Until fairly recently, L&D executives relied upon instructional designers and developers to create and deliver their corporate training. Skilled in one or more authoring programs, they could adeptly churn out new modules and/or update older ones.

Today, learning leaders demand more. In addition to the requisite design skills, they want to work with individuals who possess a solid understanding of behavioral science, are savvy about data analytics and marketing, and know how to deliver a powerful user experience. They want to partner with knowledgeable, well-rounded professionals who will help them construct training that is engaging, meaningful, and measurable. Although it is not an official title, executives are seeking what might be defined as learning architects. Unfortunately, such individuals are in high demand and short supply.

What is a learning architect?

When building a house, one often turns to a traditional architect for assistance. The architect initially meets with the client to gain a thorough understanding of the project. With an eye on the big picture, he or she focuses on the challenges and goals that inform the assignment and envisions possibilities. The architect works closely with the client when drafting ideas, employing a collaborative and iterative process. When the final design is chosen, the architect serves as the liaison with the skilled craftspeople tasked with building the structure.

In the L&D field, the learning architect adopts a similar role and brings similar expertise to the table. Like a traditional architect, a learning architect possesses the requisite design know-how, but is also a strategic partner dedicated to helping the L&D leader develop and execute a sound, cost-effective plan. The learning architect is a problem solver, with strong consulting and project management skills. He or she is a skilled communicator with a flexible and agile approach. Finally, he or she has a solid understanding of analytics and can interpret data that will ultimately form the foundation for future projects.

A need for a new talent management strategy

Although there is an emerging need for learning architects, experts acknowledge that it can be difficult to find employees in the L&D department with all the right skills. In such cases, a new talent management strategy may be required.

“Things have definitely changed. It’s not a traditional L&D career path anymore,” says David Wentworth, principal analyst at Brandon Hall Group. He notes that disparate talent sets are required. While multiple people across different disciplines may be able to handle the responsibilities in some organizations, it can be more of a challenge for others. His advice is to relax the criteria previously relied upon when recruiting for the L&D department.

“You can open up your talent pool quite a bit if you pull off some of the parameters,” Wentworth says. He suggests widening the scope to include potential hires with marketing, IT, web, graphic design, or even gaming backgrounds.

“Someone with a web design or marketing background can apply it in almost any environment,” Wentworth says. “They might not specifically be looking for a career in learning development, but you can present them with big opportunities.”

At some companies, talented individuals could be shared across functions. This is especially true when it comes to analytics. “Organizations have been complaining for years that they don’t get good enough analytics. While they used to blame it on the technology and tools, the reality is that they just don’t have the people on staff that can make sense of the data they are collecting,” Wentworth says.

Interpreting big-data sets is a key skill required by tomorrow’s learning architects. Like many practical skills, it can be learned. However, other traits deemed essential for learning architects, such as emotional intelligence, may be more difficult to master because they are actually innate.

Behavioral science background is key

Above all else, Glenn Bull, founder and CEO of Skilitics, believes learning architects must possess a solid understanding of behavioral science. “Instead of looking for someone who has three years of experience in Captivate or Storyline, L&D leaders need to be honing in on behavioral psychology and learning design,” he says.

When developing content, Bull notes that learning architects must know how to ask questions in multiple ways in order to generate accurate assessments. They must know how to create activities that reveal behaviors and competencies, and provide evidence that learners are demonstrating comprehension.

Become a strategic partner

Like traditional architects, learning architects must understand how to actually structure courses, not simply build them. Bull points out that the traditional architect tends to focus on the bigger picture, while his or her team draws up the actual blueprints. In a similar vein, the learning architect should be a visionary with a capable team ready and able to execute the designs.

“The learning architect should identify what is important and steer the design. He or she should not be building the activities,” Bull says. “The creative team, which might include graphic designers, animators, illustrators, and coders, can handle the technical aspects.”

Nick Floro agrees. “Your goal as a learning architect is to understand the needs, brainstorm the possibilities, and present the concepts to your stakeholder, along with data gathered by testing your idea with your audience,” says Floro, president of Sealworks Interactive Studios and a self-identified learning architect.

Bull notes that learning architects must possess keen business acumen that aligns with organizational strategy. “They understand that the stakeholder has a purpose for the training … they want to increase a KPI or solve a problem,” he says. “They get a handle on that, and target the training accordingly.”

In conclusion

Experts agree that learning architects represent a new and exciting position in L&D departments. Learning architects are not simply pushing out courses. They are critical thinkers and strategic partners, capable of providing guidance and advising upper management on key L&D issues. Instructional designers who can morph into this important and emerging role will increase their value to senior leadership, which desperately seeks more of them.