In case you haven’t heard, personalization is the new big thing in workplace learning. Don’t take my word for it. Just look around. Personalized learning has been on the cover of major industry magazines for the past few months. You’re probably staring at an ad for a course on Demystifying Personalized Learning from HT2 Labs in the sidebar right now. It also took the top spot in Donald Taylor’s 2018 L&D Global Sentiment Survey. If you thought microlearning became pervasive quickly, just watch what happens with personalization as the year goes on! In all the hype, though, it’s easy to forget the “person” in “personalization.” 

Graphic shows three very different individuals, each saying, “Me.”

By now, we all should know what can happen when L&D is introduced to a new “it” topic. In real life, our “shiny object syndrome” takes over, and we often become distracted by the hype, making it difficult to find the actual value of a concept. That’s what marketing can do to even the most well-intentioned professionals. It happened with gamification. It happened with social. It’s happening as we speak with microlearning. Personalized learning is next.

I’ve formally worked with personalization in workplace learning for more than six years. I know the value it can provide within a modern learning ecosystem, from both a practitioner and consultant perspective. Therefore, I’m simultaneously hopeful and concerned that the conversation is shifting toward personalization. I’m already seeing the marketing spin take effect as every vendor slaps the term “adaptive” on their products and services—without noticeably changing said products or services. For this reason, I’m looking for ways to share my perspective and experience with personalized learning. For example, I wrote this post to demonstrate how “personalized” can mean different things via different methods. I published this one to explain why the topic has become so popular so quickly. And I’ve been delivering presentations like this at industry conferences for the past eight months in hopes of helping L&D pros get past the noise so they can see the real value.

I expect the “sexy” parts of the personalized learning conversation to rise quickly to the top. Technology. Data. Content. We’ve been looking for ways to improve in these areas for years, and this is a tremendous opportunity to reshape these components to better support our companies. However, they are not the most important part of this story. Like everything we do, this is about people first.

If we don’t try to put the employee at the center of our personalized learning exploration, we’ll make the same mistake we made with mobile and try to push the same old courses to smartphones. To get value from a personalized learning strategy, we have to recognize how this shift in approach will affect the people we are trying to help.

Provide value

Personalized learning is about finding new and better ways to provide clear, measurable value to the individual. That’s it. Everything else is (to quote Cammy Bean), “clicky-clicky bling-bling.” But to do this, we must understand the employee context and what constitutes value when it comes to learning and support. We can’t just make assumptions based on theory and subject-matter-expert influence. We must involve the audience to determine how shifts in technology, data and content strategy can help them do their jobs every day—not just learn for the sake of learning.

Build trust

Do employees trust you? If they need help on the job, do they look to you? Or are you the person who is always hunting them down to make them complete eLearning they don’t like? Most L&D pros are somewhere in the middle. Therefore, before we start using more and more of their data to personalize the experience, we have to earn their trust. If we are going to use analytics to make content recommendations or serve up targeted reinforcement, we first need to be certain that employees recognize we have their best interests in mind. We’re not just here to check boxes for the company; we’re doing our best to get them the information they need when they need it.

And, when it comes to data, we must be up-front and transparent regarding how we are collecting and using data to shape the learning experience. We’ve all had that moment when Facebook was a little too on the nose with its suggestions. We can’t let workplace learning get lumped into the trust conundrum that is today’s internet.

Change the mindset

I honestly don’t think anyone in L&D has ever believed that giving every employee the same training was the right idea. However, it’s administratively simpler and it can legally protect the organization. We get the regulatory excuse all the time. One employee makes a mistake and then everyone needs to go back through training … because that will stop it from ever happening again (cough, nope, cough). But that’s the world in which many L&D pros live. Now, we’re talking about a personalized experience—support that adapts to the needs of the individual. Going from “train everyone just because” to a strategy based on individual need doesn’t just require trust from employees. It also requires a significant mindset shift for the people we call stakeholders and subject matter experts. Before we go big with this new idea, we need to make it okay to personalize as the rule rather than the exception. If the people to whom we answer continue to see training as a CYA strategy, we will never be able to meet the needs of each individual employee.

Focus on individual enablement

L&D doesn’t own workplace learning. We never did. People are ultimately responsible for their own development. The entire organization, from frontline managers to HR to L&D, is expected to provide the necessary support, but the employee must make the choice to do the work. Until now, the idea of shifting accountability to the employee has been largely lip service, as our tactics haven’t pivoted enough toward ongoing enablement. Personalized learning can change that. When we provide the right options to the right person at the right time, we can finally pass the ball. However, we must first make sure that our entire strategy—the full ecosystem of tools we use to support performance—is designed to support this enablement. If we continue to require unnecessary training for the sake of completions, we aren’t truly enabling. If managers aren’t equipped to provide the feedback and coaching necessary to close individual performance gaps, we aren’t truly enabling. Personalization in workplace learning—and everything it includes—can shift the balance of accountability and help employees focus on what is most meaningful to them. We first must lay the groundwork so that everyone in the organization is ready to perceive learning in this way.

As I said, I’m extremely excited and acutely concerned that the industry is finally talking about personalized learning. My experience tells me that personalized and adaptive learning can be a game changer for L&D and the value it brings to the business. We just need to avoid the distractions, see through the marketing, and keep our focus on the “person” in personalization. Then, the data, technology, and content can help us finally balance the needs of the individual with the scale and pace of a modern organization.

See you in Orlando!

If you’re heading to Orlando for Learning Solutions 2018 this month, I’d love to hear about your feelings on personalized learning. I’ll be hosting a morning buzz discussion on adaptive learning at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28. Personalization will also be a strong theme in my session, Enabling the Deskless Retail Workforce, on Tuesday, March 27 at 2:30 p.m. Hope to see you there!