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It's not everyday you get to hear a Grammy winning composer, a tech entrepreneur and a world renowned media executive talk about talent development. But at the Association for Talent Development's 2019 International Expo, HR professionals and learning practitioners gathered in Washington, D.C., to listen to Eric Whitacre, Seth Godin, Oprah Winfrey and several others talk about their experiences navigating the world of learning and development. Conference attendees came away with actionable takeaways to improve L&D activities at their organizations.

In case you didn't make it to the conference this year, we've compiled a few main takeaways for you to bring back to your organization.

1) It's Time for Learning Professionals to 'Level Up'

For many L&D professionals, it can often be difficult to prove the impact of learning via a direct ROI. But while the business case for learning isn't always obvious, the connection is certainly there. In fact, according to research from Cornerstone OnDemand, devoting 5% of an employee's time to learning can reduce turnover by 20%, creating a higher level of employee engagement and saving your organization money.

Summer Salomonsen, head of Cornerstone Content Studios, spoke about the value of learning at this year's conference. During her talk, "Earn Your Seat at the Table With a Microlearning Strategy," Salomonsen offered actionable steps to help L&D professionals make a compelling case for company-wide investment in learning.

“We're seeing a real need for learning practitioners to 'level-up'—that is, learn new ways to make the case for learning at the strategic table," Salomonsen told ReWork. “It seems that across this industry, we struggle with clearly articulating the value of the learning function, and our inability to do this severely limits our strategic impact in a rapidly changing workplace. The good news is we can adapt by identifying new ways to position learning for maximum impact and hopefully level-up our own influencing skills in the process."

The onus, she says, is on HR professionals to educate leaders across their organizations about these benefits. Involving leaders in learning discussions early on will help you get the buy-in you need to be successful.

2) Automation Has Arrived, and It's HR's Job to Embrace it

When it comes to L&D activities, employee expectations are constantly evolving. After all, new software and technological advances have come to shape everything we do, from checking the weather to ordering food. With these innovations changing the way people approach their daily activities, it's no surprise they now expect the same type of technology to simplify their activities at work.

“Our employees are sophisticated consumers of content," Salomonsen said. “When it comes to work specifically, they want content that is ruthlessly relevant to their jobs, contextualized to their needs, and within the natural rhythm of their workplace. It's a tall order, and it will require us to be open to new technology and leverage automation."

To successfully implement an automation-enabled L&D solution that, for example, uses machine learning to understand the kind of content that best resonates with a certain employee's learning style, HR and learning professionals will need to understand the unique needs of their workforce. What do your employees feel is missing from your existing learning program, and what would help them engage further with learning content? Once you open up a dialogue and begin to understand what exactly your employees are looking for, you can choose the most effective learning solution for your organization.

3) Learning Presents Itself in Unexpected Ways

When we think about L&D activities, we often assign a set of strict definitions: microlearning, e-learning, compliance training and soft skills development, for example, are terms you've probably used to describe structured learning programs. And while developing strategic learning initiatives across your organization has become a useful approach to L&D activities, HR must also recognize the benefits of unexpected learning. For example, at a conference like ATD, attendees might come expecting to learn from structured sessions and scheduled speakers, but casual conversations on the sidelines can be equally impactful.

Summer Salomonsen experienced this firsthand by initiating a number of conversations with attendees at ATD.

“I am not a natural networker, and though I love meeting new people, I always find it a little strange to initiate conversations with strangers," Salomonsen said. “But this time around I made a concerted effort to be bold. One of the ways I did this was by choosing a seat right next to other participants when I joined a session or even took a break, which forced me to step outside my comfort zone and engage with all different types of people."

The result? Salomonsen spoke with several intelligent and interesting people she would not have otherwise met. And, in turn, she was able to educate herself on how different industries approach learning activities.

When you're thinking up new learning and development initiatives at your organization, don't underestimate the power of unexpected human interaction. Encourage an employee to grab coffee with someone outside of their department—chances are these conversations will teach them something new about your organization, and empower them to continue getting to understand how business operates.

4) To Prepare for the Future of L&D, Take a Good Look at the Present

The phrase “Future of Work" has become somewhat of a cliche. Managers everywhere are constantly exploring what the future will hold for their organizations, and how technology continues to impact the way people work. And while this forward-looking approach is beneficial as we prepare for the future, it is equally important to think about what's happening right now.

“We should always be looking forward to what's next, but to fully understand the implications we need to sharpen our focus on what's now," Salomonsen said. “As head of Cornerstone Studios, for example, I lead the vision for what dynamic, compelling and even provocative learning content can be. And to do this successfully means I need to have a solid grasp of how employees are evolving their expectations of what learning content is and how they engage with it."

By keeping tabs on what's happening now, L&D professionals can begin to pick up on trends—and use these observations to make adjustments to their learning programs and initiatives.

Photo: Creative Commons