With an abundance of rich resources literally at their fingertips, today’s learners are using technology to find their own answers to workplace questions. This unprecedented shift in human behavior is expected to radically transform the current corporate training paradigm. L&D executives need to be prepared for the ramifications digital learning will bring.

Five reasons execs should pay attention to digital learning

1. Digital learning is here to stay

It may be tempting to dismiss digital learning as a buzzword or passing trend; however, experts maintain that digital learning is here to stay. Furthermore, they predict that it will significantly impact the L&D industry.

“Right now we’re in the early stages of a major disruption,” writes Josh Bersin, principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte. In a piece for Forbes, the business thought leader notes that the industry is pivoting to embrace digital learning. Technologies that support digital learning are expanding, and vendors are “focusing on developing video-learning platforms that feel more like YouTube than an educational course catalog.”

David Kelly, executive vice president of The eLearning Guild, advises L&D executives to educate themselves about digital learning because it will inevitably become part of their overall strategy. “Even if your training department is not proactively looking to shift towards this change in human behavior right now, your organization will eventually be impacted,” he says.

2. It changes the conversation

“The question we need to be exploring from an executive standpoint is: What does learning and development look like when we realize and accept that we are no longer controlling the conversation?” Kelly says.

In the past, L&D took responsibility for providing the resources learners might need, usually housing it within the corporate learning management system (LMS). Workers today can fend for themselves. In many instances they are shunning the LMS, opting instead to use digital tools such as Google and YouTube to find immediate answers to their questions.

In light of this paradigm shift, L&D should be redesigning training to be simple, accessible, and employee-centric. “Just as we use apps like Uber to locate a ride or like DoorDash to order food, we need learning and information support to be as easy and intuitive to use,” Bersin writes in a separate comprehensive and thought-provoking article about digital learning.

In the past, employees participated in lengthy instructor-led workshops or online training courses; however, today’s busy workers don’t always have time for that. Bersin’s research indicates that harried employees typically allocate just 24 minutes per week for training and development. “Rather than produce two- to three-hour ‘courses’ that require page-turning and slow video or animation, we need to offer ‘learning on-demand’ and recommended content just as needed,” he suggests.

3. Self-learning has merit

This new and fundamental change in how today’s workforce is learning has far-reaching ramifications for L&D, which must accept and embrace the fact that there is inherent value in self-learning.

“Right now we’re in an environment where if you didn’t learn it from the training department, it really doesn’t count, to a certain degree. That’s going to shift,” Kelly says. “We’re going to start to recognize that what people are doing outside the walls of the training department counts. The question is: How do we acknowledge and give weight to it? And how do we leverage it as an organization?”

The academic world views pure learning as a way to expand one’s knowledge base. Kelly points out that in the corporate world, learning is accepted because it is an opportunity to enhance performance.

“The truth is: Very few organizations are going to allocate resources for the benefit of just learning. They will allocate resources if it is going to help employees do their jobs better,” Kelly says. In this new paradigm, L&D executives will be called upon to demonstrate that digital learning adds intrinsic value and can help the company achieve its organizational goals.

4. Digital learning will irrevocably alter L&D

Digital learning promises to alter the industry in many ways, and L&D leaders must be prepared to respond appropriately. Personalization will take on greater importance. Rather than simply dishing out the same one-size-fits-all content to workers, L&D departments will have to partner with employees to develop customized learning journeys. Effectively tracking and measuring this will require new thought processes and technologies.

Kelly describes how digital learning will change the way the L&D assesses competency. “We may see workers saying ‘I’ve learned this already, so I don’t need to go through your formal training course.’ This will shift the discussion from ‘I’m going to build a test on the material you went through in my course’ to ‘I’m going to build a test that verifies your competency because you may have learned this elsewhere.’”

L&D departments may move in a direction similar to that of digital badges, which demonstrate competency in particular topics. Workers could earn the badges by taking Lynda.com or Coursera-style classes, reading blogs by industry experts, commenting on posts from work colleagues on internal communication sites, or watching relevant videos on YouTube. Such initiatives, when combined with a transcript documenting official training from the LMS, will generate a more robust picture of the learner’s skill set and could actually follow the employee throughout his or her career.

Kelly admits that the technology to effectively track digital learning is not yet fully realized. “There’s infrastructure in place that can track a lot of this, xAPI and LRS (learning record stores) being the most visible,” he says. “They can form the foundation of how we can track all these activities and make sense of them. But there’s enough gray in what falls under the heading of digital learning that we can’t say at this time that they can handle all of it.”

What is clear is that the traditional LMS may not be built for the task. Bersin points out that many large firms are confining their LMSs to managing compliance and formal training, while developing new infrastructures to track digital learning.  

“One of the keys to digital learning is building a new learning architecture. This means using the LMS as a ‘player’ but not the ‘center,’ and looking at a range of new tools and systems to bring content together,” Bersin says. He predicts that in the future, a growing number of firms will shift L&D investment away from costly capital purchases (such as learning management systems) toward “pay for use” models that will provide increased flexibility as the market shifts.

5. It creates a need for new skill sets

Traditional trainers, instructional designers, and developers concerned that digital learning might usurp their jobs need not worry. Experts predict that digital learning will create new roles for employees, especially those with the aptitude to track and measure learning.

“A growing number of organizations out there have chief knowledge curators. I anticipate that we will see more of that,” Kelly says. “I can also see some new technical roles emerging, especially for those who understand coding and can get different systems to talk to each other,” he adds.

Pivoting employees in order to cover new staffing needs is just one of many decisions L&D executives will be faced with as digital learning permeates the workplace. According to Bersin, the explosion of digital learning promises to radically disrupt the industry, and L&D leaders must be prepared and up for the challenge.

“I’m not saying this is going to be easy. It takes a lot of new technologies and approaches, but it’s clearly where things are headed,” Bersin states.

To learn more

The eLearning Guild welcomes the community to join the conversation about digital learning in a series of sessions at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, October 25 – 27.

Senior-level L&D leaders are invited to an exclusive full-day workshop, where they can network with other executives focusing on the impact digital learning will have on their organizations. The Executive Forum on Digital Learning will take place October 24, before DevLearn begins.