Understanding the empowered learner

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David James explains why putting learning in the hands of the workforce results in business success. 

Workplace learning has changed dramatically in the past ten years and technology has been the primary driver of that change. However, it has not necessarily been learning solutions supplied by organisations that have been the game changer. The way that technology has enabled workers to self-direct their learning has been the significant factor. Whether it’s been fully acknowledged or not, this has dramatically changed the learner’s relationship with L&D.

When I joined the training team at Lloyds Bank in the late 90s, we were just getting started with CBT (computer-based training). It was during this period that we (learning/training professionals) were teaching employees a brand new way to learn at work. Fast forward little over a decade and we find ourselves in a very different position. Elearning seems universally rated as the least preferred way to learn in the workplace and yet the majority of people will self-direct their own learning at work via web searching and their own sources they discover themselves.

The stats are plain to see:

  • More than 70% of people will web-search for resources as a first port of call to help them to do their jobs
  • 81% of new starters will perform web searches for answers whilst assimilating into a new role
  • 91% of smartphone users will go to their devices for answers when completing a task

And yet only 12% of people will go to HR for help, which means that even fewer people are likely to direct themselves to their company’s LMS. So what? If people are directing their own learning via Google, YouTube or other web sources then surely that’s a good thing, right? I’m certainly not going to argue with people developing themselves online based on their immediate needs, their interests or future ambitions. However, as a strategic L&D leader, I am interested in developing my organisation’s capability towards:

  • Higher performance
  • Improved productivity
  • Managing according to our company’s competency framework
  • Growing managers and leaders from within
  • Developing the skills and knowledge required for critical roles - both now and in the future
  • Supporting everybody to find the support they need internally when the organisational context is critical

These are unlikely to be achieved by employees seeking support from web searches or from low engagement in an organisation’s learning technology.

So what can L&D learn from such high engagement in self-directed learning online? The opportunity to develop and support employees with online learning is huge but the opportunity lies in capitalising on their habits, preferences and motivations - and not ours. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, L&D professionals are a lot more smitten by their creations and commissions of elearning than employees are. Low engagement rates speak for themselves.

David James is learning strategist at Looop.co and former director of talent management, learning & OD at The Walt Disney Company, EMEA

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