There have never been more opportunities and choices available to use to learn, collaborate, share, and build knowledge. Technology has broken down the geographic barriers to connecting with subject matter expertise, wherever it resides. The ability to blend free, user-generated, and paid-for content can help address more learning needs than ever before.

Our comfort levels with living, working, learning, and socializing online provide opportunity for organizations to roll out more creative learning solutions. The range of services offered by online learning partners helps provide the appropriate technology, content, and tools to support the ambitions of L&D and the board. But with all this choice can come confusion, so here is a selection of my top tips for spending your precious budget to create future-proof learning solutions that deliver maximum impact

1. Do invest in the technology know-how of the L&D team, if you want to make the most of any online learning spend

The new-skills agenda for L&D is a huge topic of debate at the moment—in fact it’s been the topic of debate since the early 2000s when learning technologies started to hint at a more informal, collaborative approach to learning and knowledge sharing.

A consistent feature in reports such as the Towards Maturity Annual Benchmarking Study or the CIPD L&D Report highlight time and time again that there is a core of skills demonstrated by the high-performing L&D teams and there is no getting away from technology:

  • Understanding new and emerging learning technologies
  • Facilitating peer-to-peer contact
  • Designing beyond the course
  • Supporting communities
  • Going beyond need analysis to aligning learning to real business outcomes

These are all part of the high-performing L&D team skillset. However, many L&D teams have not had the support or investment in skills they need. This is especially true in IT confidence. Understanding learning technologies, facilitation, curation, and blended learning design are core skills if your L&D team is to maximize the knowledge of your organization and benefit from supporting technology.

You’ll find a number of suggestions for development topics in this article—like all good learning strategies, ensure you are focused and understand what impact these development areas will have on delivering real business value.

2. Do invest in online communities training

As part of the new L&D skillset, understanding the dynamics of online communities—how to foster, nurture, grow, and measure their effectiveness—will deliver huge value.

Communities are one of the most effective ways to deliver on an informal/formal learning strategy or on 70:20:10. However more importantly, they are one of the most effective ways to:

  • Drive innovation through collaborative problem solving and unearthing expertise
  • Manage change through peer support
  • Identify the knowledge present in the organization as well as identify real gaps (communities don’t see things as “learning needs,” they discuss the real challenges of delivery which mean you identify true skills, knowledge, and process gaps)
  • Connect a dispersed workforce and capitalize on great practice wherever it resides
  • Develop a more collaborative and facilitative approach to leadership—the skills of community facilitation rely on motivated individuals seeking to raise performance, rather than dictate a mandate

3. Do make the most of free content, but be focused

Relevant to both your learners and to L&D themselves, there is a plethora of free content out there, from substantive programs like MOOCs to almost daily tweet-ups. This is both an opportunity and a huge distraction! It’s easy to get side-tracked with the next exciting topic and the range of content and events can be utterly bewildering. Don’t chase the next shiny new topic—chase the business need.

If you curate your own content, sifting and filtering to create a focused development plan, you’ll be exercising the very skills you’ll want to impart in your organization. So get along to free seminars and sign up to webinars and don’t forget to sift online for some great free content.

4. Do invest in a learning portal

One piece of technology that is going to become more and more important as we move towards greater personalization of learning is the learning portal. It is a very cost-effective way to not only revive the investments you have already made but create the user experience you really want but which may be difficult to achieve with enterprise systems.

Your organization already has plenty of content—it may not be perfect but when contextualized for the learner, blended with informal learning techniques, and dialogue fostered with other learners, you can get much more value out of existing investments.

A learning portal acts as the aggregator—a way to signpost great learning content, which can often be hidden with a multitude of systems, platforms, and content. A learning portal doesn’t require reinvention—you probably already have many of the sources of great learning (both formal and informal) that you need.

5. Don’t throw out your catalogue, but put it in context

This links nicely to learning portals—you probably have a wealth of content available to you already, but it may look tired, be in an immense catalogue that’s difficult to search, or be of varying quality or relevance. However, when creating effective online learning programs, you may find that extracts from existing content are bought to life and contextualized by blending it with new content, videos, discussions, scenarios, and more.

This is where the skills of curation come into play—with effective learning design techniques and clarity on the combination of core knowledge acquisition, skills development, and application needed to create a full learning journey through a topic, your existing content could well play a part when it’s put into context with relevant videos, case studies, and discussions. This then helps you focus your budget on new content development for critical or underserved areas.

6. Don’t forget face-to-face but make it add unique value

Linked to the previous point, understanding the role of face-to-face in the learning journey helps you make much more of the limited time you have to take learners out into a different environment. You can achieve knowledge acquisition, developing core understanding, and some initial practice online through use of eLearning, eBooks, videos, interactive scenarios, discussions, and assignments.

This enables face-to-face and live interactions to concentrate wholeheartedly on very focused, personalized support. There are great examples where online has been blended with live and face-to-face learning, where the concept of facilitated peer reviews, skills clinics, and coaching circles have taken the place of the traditional classroom format. Face-to-face is still very valuable, especially where subjects can be challenging or highly contextualized.

Short focused workshops are the perfect opportunity to support learners through those critical periods when they are practicing skills in context. They can also be the catalyst for more sharing, collaboration, and dialogue online.

A great way to get that sharing, collaboration, and dialogue online, and to extend the reach beyond the actual day, is to use your “social wizards,” those people active in your organization’s professional networks and communities, to give the online element a “heart beat.” They can instigate dialogue around topics, provoke debate, and connect learners prior to face-to-face interactions. Afterwards they can sustain momentum and facilitate the learning journey by encouraging ongoing feedback, sharing lessons learned from applied learning, and building this back into future programs.

7. Do be wary of “gamifying” everything—reward what matters

Serious games, gamification, badges—these are all regular topics when the subject of motivating learners to engage online is discussed. However, they run the risk of being regarded as a trend that came and went. Stepping back from the hype, there are some important lessons on motivation and instilling desired behaviors and practices that should not be ignored, it’s just that you may choose not to announce you’ve “gamified” everything! There are some fantastic examples of high-production interactive content that draws on game elements and platforms that reward activity through badges. But proceed with caution.

You need a light touch to make sure you are rewarding things that truly matter to the user—if you overuse badges, rewards, levelling up, etc., it soon becomes tired and gimmicky. Learning and development strategists need to think about the skills, behaviors, and contributions that really matter to both the learner and the organization and have a coherent framework that rewards valuable contributions.

8. Do informal learning, but provide formal content that makes it more effective

This is really where all these themes come together. As we have seen, it’s the blend of a range of learning design techniques, technologies and supporting skills that create the entire learning journey.

However, just as face-to-face alone is not the most effective learning journey, or gamification will not be the cure-all to motivating learners, the informal/formal learning choice is not an either/all decision.

To address the important learning needs for your organization, your learners will expect more than a single intervention, even if that’s what you deliver. They’ll try and fill in the gaps themselves but this is time consuming, difficult to make relevant, varying in quality, and can be distracting. It’s the role of today’s L&D team to deliver expertly blended formal and informal learning that is truly aligned to business need and utterly relevant.

An effective formal learning scaffold can provide the right environment for intensive informal knowledge sharing, dialogue, and peer support.

By distilling the key topics into well-designed formal learning (which could include eLearning modules, videos either created or curated from sources such as TED, eBooks, diagnostics, etc.), you can set the scene and context for more meaningful informal exchanges.

Want more?

Lisa Minogue-White will present Using the Power of Online Communities to Supercharge Your Learning at DevLearn 2015 Conference & Expo, session 502, on Thursday, October 1, at 1:15 PM.