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Rethinking Design for Sustainable Learning

The past two years have shown that learning and development (L&D) can deliver experiences at scale with a hybrid strategy when needed. Historically, it wasn’t clear what types of programs organizations could deliver from a distance, but when faced with the recent challenges across the industry, every organization implemented some form of virtual learning and work.

As organizations transition from a survive to thrive strategy, learning teams are reaching the inflection point and challenge of creating sustainable learning. Learning teams need to think differently about how organizations deliver, enable, and support the workforce at a distance.

An Example of Transformation from the Supply Chain and Logistics Industry

Other industries have transformed. The supply chain and logistics industry used to focus on location of warehouses, the price of gas, and union relationships. The strategy focused on distance and cost containment.

But some companies like Walmart and Amazon started to think differently about how to tackle the supply chain and logistics. They looked at everything from negotiating with vendors to the infusion and expectation around using data to drive informed decisions around logistics and enablement, and more. They started to solve problems in new ways.

Now that these ideas have been around for a couple of years, instead of continuing with older practices and mindsets for what success looked like, organizations are changing, bringing in new skillsets and new ways of thinking, and integrating those relationships to continuously evolve the industry approaches over time.

Similarly, learning and development as an industry is going to continually evolve and need new skillsets and mindsets. Organizations will always need humans in the workforce who need to learn new skillsets for every disruption. Learning teams need to think differently about how organizations are solving those problems.

Learning and development has proven that they can solve problems differently, but the critical question is how can they do it differently really well?

From Accommodation to Intentionality

The difference between virtual learning and hybrid learning is the intentionality behind it. Virtual learning was considered an accommodation. It was left up to the individual worker to figure out how to be productive and successful.

Now that organizations are working and learning virtually at scale, it’s up to the organizations to create productive environments when people are not working at the same place or at the same time.

For hybrid working, it’s not just the work that’s changing. It’s the when, where, and how along with the environment they’re working in. All three of those elements of the equation, the work, the worker, and the work environment are changing. This is where learning teams need to bring intentionality into their strategy and design for equity in hybrid classrooms. This strategy is about enabling an overarching view of the organization and how the workforce can be productive at a distance. And the strategy should include a way to grow and respond to the next disruption.

Upskilling L&D for Sustainable Learning

Organizations need to take time to upskill L&D teams looking ahead and beyond 2022. For the longest time, the L&D industry hasn’t had the time to upskill themselves and instead has been focused on meeting the needs of the workforce.

Instructional design skills have always been important, but new skills are in demand to enable the business from the learning perspective. This includes commercial acumen–how well teams understand the competitive environment, where the business goes to market, and how the business wins. When disruption happens, understanding the commercial side helps to understand how it affects the business, the business decisions needed, and how that need cascades down to helping the workforce prepare and respond to the business and commercial aspects.

Learning teams need to spend time upskilling on data analytics. Practitioners need to understand and better utilize data to provide more insights. It shouldn’t be limited to learning data but also should include business and HR data. Collecting the right data will help prove that learning interventions and systems are working and how to improve them over time.

Understanding cloud-based systems and platforms will help with the IT partnerships when determining what is needed along with HR partnerships. This will help learning teams provide a clear direction for what is needed out of tools and new technologies they are integrating. In turn, these insights and close partnerships will help learning teams drive adoption and engage the workforce.

For more on this research, read our report with Future Workplace: The Evolving Role of Learning in Workforce Transformation

From Survive to Thrive

We are starting to see classrooms where some people are co-located physically in the same space and some of their counterparts are participating virtually. Going from a survive to a thrive mindset will mean learning teams need to design learning that brings them together in an equitable experience. This experience shouldn’t be disadvantageous to physical or virtual participants.
It’s more than conveyance of content or concepts. It’s important to build connections both physically and virtually as new ideas are introduced and practiced.
Learning’s most precious commodity might be same location opportunities, where people are brought together. But it will need to be more reserved. Historically, concepts were taught over 1-3 weeks, pouring content and ending with an exam.
Learning teams need to change the way learning is designed, resetting expectations of participants, building for engagement and connection, and creating equity in the experience.

About the Authors

Matt Donovan
Chief Learning & Innovation Officer
Early in life, I found that I had a natural curiosity that not only led to a passion for learning and sharing with others, but it also got me into trouble. Although not a bad kid, I often found overly structured classrooms a challenge. I could be a bit disruptive as I would explore the content and activities in a manner that made sense to me. I found that classes and teachers that nurtured a personalized approach really resonated with me, while those that did not were demotivating and affected my relationship with the content. Too often, the conversation would come to a head where the teacher would ask, “Why can’t you learn it this way?” I would push back with, “Why can’t you teach it in a variety of ways?” The only path for success was when I would deconstruct and reconstruct the lessons in a meaningful way for myself. I would say that this early experience has shaped my career. I have been blessed with a range of opportunities to work with innovative organizations that advocate for the learner, endeavor to deliver relevance, and look to bend technology to further these goals. For example, while working at Unext.com, I had the opportunity to experience over 3,000 hours of “learnability” testing on my blended learning designs. I could see for my own eyes how learners would react to my designs and how they made meaning of it. Learners asked two common questions: Is it relevant to me? Is it authentic? Through observations of and conversations with learners, I began to sharpen my skills and designed for inclusion and relevance rather than control. This lesson has served me well. In our industry, we have become overly focused on the volume and arrangement of content, instead of its value. Not surprising—content is static and easier to define. Value (relevance), on the other hand, is fluid and much harder to describe. The real insight is that you can’t really design relevance; you can only design the environment or systems that promote it. Relevance ultimately is in the eye of the learner—not the designer. So, this is why, when asked for an elevator pitch, I share my passion of being an advocate for the learner and a warrior for relevance.

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