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Editor's Letter

The Limits of Control

In an era of unprecedented personal choice, why do we hold on so strongly to control over employees' learning experiences?

Mike Prokopeak, VP, Editor in Chief

We live in an era of unprecedented personal control. Never before have we had such power over what we see, hear and read.

Netflix and Hulu cut through a cacophony of entertainment content to provide us an unceasing stream of movies and TV tailored to our preferences. Amazon and Google track where we click and what we buy to serve up eerily accurate shopping recommendations.

Spotify and Pandora learn what we like when it comes to music and serve it up to us at the touch of a finger. Facebook and LinkedIn give us control over just who we’d like to hear from in our social and professional circles and who we’d simply rather not.

When it comes to education — at least of the self-directed sort — learners have control over an incredible amount of content and resources. They can browse an array of free, high-quality content and courses via MOOCs like Coursera, Udemy and LinkedIn Learning.

With YouTube, they have access to the world’s most powerful DIY platform for just about anything. I’ve cleared drains, hooked up water lines and replaced faulty pumps with the help of expert YouTube guidance.

In corporate learning, we’ve taken all this in and embraced the gospel of personal choice. We talk about building an ecosystem of learning increasingly driven by learner preferences. We invest in learning platforms that promise to deliver learning just in time, day or night, mobile and social.

We preach that learners — and leaders — control their learning destiny. It’s a sham.

Personalized learning is kind of like the “close door” button in the elevator. Hurried commuters poke at the button when they’re running late (or looking to avoid the boss they see coming down the hall) but their efforts are for naught. According to one estimate, 80 percent of the buttons are completely nonfunctional. It’s nothing more than an illusion designed to give us the impression that we’re in control when in reality we’re not.

We say that learners are in control of their learning. Yet only 25 percent of companies actually involve them in the decision about how they will receive learning. That’s shockingly hypocritical.

According to data collected from the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board, a group of 1,500 professionals in the learning and development industry surveyed annually by the Human Capital Media Research and Advisory Group, the research arm of the magazine, senior leaders and business unit heads are in the driver seat on that decision. CLOs and instructional designers are generally in the passenger seat.

What about employees — the ultimate consumers of that learning? Well, they’re in what we used to call the “way back” of my family’s station wagon.

Why is it the case that we say learners are in control but the underlying data tells us the exact opposite? It’s probably cost. It’s expensive to provide the kind of content, technology and environment that personalizes learning to each individual employee’s wants, desires and needs. There’s hope in artificial intelligence and machine learning to fill the gap but it will take a while for the practice to catch up to the promise.

And then there’s the learning department in transition. New theories, models and ideas are emerging. Business conditions and needs emerge and evolve often before we have time to respond.

So while bosses retain control of the purse strings and ultimately the choice of what gets delivered to whom in what way, there are some leaders who are making way for more control. Companies like Relativity, a Chicago-based company that provides technology that powers e-discovery for litigation and legal investigations, give some workers up to $3,000 to spend on learning and development of their choice.

If money is an object, maybe there’s a learning version of Google’s famous 20 percent time, adapting the practice to allow employees to use a chunk of their time on the job to engage in learning of their choice that can benefit the organization as a whole.

Employees understand that learning is a two-way street and that what they learn on the job has to benefit the organization directly. They just want a bit more say in what that looks like.

A little more control isn’t too much to ask.

Mike Prokopeak is Vice President and Editor in Chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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