Ask the Experts: Learning and Development in 2017

January 12, 2017 Nicole Klemp


Employees today want things like flexible work environments, competitive pay, and good benefits. But to compete for today’s top talent, organizations also need to provide opportunities for growth and learning. By creating a collaborative learning environment, employees will feel more fulfilled and engaged, and can gain important skills to excel in their jobs.

To find out what unique challenges and opportunities lie ahead for HR professionals and other business leaders this year, we turned to our own learning and development expert to provide some insight.

Meet our expert:

 Catherine Lang

As Chief Learning Officer, Catherine is responsible for ensuring that Appirio’s employees are experts in cloud-based technologies and that every employee brings a unique set of skills and capabilities to each customer engagement. She also oversees Appirio’s innovative customer training program that drives widespread adoption, enabling every user to get the most out of deployed solutions. Catherine has consulted with a wide range of organizations on the design and deployment of learning technologies, agile course development techniques, and education program design. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and serves on advisory boards for several learning associations.

Why is it so important for organizations to provide employees with regular opportunities for learning and development?

CL: There is an enormous amount of research out there about the technical skills gap, the ageing-out of experienced workers and leaders, and the effect of the drive and expectations of millennials. Any of those reasons alone is justification for a strong Learning and Development (L&D) program. L&D — in combination with talent development and diversity and inclusion programs — are critical to ensuring that the right breadth of skills, experience, innovation, and growth are available to make companies and their employees successful. That’s no mean feat in any highly-competitive market.

The more subtle (but equally important) results of a solid L&D program have to do with employee loyalty, retention, and customer satisfaction. While we’ve come a long way from the days of training as a “reward” for good performance, the desire for opportunities to learn and develop new skills is consistently one of the highest-rated benefits in terms of employee satisfaction and loyalty. And, conversely, a lack of opportunities to learn and grow is consistently a top reason that employees leave a company. We’re all familiar with the importance of employee satisfaction and productivity and the high cost of attrition. L&D can and must play a role in fostering employee loyalty.

The link to customer satisfaction should be obvious, but it’s often difficult to measure. It’s easy to see how skills-based training (e.g., how to use a piece of software) or role-based training (i.e., the processes required for a job) have a direct effect on efficiency and effectiveness. But this doesn’t always translate to higher customer satisfaction. When you’re striving for a 9 or 10 rating on your NPS survey, efficiency and effectiveness is probably going to get you a middle-of-the-road 7 or 8. Providing learning opportunities that correlate to high customer satisfaction can be a unique differentiator for a company, and can create a stronger relationship between employees and customers. L&D programs that think beyond skills and roles and highlight the support, advice, and relationships that stand out for customers become critical drivers of customer satisfaction.

How does technology play a role in engaging employees in learning opportunities?

CL: There was an explosion in technology-based learning about 10 years ago  — not surprisingly, coinciding with more cloud-based options and faster, more reliable networks. Since then, we’ve watched a steady progression of better interfaces, more functionality, better tracking, and the inclusion of video simulations. For L&D practitioners, technology for learning has been about picking and choosing the tools and systems that support instructional strategies and delivery methods that align with goals. And there’s no question that technology-based learning solves a number of problems for a global employee base. For employees, however, it’s a whole different ballgame.

Technology in learning means a number of different things for employees; it’s how they find and get “credit” for training or certification completion, it’s the way that content is delivered via e-learning courses or simulations (or even blogs and news feeds), and it’s increasingly used in learning events to provide a practice arena or way to interact with a course instructor or coach. The ongoing challenge for L&D leaders is to determine how to make technology-based learning not just another system or process, but to use technology to build an ongoing learning culture for employees.

What trends have you seen emerge over the last year when it comes to employee learning and development?

CL: The most interesting trends that have emerged in L&D this last year can be seen in both employee-facing and customer-facing learning. While simulations have been predominant in training for a while, a re-emergence of case studies and role plays are emphasizing the importance of live interactions, and the need to adapt and adjust based on changing scenarios. Technology-based training is starting to move to supporting more practice-based or competitive platforms, including the “flipped classroom” designs we see in universities. And gamification —  while still in experimental mode — started to gain traction by combining competition and recognition with learning achievements.

At Appirio, we’ve seen an increase in the need for more “soft skills” content that complements the technical and process skills. And throughout the learning industry, I’ve seen an increase in community- and peer-structured learning (sometimes referred to as social learning). These social learning platforms and employee-driven collaborative/learning groups emphasize the need for real-time or experienced-based knowledge, and a desire for more exploration and less prescription. And across most industries, an increased interest in innovation, diversity and inclusion, and succession planning, has driven more attention to team-building, leadership development, and executive-sponsored programs.

What developments can we expect to see in 2017?

CL: At Appirio, there are 4 trends we’re most excited about this year:

  1. The idea of mobile delivery and micro-learning is finally being realized. Micro-learning — the idea of small “chunks” of highly-relevant content delivered to your mobile device — is not just about the tools to build it (although those are fairly new); it’s about a change in how a learning program is developed, to encompass more than “formal” learning events and prescribed content and certification. This trend further reinforces the idea of employees’ need and desire for agility, a breadth of topics, and the ability to weave learning into existing schedules and using existing tools.
  1. We are evaluating the tools and structure needed for peer-based or distributed content development. A major bottleneck in any L&D function is the sheer volume of content that could be created, and how to include 3rd party content in the management and delivery systems that are in place. Distributed content development will provide subject-matter experts the ability to create their own learning content — not unlike social media and digital publishing. And the platforms that support peer-based content are catching up to the need to treat learning content like social content, which will only increase over time.
  1. We are very excited to see a new type of analytics emerging in L&D. It’s long been a battle of what you can measure vs. what you want to measure. Learning systems are beginning to learn from things like Google Analytics and cloud-based reporting/dashboards which are providing a whole new way to understand the impact and value of learning programs, and putting that data into the hands of the employees and their leaders to help shape ongoing development plans. This type of decentralization is game-changing when it comes to employee retention and advancement.
  1. Particularly with our customers, we continue to see a trend of embedding skills training in systems and events that are part of the employee’s everyday work-life and creating an environment and learning plan that enables continuous change. While learning events will always be part of a strong L&D or change management program, planning for agility and setting expectations about the ongoing need to build new skills and explore new concepts not only reduces the cost and complexity of “re-training” but begins to meet employees’ need for continuous learning opportunities.

Technology is becoming more deeply embedded in learning activities; not necessarily because it’s necessary for every topic, but because employees expect it. There is a debate in the learning community about when technology should be part of a learning activity and whether the capabilities that the tools and systems bring enhance or detract from learning. I think this debate will become moot in the coming years — your learners (read: employees) expect technology to be part of how they learn and communicate. The conversation needs to shift to how to better use the tools employees already have as part of learning, not whether they should be used at all.

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