendors have translated this into providing notifications to the learner in new places like Slack and Teams. One of the key problems with this is the content is wrong or not relevant for the context (i.e., I have time to do my compliance training later, so I will just snooze this notification), or the content is disruptive to the flow of work (i.e., great, this content is helpful since I am in Excel, but seven minutes is more than I want to invest while working under a deadline).
True learning in the flow of work needs to be intelligent to context. Again, tasks and skills are helpful here since work applications largely have been developed to support discrete tasks, supported by collections of discrete skills. For example, the content that surfaced to me in my inbox should be relevant to what I need as I am doing email and should be completely different from emailing the content that surfaced as I’m working on a report in Word.
Learning in the flow of work also needs to be concise and to the point. It should be based on what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and at what time. I can go back later when I have more attentive learning time to do the learning groundwork and the more advanced application. A system should also be intelligent to what learners need, say by what learning they search, as a signal of what they’re interested in and may want to develop further.
Modernizing content strategy
Instructional design has grown and matured over a long, important arc and provided a lot of important development over the years of formalized L&D. But L&D departments need to figure out how to negotiate the tastes and preferences of modern learners brought about by two Goliaths: web search and the internet.
Web-sourced content has become more and more common in learning technologies because some development topics advance too quickly for the process of formal instructional design to keep up. Think of very cutting-edge technology like AI, big data, deep learning, and others. By the time a designer finishes a course on one of these topics, it would be time to create a new update. If this content is absent, learners will go search for it somewhere else outside of the view of the organization. Arguably, HR practitioners would want to know who is actively developing emergent skillsets so the organization could put them to good use when needed.
There is perhaps an opportunity to reconcile the formal structures of instructional design and web-sourced content. There are bedrock topics, skills, and tasks that will still be key as the skills economy evolves: communication, leadership, storytelling, business case development, and more. Instructional design is key to these areas to ensure they reflect the uniqueness of the organization and hit the mark in their outcomes. But pumping the breaks on any content that isn’t formally designed may also be a mistake.
An important middle ground is content libraries that are carefully curated, updated, and supported by a studio team. Some of these you can even modify yourself with provided tools to customize them to your own organization and initiatives. But don’t be fooled that buying a big library covers your bases, including for rapidly evolving topic areas. Ask critical questions about how they refresh content. Some of this content has only been lightly updated and doesn’t meet the actual needs of learners.
The bottom line is instructional design practitioners should carefully consider how to work with the changing landscape of the information age. While it is important to adhere to best practices where we can, tilting the pendulum too far to exclude valuable content can also mean some missed opportunity for insight into what learners want and need.
Why these criteria
The case for why we need to develop employees is shifting. The top-down compliance-centric approach still has its place, but the potential value that L&D can bring to future-proof the organization is perhaps the most it’s ever been. To realize this potential, we need to provide the right training, at the right place, at the right time, all while maintaining a close partnership with the learner.
At their base, these criteria are nothing new. With better AI-driven insight into tasks and skills, we can deliver training more effectively aligned to the need. We also do that with a more flexible approach to content. Learning in the flow of work and structured practice delivers content in the place where it can be most directly applied. Thanks to developments in technology, there is an exciting opportunity for both the practitioner and the learner to create new value by developing strategically for the future.