8 Ways to Improve the Strategic Value of Custom Learning

About half of the formal training provided in organizations is custom developed (the other half are packaged “off-the-shelf” programs).  That’s a lot of training.  Every week  internal learning design teams and their external  partners are heads down at work developing learning programs of every description to help build skills and capability unique to their organizations.  In a knowledge economy,  organization specific knowledge and skill is at the heart of competitive advantage.

Yet organizations often don’t get the strategic bang for their custom learning buck.  We are getting good at producing more training in shorter time periods (rapid!) but not necessarily better training, and we are using technology to reinforce these patterns, not break free from them. Training functions continue to respond to ad-hoc requests and greasing those squeaky wheels.

On Monday June 20th, at 1:00 pm (EST) I am doing a free webinar to discuss ways organizations can get more strategic value from their custom learning initiatives (including informal learning).  Panel guests from two Global Knowledge  clients  (Bell Canada and Service Canada) will participate.  Feel free to join us (it’s free).  Click here to register .

Here are some of the  practices we’ll be discussing.

1. (Really) Link Learning to Business Strategy

  • Business goals are your friend. Use them to support your decisions not to respond to low value ad-hoc requests.
  • Get hooked into the annual planning cycle to truly understand your organizations business strategy
  • Prepare proactive annual learning plans with your customers to  jointly addressing business needs
  • Manage ad-hoc requests professionally

2. Target Signature Competencies that Differentiate your Organization

  •  In today’s knowledge economy organizational capability, skills and knowledge set companies apart and provide real strategic advantage
  • These signature competencies are often driven by key business processes
  • Custom learning will add more value when it focuses on these core competencies and not on lower leverage ad-hoc learning needs
  • Identify pivotal jobs, roles and associated skills. Target custom learning projects squarely  at these all important core competencies

 3. Start at the End

  • Custom learning programs too often start with “content” or subject matter–a sure fire way to produce bloated, dull and low value programs
  • By starting with the performance improvement needed from jobs and roles, custom learning programs can be leaner, more effective and faster to develop.  In fact you may not end up developing training at all.  Performance support, information and informal learning solutions will start to to become obvious choices.
  • Work backwards:  business need –>performance needs–>practice/application –> minimal content
  •  Content and subject matter should be the last decision, not the first

 4. Design with Integrity

  •  We know how to design effective learning programs.  We just usually don’t follow our own advice.  The key factors are practice, application, coaching and feedback (true even for informal learning).
  • In our efforts to meet training volume targets, respond to unplanned requests and meet impossibly short turnarounds we opt for speed, convenience and content “coverage” at the expense of real impact
  • Set design standards that produce high impact learning and stick to them.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible and have different approaches for information requirements vs deep learning requirements.  But it does mean you need to have the knowledge to know the difference and the professional integrity to commit only to the appropriate  solutions
  • Professionalize your team.  Hire people with the skills and track record to produce high impact learning and performance.  Develop those that don’t.  Set high standards.

 5. Get Informal

  •  Formal learning programs are only one way to accomplish learning outcomes.  And they are often the least effective and most costly
  • The majority of learning taking place in your organization right now is through informal learning
  • Tap the full range of learning solutions from informal to non-formal and formal learning to broaden your reach and influence the 80% of learning happening outside the training function
  • Performance support systems, communities of practice, job assignments, structured experience, collaborative learning and learning 2.o solutions are all custom solutions that can have greater strategic impact than a formal training program

6. Innovate with Technology

  • Technology has given us e-learning, automated learning administration (LMS), learning content management and collaborative design (LCMS), mobile learning, assessment tools, and more
  • It has brought efficiencies but not always improved effectiveness or strategic value
  • Web 2.0 and social media are disrupting current views of how technology can and should support learning.  That’s a good thing.
  • Be creative in how you use technology to support learning.  Don’t simply be a servant to it.  Use it as a tool to innovate rather than institutionalize mainstream approaches that don’t add value

 7. Use Partners Strategically

  •  External partners can offer more than a “pair of hands” to design custom learning programs. There are many points in the analysis, design and development stages where external partners can add strategic value to your programs that you may not have thought of
  • Set up partnerships with defined roles for internal players and external partners
  • Encourage knowledge sharing
  • Establish a collaborative project workspace to work and learn together
  • Merge processes to develop a seamless flow for working together

 8. Measure Success

  • If it’s important to develop strategic programs it’s equally important to know if you accomplished your objective
  • To be effective evaluation has to be a part of the plan, not an afterthought.
  • Evaluation does not have to be a complex and time consuming. Use existing business measures as much as possible
  • Consider alternatives to the Kirkpatrick model
  • Don’t measure everything.  Find out what’s important to the business and make that your measurement focus.  If the business itself is lousy as measuring results, you have yet another opportunity to add value

July 10 update:

Here are the slides used for the Webinar mentioned in this post.  You can view a recording of the free webinar here.

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2 thoughts on “8 Ways to Improve the Strategic Value of Custom Learning

  1. Hi Tom,
    Your points here are great. I particularly like starting at the end. In my real-world experience, I do see that sometimes training is not the answer or is only one part of the answer. The additional answer is in a better user interface, job performance support, improved management, etc.
    Best,
    Connie

    • Thanks Connie. Even (or maybe especially) when the solution is training or eLearning, starting at the end is a great way to reduce the volume of content we typically try to stuff into a program. It’s liberating to create practice activities first and then round up the content necessary to enable the practice (instead of the other way around). Love your book on visual design btw

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