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Learning Trend: Going Back to the Future

After more than 10 years of studying the learning industry in great detail, it’s hard not to see patterns. This year, as Bersin & Associates finishes its third biannual High-Impact Learning Organization research study, I see some trends that go back to the future.

First, as we all know, the learning industry has changed dramatically in the last few years. Companies are flooded with content, video and tools for sharing information. This has dramatically changed the nature of learning programs, making them less formal, more continuous, more social and more mobile. Our research shows organizations that spend time understanding new media are developing learning programs faster, delivering more impact and creating more compelling learning experiences. But we also see several important retro trends emerging. These include:

Increasing centralization: Years ago companies built corporate universities, and then e-learning started to take hold and small learning groups proliferated throughout the organization. These small groups got big — customer education, sales training, manufacturing, compliance. But in the last few years, driven by the recession and the need to re-skill and on-board workers, these groups are getting stitched back together. Companies such as Citibank, Pfizer, Merck, Deloitte, Accenture and Xerox are building more centralized learning teams again, focused on creating alignment, reducing costs and creating an integrated development experience for all employees.

A refocus on leadership development: Leadership development has been the first or second learning program in companies for years, and now it is on the front burner. Why? The very definition of leadership has changed. Today’s high-performing leader is more of a coach, expert and inspiring team builder. AT&T’s new leadership development program trains 80,000 professionals around the organization, reflecting the fact that in today’s business environment, we are all leaders in some way.

Fixing the learning technology infrastructure: Unfortunately, after almost 15 years of research and development in the corporate LMS market, the industry is a mess again. Two of the biggest LMS vendors were recently acquired by ERP providers — SAP and Oracle — another of the biggest went private — SumTotal — and most of the remaining LMS vendors are small or have been gobbled up by talent management companies. Saba and Cornerstone are the only remaining public LMS vendors that have not completely lost focus on innovation in this market, and now there are dozens of exciting start-ups. These new companies have social learning platforms, collaboration systems, self-authoring tools and exciting mobile products. So, most corporate learning departments are once again forced to rethink their learning platform and how to stitch it together.

Figuring out how to measure impact: I’ve always been amazed at how hard companies work to quantify the impact of their L&D programs. Our High-Impact Learning Organization study this year showed that CLOs’ top challenge is measuring the impact of their programs. In most cases we find this is the wrong question. We want to measure the impact of training, but we need to go further and measure the effectiveness of everything HR does so we can focus our energies in the right direction.

Gaining top-level support: This year’s research shows that once again L&D teams feel a lot of pressure to gain more high-level support. The expectations for learning are greater than ever now — Lloyd’s of London recently surveyed 500 CEOs, and they cited lack of skills as their No. 2 risk, higher than risk of sovereign credit, floods, earthquakes and cyber-terrorism. So L&D is taking on more importance than ever, yet L&D leaders feel unsupported. This is always going to be true to some degree, since many business leaders still don’t understand the importance of building a learning culture.

The good news is we have made a lot of progress. Many companies are now heavily focused on building a complete learning culture and integrating L&D programs into development planning, leadership culture and end-to-end talent management. And today’s training programs are more fun, engaging and complete than they were 10 years ago.

Josh Bersin is the principal and founder of Bersin & Associates. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.