I regularly have conversations with L&D teams that are looking to modernize their workplace learning practices. I always start with the same question: “What does ‘modernize’ mean?” I can’t help but think of Back to the Future whenever someone talks about “modernization” or the “future of learning.” On that note, I’ll be right back...

Figure 1: One hundred sixteen glorious minutes and 1.21 gigawatts later ….

If the BTTF films teach us anything, it’s that the future is a moving target. Otherwise, we’d have hoverboards that actually hover by now.

The world of work is also in a constant state of flux. Our inability to keep pace with its evolution has created a gap between what people need and what L&D is ready to provide. This is demonstrated in the popular “Meet the Modern Learner” infographic from Bersin, which I have adapted into this slide (Figure 2) for several recent industry presentations.

Figure 2: Meet the modern employee—a learner

L&D teams now feel pressured to “modernize” their practices or risk being erased from existence. This brings me back to the question, “What does ‘modernize’ mean?” Plenty of people—practitioners, thought leaders, vendors—are coming forward with ideas on how to bring L&D practices up to speed. While these tactics continue to prove effective, they don’t fully define the concept of “modern learning” in today’s workplace. So what is an appropriate definition? Well, if you read the title of this column, you already know where I’m going with this...

Unlike some L&D pros, I don’t believe any of our legacy tactics are “dead.” For example, instructor-led training and eLearning still have plenty of potential. They’ve just been misused for a long, long time. So, if nothing was inherently wrong with our past practices, what facilitated the need to modernize in the first place? It may seem like a bit of a paradox, but it’s actually a pretty simple story. Businesses have recognized the lack of impact from L&D practices. At the same time, employees have disengaged and found better options to help them do their jobs. This disconnect isn’t just about content, design, or technology. Yes, it’s about all of those things; but, in real life, it’s foundationally about VALUE. Tactics change, but value remains the consistent measuring stick. Therefore, I suggest we define modern learning as “the application of right-fit principles and tactics to provide a value-add experience to help a person or organization achieve its current goals.”

L&D represents a variety of stakeholders within the organization. However, there are four key audiences to which value must be clear in order to maximize the potential impact of modern learning principles.

Value to the employee

Deciding where to begin is a bit of a “chicken and egg” scenario, as every audience is of great importance when developing modern learning practices. (I know, this is heavy.) Anyway, I’m starting with the employee due to the engagement required to justify the ultimate value of our work. If we don’t have the employee, we cannot realize value for our other key audiences.

That said, engagement is a constant problem for L&D. I spent an inordinate amount of my time in corporate learning positions chasing people down in order to get them to complete assigned training. While tactics such as game mechanics, topical content options, and design simplicity can foster improved engagement, value is the ultimate motivator. An employee should be able to easily determine why a learning opportunity is worth their time and effort. Unfortunately, this is often not the case, as they are simply required to do something because they are required to do something. How do we clearly define the value of learning for the individual employee—beyond just telling them in frank terms?

The key for many L&D teams, especially those who support large, distributed workforces, is finding the balance between personalization and scale (Figure 3). Too often, we are dragged down by the weight of scale—the need to provide everyone with some measure of support. However, because our focus is on providing something to everyone, we can’t really provide clear value to anyone.

Figure 3: Finding the balance between these two is the key to providing clear value

The best way to support an enterprise at scale while addressing individual needs is to adopt an adaptive approach. L&D can ensure the right content is provided to the right people at the right time through the efficient and holistic use of data and technology. At the same time, we can enable adaptive employees who leverage right-fit resources to drive their own performance improvement and problem solving. Check out my LearnGeek blog post for more context on adaptive learning.

Will this help each employee in the target audience do their job better in a clear, measurable way? If you can’t answer this question with a definitive “yes,” you should reconsider your approach based on the concept of value to the employee.

Value to the business

My February Curated Insights post on the Axonify Knowledge Blog focused on the shift L&D must make from a cost center to a strategic value generator within the organization. We will have a hard time proving our value to the business as long as we consider “the business” to be a separate entity with different KPIs. Yes, there is “unmeasurable” value when it comes to the impact of learning on things like workplace culture and engagement. However, to become a true strategic partner, we must also welcome the opportunity to be measured alongside our operational stakeholders.

The key to establishing the business value of learning is to build a clear value chain that connects provided learning content and experiences with defined business outcomes (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The value chain that connects learning to business outcomes

Rather than focus on providing volumes of arbitrary content, L&D instead works with stakeholders to define measurable business goals that will move the needle on the value of learning. Then, once the desired outcome is well-defined, L&D works backwards to outline the specific behaviors and knowledge required to help the organization reach that goal. Only then does L&D develop a right-fit content strategy to build the identified knowledge and improve behavior. While other factors are likely to impact the targeted outcome along the way, this chain will provide greater clarity regarding L&D’s ability to impact business results.

Will this help the business reach a defined, measurable goal? If you can’t answer this question with a definitive “yes,” you should reconsider your approach based on the concept of value to the business.

Value to the manager

The frontline manager is the most important person in workplace learning. Frontline managers control priorities, time, resources, and accountability. Therefore, they are vital influencers with regard to L&D’s ability to provide value within the organization. We must enable them as key partners whenever we try to improve employee behavior to promote a desired business outcome.

Too many managers see L&D as an obstacle to be overcome, a support department they have to deal with once in a while so they don’t get yelled at by superiors. This perception proves that the value proposition has not been established for their role. It may be clear to the employee and the business, but the manager sitting in the middle doesn’t see how our efforts can help them with their day-to-day life. Managers are always so busy that there’s a slight possibility of overload, so clear value is critical to make learning a must rather than an optional extra. Therefore, rather than attempting to transform managers into teachers or leaders, we must first help them become better managers. By providing actionable data as part of our value chain, and helping them connect team knowledge, behavior, and results, we can support their coaching practices and help them reach their existing goals.

Will this help our managers enable the performance necessary to reach our desired business outcome? If you can’t answer this question with a definitive “yes,” you should reconsider your approach based on the concept of value to the manager.

Value to L&D

Yes, we should be doing our work in ways that provide value to ourselves, too. Great Scott!

Our foundational principles must help us maximize our time, talent, and resources. This is another benefit of the value chain I outlined earlier. By establishing firm connections between outcomes, behaviors, and knowledge, we can be sure that we’re building only the right-fit resources and experiences to drive business value. This chain also works in the opposite direction, as the data that results from the utilization of our resources can either validate our decisions or prompt revisions.

Will this approach provide the data necessary to justify the organization’s investment in L&D? If you can’t answer this question with a definitive “yes,” you should reconsider your approach based on the concept of value to L&D.

Measurable value: The foundational consideration

Regardless of the tactics applied, a modern learning experience must provide value to every applicable audience, especially the key audiences we’ve outlined today. L&D must use measurable value as the foundational consideration when developing any strategy. If you cannot define the value to be provided within the organization in a clear, measurable way, you may have a disconnect.

At this point, I’m completely out of Back to the Future references that relate to my topic. Hopefully you caught a few as you read along! Feel free to challenge me to recite the lines from the film anytime. I’ve only seen it 200-plus times. For now, I’ll just make like a tree and get outta here.