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Learning is critical, but is L&D critical?

In a couple of posts I have described how lack of skills is now the biggest challenge for many leaders. Together with the fact that employee learning preferences has changed in recent years this have created a boom of technological innovations for learning.

In this post, I will put the new technology in perspective and describe learning within an organization, not just through courses. Technology will affect the L&D function and its role as a “course provider”. Learning is becoming more and more critical… but the question is whether today’s L&D function is equally critical?

To answer the question, we need to ask the question: Which learning is critical? Formal learning in the shape of courses or all learning in the organization? The answer is perhaps obvious, we need to reflect on all the learning in the organization. A common model for describing the learning in total is the 70:20:10 model which states that 70% of learning comes from experiences , 20% from interaction with others and 10% from formal learning, such as courses.

More about 70:20:10

70:20:10 is not a new model, it has been around for more than 20 years. Nor is it an exact model in terms of percentages. Aberdeen, for example, published a report last month “The New 70:20:10” which, among other things, points to the increasing proportion of social (35%) learning. Technology, including the use of social platforms are behind the increasing share of social learning.

Regardless of the distribution between learning at work and social learning, the formal part is small. At the same time, formal learning, i.e. courses, is often L&D’s only offer to employees.

The graph below is from a company I’ve worked with (it looks the same in most organizations). The alternatives answer the question “How do you get the skills you need at work?” As you can see, formal methods are the ones employees use the least but the methods that L&D invest in and are organized for delivering.

Note that I didn’t include “Learning from experiences”, which is by far the largest source for learning new skills.

Lack of trust in L&D?

Maybe it’s only natural that it’s like this. Informal learning takes place on its own and the responsibility of L&D are courses. The problem is that the world is changing at an increasing rate and we are finding it increasingly difficult to build the necessary new skills in the organization. Traditional courses no longer meet the needs of the organization and employees.

A couple of reports from Bersin Deloitte (“The Real Challenge with Learner Engagement” and ” Meet the ModernLearner“) highlight the problem:

  • Only 24% of leaders see L&D as a critical partner.
  • 66% of the training staff say they are having trouble getting employees to attend the courses offered in the course catalogs.
  • Only 37% of the employees believe that L&D can meet their needs.

To this I can add my own studies that show that a minority (15-20%) of employees think that the courses offered by L&D are relevant to their needs. The gap between what L&D deliver and the needs of employees leads employees to invest more and more in learning outside the company. 62% of IT-employees have invested their own money in attending courses and gaining certificates. 70% of the participants at MOOCs are employees. Training initiatives are also more and more initiated in business without the support of L&D.

Is there a risk that L&D will be marginalized? Yes, unless we get faster at meeting the organization’s entire learning needs. We must also take responsibility for 70 and 20. We need to move from discreet interventions in the form of courses to encouraging continuous learning.

Continuous learning

We need to look at the employee’s full development of capabilities at work. One model I usually use is the below image that shows how learning happens from being a novice to an expert.

The Y-axis represents the employee’s capability, from needing support to applying skills, then applying in increasingly complex situations and finally being the one who develops new methods and new knowledge. The X-axis represents time. The blue area represent taking a course. First participants build new knowledge which is then quickly forgotten. According to Ebbinghaus participants forget 70% within 2 days. When we encounter a situation at work where this knowledge need to be applied, there is a great risk that most of what we have learned in the course will be forgotten. The green curve shows how we need to space learning in time, learn at work and get support from others to develop and maintain our skills. As we then carry out the new task, we make new experiences and knowledge that we share and that further develops our skills.

The image below show examples of methods that can be used. Some are formal, others are social or learning at work. I usually divide the methods into four groups: Learning from training, others, experiences and information/environment.

You probably recognize all these methods and also can add a few. The question is to what extent L&D invest in encouraging and leveraging all methods. Remember the graph above that showed how employees wanted to learn in contrast to the methods offered.

