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What Learners Really Want

Everyone knows most learning happens beyond the classroom walls and outside learning management systems. But new research shows just how much — and the data are startling.

In the past year, learning technology company Degreed conducted two separate surveys that show workers spend four to five times more time on self-directed learning than on internal or external learning offerings (Editor’s note: The author works for Degreed). They invest more than 14 hours a month, on average, learning on their own but just two to three hours on employer-provided learning.

Those numbers should inform how and why development needs to evolve — urgently.

Learners want easier and faster access to answers. Degreed found almost 70 percent of workers say the first thing they do when they need to learn something for their jobs is Google it, then read or watch what they find. About 42 percent look for a live or online course, but they do it on their own. Fewer than 12 percent turn to their learning organization first.

Learning and development people do pretty much the same thing. They are “Googling it” too, and not just because it’s expedient. By a 3.5 to 1 margin, people believe self-directed learning is more effective in helping them succeed at work than taking part in company sponsored learning. These are mature adults. They have a good idea what they need.

Learners want more than snacks, fun and games. The majority of employer-provided learning and development is still formal, instructor-led classes and traditional e-learning courses. Various surveys from ATD, Bersin by Deloitte and others say the same thing: Learning is stuck on formal development.

That’s a problem because only 23 percent of the people Degreed has surveyed say they’ve completed a course of any kind — at college, online or professionally — in the last two years. More flexible virtual classes, shorter, on-demand courses and massive open online courses are all good steps forward because they make courses more accessible. Innovative new formats like microlearning, videos and gamification are also more in tune with people’s habits now.

But swapping long-form courses for snacks, fun and games misses the bigger picture. It’s not “either/or.” People learn via a constantly changing, increasingly diverse and incredibly fragmented mix of courses, videos, books, articles, coaching and experiences. Further, preferences have shifted to informal learning. More than 70 percent of the people surveyed say they’ve learned something for their job from an article, a video or a book in the last 24 hours.

Unfortunately, most of that informal learning activity is outside the learning organizations’ purview because it’s happening outside of traditional L&D or HR systems. Informal learning is rarely tracked, so it’s not considered as valuable. But it should be.

Learners want to leverage the whole learning ecosystem. Informal learning initiatives should be valued because workers believe as much as 60 percent of the knowledge and skills they use on the job comes from informal learning.

Right now, most enterprise learning infrastructure — the tools, content, technology and processes — is geared toward the old command-and-control, one-to-many approach to L&D: Chief learning officers build and deliver training, and employees consume it. That means learning teams rely primarily on solutions for one-way broadcasting: Authoring tools, SharePoint sites, course catalogs and learning management systems.

But learning departments are not in control anymore; learners are. Therefore, the people and processes, the programs and content, and the tools and technology should reflect this new reality. That doesn’t mean learning leaders no longer need the conventional tools of the trade, but they should make sure they experiment with new solutions that enable and empower continuous learning. For example:

  • Tools to curate and crowdsource learning, not just ones to create and distribute content
  • Open and user-generated content along with proprietary and vendor content
  • Technology and systems for sharing, tracking and valuing all kinds of learning

Employees learn in different ways and from a much more diverse range of sources. That may be uncomfortable for some learning leaders, but it’s also unavoidable. The good news is that CLOs have choices now, too. They can try to change everyone else’s behavior, preferences and habits, or they can change how enterprise learning works.