For decades, learning leaders typically decided what we should learn, then developed and delivered the learning we need. They gave us a prescriptive formula for professional development and ongoing performance improvement. Today, however, employees are free to find courses and content online, free to take massive open online courses or video learning when needed, and free to find things they want to learn through tools like Twitter, Google or through LinkedIn and other career portals.
In my career, starting at IBM in the late 1970s, I was named a “trainee” for two years, during which I attended classes, did homework, went on sales and customer calls, and worked my way into my role as a systems engineer and, later, a salesperson. This highly structured, prescriptive learning experience formed the basis of my career and served as one of the most important building blocks in my professional life.
Was I free to learn whatever I wanted? No, but that was a good thing because at that time I had no idea what I needed to learn, and IBM had figured out precisely what I needed to be effective.
Today, whether we like it or not, most employees find content on the Internet, read articles, and actively look for training to improve their skills. Companies like, CorpU, Lynda.com, NovoEd, Udacity, Udemy and others are growing rapidly as the economy for learning has become unfettered and widely available at relatively low cost. A course I authored on 21st century human resources, for example, has had more than 5,000 enrollments in less than six months — without promotion.
As much as leaders know, people have a burning human need to manage their own destiny — so the freedom to learn how and when you want could be considered a natural instinct. But it may come with a cost if not done efficiently. This open learning and free/inexpensive content environment has some common challenges:
How do corporate learning organizations shift their focus from building and buying to finding and curating good content for employees?
How do companies redesign learning technology so the learning management system can sit in the background, and how can we offer a portal or learning platform to help people find what they need, yet give the company data about what people have learned?
How do we create facilitated, directed learning programs that help people follow a learning path the company knows will work, but make it as fun as browsing videos online?
How do we prevent people from wasting time in their self-directed learning journey as they examine inappropriate content, or even learn things inconsistent with internal programs and strategies?
- How do we create financial models to pay for some of this curated content and vet vendors and provide easy to use interfaces without creating too much of a “walled garden”?
The world has changed. Learners are now free to find and take whatever courses they want. While this is not a new thing, the way we help people manage this freedom can redefine what we do. This is why our research shows the typical roles and skills for learning professionals are changing faster now than perhaps ever before in my 20 years as an analyst.
Bank of America recently created an open learning experience for their employees, enabling validated and curated content through their portals, and weaving this content into their traditional compliance training as well. General Electric and MasterCard have authored massive open online courses to help employees learn in new and innovative ways, replicating the free learning experience available on the Internet.
Just as freedom encourages governments to change how they operate and pushes us to keep up with the demands of people in the political environment, freedom in learning has put new pressures on L&D to keep up as well. Let’s embrace the new freedom we have to learn, and reinvent our HR and L&D strategies to give employees this freedom with the guidance and support to meet our business needs.