My point is that there needs to be a change in approach among those of us who are involved in learning, from “we are responsible for delivering courses” to “we are responsible for building the capabilities needed by the organization and individuals”. What does that mean in concrete terms? How can we take greater responsibility for learning at work and for social learning?


Having the knowledge of the forgetting curve and the little effect of single training events should cause us to create other training solutions than courses. The issue is not a subject to be taught, but to develop a capability. We need to expand training solutions to include learning at work, e.g. with work assignments, mentoring, action-based learning, and with support when the task is performed, e.g. video instructions, cheat sheets, etc.

Cut time in classrooms and develop support for the work itself instead.

As the Bersin report above showed, employees prefer to learn just-in-time and to search for knowledge. We should allocate more resources to encourage this. Instead of developing all the content internally, we need to curate relevant and valuable external content. For the employee, it is a big problem to find knowledge that solves their problems. In a study I conducted a few years ago, sellers used 7 hours a week to find the knowledge they needed at work.

A “Curator” knows their audience, their challenges and skill needs and how to find content that is relevant and valuable. This can be videos, recorded webinars, articles, guides, websites, short eLessons, etc. Learning portals or curating tools like Anders Pink, Degreed or Feedly are ways of making this content easily accessible.

Many tools today enables support and instructions embedded in work. Examples are screen recordings and overlay instructions (like WalkMe) . QR codes and mobile learning enable learning in working environments that are not screen-based. For example, a QR code can be used to start an instruction on the mobile, instructing how to use a machine. With Augmented Reality we can superimpose instructions on mobile phones, tablets or AR glasses.


Social learning

According to studies from Aberdeen and from Bersin, social learning is now the most common way to learn. 70:20:10 was established before the time of the internet and before social media. It was perhaps more obvious to learn at work, by doing things. One’s own experience was the most important thing. Today it is more obvious that we first consult our social network, searching for the best tips before we embark on tasks. Changes today are simply too fast for us to be competitive enough only relying on one’s own experiences.

We’ve become used to searching for advice on any forum or trough instructive videos on YouTube. Companies having internal video channels, user-driven learning quickly takes over. At Google, 55% of all learning content is produced by employees themselves. At Ericsson, employees have in a short time shared 1500 videos on the internal “EriPlay”.

cloud channel

This is a major shift from the view that L&D should develop all learning content. However, it takes a lot of time to establish the social platforms, create a structure and moderate the content so that it is easy to find. Employees need the knowledge on how to use the platforms and how to express their experiences effectively. Finally, we need to work a lot with culture to allow employees to spend time sharing knowledge and getting employees to see the value in sharing knowledge.


I have seen many organizations that are good at helping employees develop through experience. Often this is run by HR by developing leadership coaching skills. I have also seen many organizations that equate development with course. There is a role for L&D to clarify the importance of methods such as stretch assignments, job rotation, experimentation, feedback, reflection and methods for continuous improvement and learning. Training and support is needed for managers to apply these methods and coaching employee’s development.

We can drastically increase the proportion of “experiences” in courses, by reducing the time spent in the classroom, add simulations, work assignments, feedback and reflection.

My next post – what does it take to make this happen?

It may be easier said than done. As learning professionals, we are probably busy developing and delivering courses today. We don’t have time for anything else. In the next post I will describe how L&D can free time and resources to work with social learning and learning at work. I will describe new roles in training that are required and also how we need to review the ownership of learning. Employees themselves and business functions need to take greater responsibility. L&D need to change their mission into enabling learning through employe learnability, culture, technology and designing work for learning.

Author: Johan Skoglöf
Johan är visionär och senior konsult med missionen att hjälpa företag att skapa framtidens lärande organisation. Med över 25 år i branschen och kunder som Ericsson, Volvo, Scania, SEB, Handelsbanken, HM och ICA har Johan en bred erfarenhet i hur lärande organisationer skapas.

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