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Making the Grade

Listen to Learners’ Needs, Not What They Say

Success will come from research, collaboration and listening.

communication, strategic listeningWe are entering a time of uncertainty and upended mores. Perhaps it’s a time for hope. But I’m reminded of a so-called Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.

Corporate learning is changing. Workers want ongoing and accessible education. They want to acquire skills without leaving full-time employment. But according to an August 2016 Saba Software survey of 1,800 HR managers, only 22 percent of employees feel their employers are “very effective” in providing easy access to learning.

Do these shifts in learning mean leaders should get in front of the curve, or pause to study the issues and possible ways forward? If you choose to lead, what does a leadership role look like? If you want to take a go-slow approach, what are the consequences?

“Regarding uncertainty, I see it as a mindset,” said Rob Lauber, chief learning officer, McDonald’s Corp. “In the 1950s, we had uncertainty about the Cold War; in the 1960s we had uncertainty about Vietnam; and in the 1970s and 1980s, it was largely about economics — interest rates, inflation and unemployment.”

Both he and Michael Huffman, director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Office of Continuing and Professional Education, agree there is disruption. For-profit institutions, massive open online courses, competency-based degrees and credentialing are challenging traditional higher education models.

Huffman said if administrators choose to lead during times of uncertainty, their schools will be the ones that provide answers to vexing questions through teaching, training, research and service. In practical terms, he said he sees an opportunity for higher education and corporations to work together.

For example, in January 2017, Trinity College’s Dean of Student’s Christopher D. Card wrote “Certain Uncertainty: Higher Education in the Trump Era” on HigherEdJobs, an academic career website. In the article, Card states that colleges should reach out to employers to make sure students are meeting the “core competency demands of the workplace,” and evaluate whether degree-holders are truly equipped to do the jobs they’re hired for. But CLOs shouldn’t wait for educators to reach out to them.

“Leading means taking teams with you by defining a shared purpose, clarity of focus and a willingness to be clear about what you’re not interested in putting energy toward,” Lauber said.

“We in higher education have a unique opportunity and responsibility to provide a wide range of rich, diverse opportunities to help people advance personally and professionally,” Huffman said.

Nobody is suggesting that online learning is a fad. But how to deliver a course, its cost and the setting where students take it are all very much up for debate. One of the uncertainties might be format. If you’re old enough to remember video cassette recorders, you’ll recall the format wars between VHS and Betamax. Betamax came first in 1975, enabling 60 minutes of recording time. VHS followed on its heels and offered twice the recording time but lower video resolution.

Ultimately, Betamax lost out to VHS because it didn’t grasp what consumers wanted from a video recording product — more recording time. Essentially, when faced with uncertainty, sometimes caution or patience is rewarded. Whether a leader in higher education or corporate learning decides to charge ahead or take a slower, contemplative approach, success will come from research, collaboration and listening.

Often, listening is harder to do because what education consumers, or consumers in general, tell you they want isn’t really what they ask for. For example, when offered a chance to obtain an online degree, a worker might say, “Thanks, but I’d really prefer a flexible work schedule. That way, I could collaborate online and in a classroom.” But what they may mean is: “I’m not sure an online degree will be valued by our company in the same way as an on-campus degree.”

Once you’re confident you know what your learners want, then you can develop solutions tailored to their needs. Knowing that will draw clarity from uncertainty.

Lee Maxey is CEO of MindMax, a marketing and enrollment management services company. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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