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It’s time to move beyond digitizing courses!

Over the past six months, the digitalization of learning has taken major steps. A lot of people I’ve talked to now hope we won’t go back to the old, to the classroom.

I maintain that we need to speed up the pace of change even more. The current changes at work are so strong that we at Learning and Development urgently need to take new steps forward.

In a series of articles I will describe WHY we need to act now, WHAT continuous learning is and HOW we develop a strategy and take the next step.

Covid-19 has meant that digitalization of learning has taken a major step forward. According to LinkedIn, 60-70% of organizations have greatly increased digital learning while classrooms have decreased correspondingly.

This autumn, many classroom courses that were stopped this spring will also be conducted digitally. One discussion I face is whether the change is temporary or here to stay.

According to LinkedIn, 70-80% of companies claim that the change is long-term. I really hope so. It has taken over 25 years to get here, i.e. at least the majority of courses are digital.

Instead, we need to move on. There are several major challenges we need to address in the near future:

  • Covid-19 has further increased the need for building new capabilities, for reskilling initiatives.
  • We need to get the organization to learn faster? It’s become a survival factor.
  • The training function needs to modernize and respond to the needs of today’s employees.

We need to meet the needs for reskilling

Even before Covid-19 there was a large skill-gap in many organizations. According to Manpower “Talent Shortage 2020” 88% of large Swedish companies reported skill shortages and difficulty in filling new positions.

The need for new skill is now even greater than the 40% World Economic Forum has previously estimated. Covid-19 has accelerated digitalization. According to McKinsey, 80% of senior managers now say reskilling is important or very important. I’ve written about this in many articles.

Are we ready for this change?

PwC presented a study just before Covid-19. It asked whether leadership felt that the organization had made progress in building new capabilities at the pace they needed.

18% globally and only 9% of Swedish CEOs think progress has been made. We are simply not ready. According to the study, the major challenges are:

  • Lack of resources to implement the initiatives.
  • Employees’ own capability to learn what is required in the future.
  • An incapability to measure the impact and show the value of the initiatives.
  • Retaining the employees as they have developed the new capabilities.

The CEO’s who have succeeded in the initiatives say they are “effective” or “very effective” in creating:

  • Stronger culture and commitment (95%).
  • Higher rate of innovation and digital transformation (94%).
  • Higher productivity (93%).
  • Improved recruitment and lower staff turnover (93%).
  • Faster growth (93%).

A no-brainer, in other words.

Are Swedish CEOs view accurate? Only 9% think progress has been made. I’d say yes. In the dialogues I have, I do not hear much about major initiatives for reskilling (yes, Ericsson does).

It is, of course, a matter of resources and mandates, which in turn falls back on the CEO himself. However, there is a bigger problem. The view of how new capabilities are built and the way the training function works.

I’ve been amazed at how many organizations still have training sessions with subject matter experts who in one day communicates their facts in a classroom (now in Zoom). Even though we know this doesn’t work.

It’s the same with eLearning. Let me give you an example.

A company I worked with implemented a mandatory eLearning on GDPR. The course was interactive, with video scenarios and according to all the rules of instructional design. The next year, instead, a mandatory test was carried out. It turned out that few remembered even the basics. The course owner’s natural reaction was to let all employees take the course again?!

My point as I described in previous articles is that single training sessions, digital or not, has modest effects on capabilities at work.

As I described in my article on reskilling, it is a long way between knowledge and applied capability at work. Training alone, no matter how engaging and well-designed, does not get us there. We need to rehearse, practice, apply within tasks/projects at work, get feedback from others, etc.

In my article on reskilling, I summarized the best-practice that now exists in reskilling with this image.

A great deal of focus is needed on the assignments/ projects that gradually build the new capability. Real tasks drive learning. Feedback and support from a mentor is central to taking learning forward.

Participants themselves seek information and knowledge when tasks are performed. The focus is on making the knowledge available when it’s needed rather than communicating it during a lesson.

Evaluation is about how participants are gradually able to do the new job rather than knowledge tests.

A training function that mainly delivers courses as one-time sessions are not ready.

What is not visible in the list above are the increased demands on employees to drive their own learning. They need to want, be allowed to and be albe to build new capabilities, i.e their learning skills. For that to happen, we also need a learning culture and leadership that encourage.

Needless to say, technology is also necessary in order to provide development projects, mentoring, information support, etc. on a large scale. All of this places demands on our own capabilities at L&D and how we organize ourselves.

So, over 80% of CEO’s think it’s critical to build new capabilities but only 9% think reskilling is moving forward. I think that is a reason to act. I know that many are occupied with current course deliveries, in several industries due to increased demands on compliance. However, there must be a plan, a strategy, on how to build the capability for reskilling.

The organization needs to learn faster

As I have written in other articles, companies that invest a lot in learning are 3 times more profitable than those don’t. Companies that are role models in learning culture, agile work and collaboration are increasingly pulling away from the rest.

This happens fast! Employees of companies such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon are currently valued at more than SEK 100 million per employee. Employees in traditional Swedish companies are valued at SEK 2-10 million. 10 times the difference.

The picture below is from the article “The great acceleration (McKinsey)” and shows how the top fifth of companies have recently pulled away from other companies.

