The majority of the time, resources and dollars spent by internal learning functions is spent on formal learning. Yet according to a 2011 article published by the Center for Creative Leadership, at least 70 percent of learning within an organization occurs outside of formal learning activities.
That there is a disconnect between where learning investments are made and where enterprise learning occurs carries implications for organizational performance. According to PwC’s 15th annual Global CEO Survey, published in 2012, one in four CEOs said they were unable to pursue a market opportunity or have had to cancel or delay a strategic initiative because of talent challenges. And one in three are concerned that skill shortages will impact their company’s ability to innovate effectively. To attract the right talent to get things done, organizations must realign their learning resources to appeal to the needs and expectations of the future workplace.
Historically, best-in-class learning organizations have stood out from the crowd because they successfully align what is taught to the business with enterprise needs. These learning organizations have a deep understanding of content, but may not consider opportunities to capture learning within the organization as well as the venue and vehicle by which learning occurs.
Learn or Lose
For many of today’s learning organizations, how they manage and support learning is inadequate to meet the needs of tomorrow’s workforce. Business alignment always will be necessary, but alignment alone is not sufficient to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce that demands greater control over where, when and how it learns.
For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2020, nearly half of the U.S. workforce will be composed of millennials. This generation has grown up with access to the Internet and technology, and they have different workplace expectations as a result. For millennials, the new normal is defined by rapid access to information and knowledge, learning through experience and frequent feedback.
If companies want to win the talent war and tap into the productivity of the millennial generation, they must evolve. Organizational learning functions need to expand the scope of their activities to match millennials’ needs and expectations. Firms that redefine their learning strategies to allow for rapid access to information and encourage collaboration will win the war for millennial talent. This enterprise collaboration is a core value and the key to productivity.
The rapid changes in technology that enable rich, global informal learning environments also reduce the lifespan of useful information. Information is only valuable if it is relevant, trusted and timely, and highly dynamic environments threaten all three.
Learning organizations must be fueled by technologies capable of keeping pace with content to enable value creation. Today’s scheduled environments of classroom learning and highly structured knowledge and content management will need to become more flexible, fluid and dynamic to keep up.
The learning disconnect may be amplified by millennials, but better support and management of informal learning activities will benefit the entire workforce, regardless of generation. Expanding the scope and reach of learning strategy to take advantage of less formal, unstructured learning activities also can generate more value from each learning dollar.
The first step in realigning learning strategy is to clearly identify, classify and define the learning that occurs within the enterprise. Organizations have a great opportunity to drive value from learning, but only if they devise a strategy that supports and manages the right kind of activities properly aligned with their specific needs.
The enterprise learning ecosystem (Figure 1) helps by categorizing learning activities based on two criteria: outcomes and organization. Does an activity have clearly established goals or specific knowledge and skills to transfer? If so, it has defined outcomes. Otherwise, they’re undefined. Similarly, if an activity includes a set list of participants and defined roles, it is structured. Otherwise, it’s unstructured.
The enterprise learning ecosystem outlines the potential scope of diverse learning activities. This information maximizes the value of learning by closing disconnects, and helps an organization win the war for talent by supporting and managing the right mix of learning activities for the company’s environment and overall business strategy. An effective enterprise learning strategy is fundamentally aligned with other functional strategies within an organization: information, technology and product.
Interconnectedness Equals Effectiveness
The enterprise learning ecosystem is just that — an ecosystem, or a system involving interactions in a community. Activities in the ecosystem are interconnected, and as a result, incorporating informal learning activities can make formal and structured learning activities more robust and effective through:
• Increased reach and participation in learning activities.
• More diverse ideas and perspectives.
• Increased opportunities for ad-hoc collaboration.
• More accurate and meaningful feedback on courses.
• Real-time monitoring of adoption and behavior change.
• Tacit knowledge and experience captured for formalization.
• More effective and efficient employee networks.
• Stronger community and culture.
These benefits are distributed across the ecosystem, and better alignment increases value.
The learning ecosystem framework also provides a new lens to view and understand how an organization’s mix of learning activities shapes participation, consumption and contribution. These attributes define the character of each learning activity, and they vary across the ecosystem. Until organizations understand them, they can’t effectively identify the right roles and provide the proper support and management to make learning activities successful. The activities in each quadrant of the enterprise learning ecosystem can be identified by their contribution-consumption pairs: one-to-one; many-to-one; many-to-many; or many to the entire organization. This additional distinction can help organizations understand how to maximize value creation in the interconnected landscape, while ensuring they deploy learning approaches that provide the right kind of support and management for their market context and organizational goals.
Not Just Technology, But People Too
Today’s technology can enable a new wave of productivity in employees. It brings an opportunity to leverage the deep knowledge of the enterprise to provide exactly what employees need when they need it. Smartphones, tablets and mobile devices have opened new streams of communication, allowing employees to reach new milestones in the way they work and collaborate with one another. These interactions launched a collaborative movement, forever changing the way humanity converses, shares and obtains information. Today, technical barriers to communication and collaboration are virtually nonexistent; learning spans geography, functions, even time. New platforms and ideas are available every day, resulting in a broad array of choices to suit any and every organization and culture.
Technology alone won’t address learning disconnects. While it may be an enabler of the change, people are the key to a successful informal learning environment. A rich learning ecosystem is a living, evolving entity and only can be as dynamic as the participation and diversity of its contributors.
When people are put in charge of their learning, they ultimately decide what, when and how they learn. Unstructured, informal learning activities afford employees the opportunity to become their own knowledge stewards and personal brand owners. Personalizing learning unlocks productivity by allowing employees to drive their own learning and careers toward their personal and professional goals, while contributing to the organization’s bottom-line growth.
The entire enterprise should be engaged in the development and implementation of the learning strategy, expanding it to include a more social, collaborative, informal approach. An effective enterprise learning strategy becomes part of the fabric of the organization, creating a collaborative culture and source of lasting competitive advantage.
When this culture is enabled, individuals can drive their own learning through robust search engines that access just-in-time virtual knowledge objects. Employees across the globe contribute, consume and evaluate knowledge via social tools, and the rich data sets they produce — a history of the organization’s collaboration activities — can be mined and used in countless ways, creating additional opportunities for the enterprise to transform HR, finance, operations, product development and marketing.
Understanding the enterprise learning ecosystem is a critical step to identify the available learning channels to meet generational needs while maximizing productivity. Learning and development functions that realign their strategy to support and manage the right mix of learning activities will enhance the value of each learning dollar and lead the way to help their organizations win in the market.
Larry Durham is a director at PwC, a professional services firm that provides assurance, advisory and tax services. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.