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Employees Take Charge of Their Development

The days of training as something that is done to you are ending. Replacing it is a more employee-driven model that is responsive to changing career paths and organizational priorities.

January 7, 2013
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Related Topics: Leadership Development, Learning Delivery, Learning Delivery, Leadership Development

The business trends of the last few years are pretty clear. Austerity and tepid economic growth left corporate executives less willing — or perhaps unable — to spend. Evolving technology and market disruptions led to a need for rapid change. What’s less clear is what it means for employee development.

More employee-driven development is one potential implication, according to Bill Sebra, North America president for Futurestep, a talent management consultancy and division of Korn/Ferry International.

With a rich set of tools and learning opportunities for employees outside the corporate realm, workers now have the ability to set their own course and pace of study — whether it happens through a tablet, smartphone or other electronic device.

This is especially true for younger generations, whose time is fragmented and who have expectations that steer toward interactivity and visual stimulation. Yet while learner expectations are becoming more nontraditional, corporate learning and development remains overwhelmingly formal and structured.

According to an analysis of 2012 survey data from the Chief Learning Officer Business Intelligence Board (BIB), a group of 1,500 learning and development professionals, roughly 68 percent of learning still happens either through classroom training or formally on-the-job. Another 14 percent is conducted through instructor-led e-learning. In all, about 82 percent of learning is delivered by an instructor in a formal or structured setting.

Given the reality of business today, the traditional approach may need a rethink.

Boom, Bust and the Changing Pace of Learning
Economic recessions used to follow a fairly predictable pattern that played well to a formalized structure of instructor-led learning. The typical recession lasted about two to three years; the boom that followed lasted anywhere from seven to 10 years, Sebra said.

In the last couple of decades, however, that cycle has changed. Organizations don’t have the kind of time they’ve grown accustomed to for training and development during better economic periods.

“Today, the bust is lasting much longer … and the boom times are shorter,” Sebra said. “They’re not nearly as long as they were. So therefore people have to get trained and get trained fast.”

Yet learning and development strategy remains by and large a top-down imperative. According to the BIB, half of organizations use a business partner review to align learning and development. A minority (35 percent) use an employee survey.

Taking Charge of Career Development
That top-down approach belies another factor driving the move to employee-driven development. Rather than depending on the organization to define their path, many workers want to take their career development into their own hands.

“They’re trying to hedge their bets a little bit and also they want to learn at a different pace than maybe their organization will train them,” Sebra said.

Younger workers in particular want to rise rapidly through the ranks and are looking for a much faster pace of promotion. If they’re to be successful, aspiring workers need to acquire the skills and confidence they need to take on new roles — and they need to do it fast.

“It used to be you’d sit in a job maybe two years or three years before you got promoted,” Sebra said. “This is happening now in six-month cycles or eight-month cycles. It’s moving at a much faster pace.”

For learning and development professionals, that pace requires a shift in tactics and strategy.

Traditional classroom-based training, while still valuable, is time consuming, expensive and difficult to implement quickly. Content development for non-proprietary information is unnecessary. Employees can go online and get courses and information they need at their own pace.

Yet only 3 percent of organizations allow students to fully determine the blend of methods they use to receive learning, according to the BIB survey. Seven percent said the learning delivery blend is determined by the instructor in conjunction with the student; 18 percent said the instructor determines the blend entirely.

The greatest factor in how workers receive learning is what is available. For instance, 61 percent of survey respondents said available content and delivery methods determine how workers receive learning, and 57 percent said it is determined by instructional objectives. The data indicates instructional freedom remains the exception rather than the rule.

Sebra suggested a shift in how learning and development professionals approach their job. Rather than being the deliverer of training and information, they can help employees better understand their desired career path, identify strengths and weaknesses and locate development resources.

“It’s really about helping the individual build awareness,” Sebra said. “They believe they have the skills, but they’re just not sure what their shortcomings are. This helps give them that awareness.”

Then, Sebra said, employees can take control of their own development.

Mike Prokopeak is the vice president and editorial director of Chief Learning officer magazine. He can be reached at

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