McKinsey examined what companies in the top fifth do that sets them apart from the rest. Some examples are:

  • More decisions are delegated to employees themselves.
  • Fewer levels and faster decisions.
  • Works in small cross-functional teams.
  • Real-time (collaboration platform) collaboration within and between teams.
  • Works and learns mainly virtual.
  • Focuses on “learning to learn” rather than learning skills.
  • Views leaders as visionaries and coaches.

The points are strikingly similar to the ones I talked about before, in how to create a learning culture. The companies I mentioned above, with Microsoft in the lead, are all working on continuous learning at work. This has become a strategic issue, where the responsibility for learning lies in the management team.

This is good for those of us who work with learning and development. According to LinkedIn, management’s active support for learning and development has increased from 27% to 70% in the past year.

That does not mean, however, that we are actually becoming more strategic. According to Bersin Deloitte, only 14% of the organization’s leaders experience the training function as a strategic partner. Now is the time to change that and show how it’s done to create a learning organization as described above. We need to develop a plan and start the change activities.

We need to modernize learning

There are many indications that organizations do not meet employees’ demands for learning and development. According to LinkedIn, only 15% of employees say that the organization’s learning offer contributes to their development.

As a result, we now spend our own money on courses from Coursera, LinkedIn, Udacity and others. That market had a turnover of SEK 60 billion in 2019 and has grown significantly during the pandemic. The number of students at Coursera has grown by 70% in the last six months.

It’s also about how we want to learn, especially younger generations. We don’t have the time to learn and therefore want to learn at work, just-in-time. We use Google far more than we use our LMS. We want to learn by working together and by asking others. During Covid-19, social learning has increased by 300%!

The picture below is from a Bersin Deloitte study a few years ago. I would say that the focus on informal learning is even greater today. The majority of employees, 70-80% believe learning from collaboration, knowledge sharing, web search, news feed etc. is very important or critical. That compares with 37% for the organization’s course offering.

Is this how the training function distributes its efforts? My understanding is that the picture would then end up upside down. Almost all resources are spent on training. There is an over-reliance on formal training.

Even companies and suppliers that I see as “progressive” focus on formal training, although it is often called something else. There is something magical about “learning designers” who “know” what the employees want and how learning should be done, preferably the same for everyone.

There are many consequences. Instead of making it easier to find resources or curate external ready-made courses, we still spend a lot of time and money creating our own courses. This takes a lot longer and costs a lot more.

Why not focus on enabling and strengthening what is at the top of what employees want? Collaboration, knowledge sharing, support at work, just-in-time, relevant information and knowledge, etc.

One reason for this is that we don’t measure those things. Most L&D departments only measure courses, i.e. a few percent of the different ways we use to learn. Why not measure, for example, knowledge sharing?

We are still, after so many years, far from being able to measure the impact of learning or link learning to the organization’s goals.

Now I might sound too negative, too much urgency. However, I would argue that we urgently need to modernize the way we work with learning:

  • Find out and offer ways to learn aligned to what employees actually wants.
  • Reduce focus on courses. We know they don’t work very well.
  • Start measuring and use data.
  • Get better at economics, technology, agile, change, communication, etc.
  • Read about research and best-practice in learning. More and more professions are quality assured, certified. Why not those of us who work with learning and development?

The list can certainly be made longer. We need to develop a plan for how L&D will change in order to meet today’s employees, the opportunities that digitalization offers and the major changes that many businesses are now undergoing.


I think I made my point quite clear. We cannot be content with simply digitising the current course catalogue. We need to move forward quickly. This means investing in new approaches for learning, at work and social, learnability, culture of learning, technology, L&D capabilities and much more.

Most importantly, to start thinking about your own role:

Are you responsible for the company’s training or are you responsible for ensuring that the organization has the capabilities to succeed in the future?

These are difficult questions. Perhaps you think that you don’t have the mandate from management, not enough resources, that the business does not support a modern way of learning.

You’re not alone. Therefore, it is important to take the next step.

Developing a learning organization usually takes place in several steps. How much we can change depends on our mandate, management support, influence in the business, access to resources, our own capabilities etc.

In my work I use Bersin Deloitte’s research and their “Learning Maturity Model”. It fits well with my experience from several large companies. It shows how learning involves more and more people in the organization, from being managed by the L&D to becoming an integral part of work.

Digital learning – A first step is to reach more employees by digitizing training, creating more impact in work with blended solutions, measuring and evaluating efforts, distributing responsibility for learning to the business, etc.

Personalised learning – In a second step, offer a more personalized learning journey, with relevant content from multiple sources other than just the company’s LMS. Training is integrated into the environments the employee works, e.g. Microsoft Teams. You better meet the demands of building new capabilities, on reskilling.

Continuous learning – Now you focus on the employee’s capability to drive their own learning. You work on developing a culture that encourage and empowers learning from experiences, of collaboration with others and of knowledge from the outside world. Employees are much faster at learning and developing new capabilities

Integrated learning – Finally, build learning into work and the way you’re organized. Make learning at work natural by providing employees with data, feedback and support. Organize to increase learning between colleagues, teams and with the outside world. You are thus building an organization that is faster at responding to change and building new capabilities.

This is a job that takes many years. I have worked with companies that are now establishing continuous learning after working towards it for 10 years. Without having a plan and setting the ball rolling very much doesn’t happen though. I know of many organizations that are still struggling with the first step, where “training” today means the same thing as it did 20 years ago.

The next article describes in more detail what it means to develop continuous and integrated learning.

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