The goal is fit
In times of crisis and uncertainty, organizations tend to default to what they know best.
At the height of the pandemic, for example, more than one L&D leader asked me the best way to get all of their classroom training online. While we have accepted for years that learning happens all the time in all the places, one little global pandemic threw L&D back into classroom mindset.
In the process of climbing out of the pandemic, however, a lot of people practices got better. And that is particularly true of learning and development. Managers got better at giving feedback; L&D got better at offering existing resources; and tech made it easier to personalize learning for employees more broadly.
The list of options organizations recognizes for developing employees is long. We know because we classified them all last fall in our study: Next Gen Learning Methods: What to use, how to choose, and when to cut them loose. And while knowing the universe of tools available is helpful, it can also be overwhelming. As Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group said:
It's the idea of using methods in a more integrated fashion. It's choosing the right method for the right purpose.
Our most recent study is aimed directly at that problem. It isn’t enough to know what’s available. L&D leaders must also know how to choose learning methods that fit their organization. What do we mean by fit? We mean:
• How well does it fit the business need?
• How well does it fit the culture?
• How well does it fit the audience?
• How well does it fit the available resources?
Including data from an extensive survey, interviews, and roundtables, our latest study hopefully helps leaders to determine how well methods “fit” with their goals and constraints.
A note: Throughout this report, you’ll see references to learning culture or high learning culture index or a strong learning culture. This measure is an average of 6 questions we asked survey participants:
To what extent are these statements true in your organization?
1. Enables me to plan my career.
2. Enables me to find development opportunities.
3. Enables me to access content and opportunities to grow my skills.
4. Enables me to experiment with new knowledge and skills.
5. Enables me to connect with others for learning.
6. Enables me to perform better in my current role.
The average of these 6 questions gives us a good indication of how well organizations are building a learning culture. Our research explores how well those organizations with strong learning cultures compare to the rest of the population.
Fit the business need
Choose based on how well a learning method fits your business need
To put it succinctly, learning methods should fit a particular business challenge. Over the past few years, the role of L&D functions has been elevated, as senior leaders have asked them to lead reskilling, mobility, and in some cases DEIB initiatives. More L&D pros are also being asked to participate in workforce planning and talent mobility discussions. As a result, we have seen a shift in L&D’s mindset: from caring mostly about how the employee will engage (which is still important) to a more balanced approach that also carefully considers the business need.
We saw this different mindset in our interviews and at our roundtable. Gina Mouch, Senior Training Specialist at the University of Michigan, got right to the point when asked how her organization chooses learning methods:
It really depends on the business goal.
We also saw this mindset reflected in the cold, hard data. Figure 2 shows us that 80% of L&D pros in organizations with a high learning culture index consider the business challenge to a significant extent when determining which methods they should invest in. That is a whopping 34 percentage points more than their peers in other organizations.
Just as interestingly, while their peers in other organizations listed cost as the number 1 way to choose a learning method, organizations with a high learning culture index listed cost as 4th, after business challenge, implementation, and procurement.
While some organizations are already doing this, it bears repeating: start with the business reason for any employee development initiative. As Chris Casement, previously Managing Consultant for System-Wide Learning and Innovation at Sutter Health said:
The reason we implemented that mentoring program was tied to a business reason.
Measure how well a learning method fits by looking at business results—not smile sheets
While implementing methods that align with business goals is key, investing in methods that meet those goals is equally important.
When L&D pros were asked how L&D understands the methods that are most valuable to employees, again, those with high learning culture indexes relied more heavily on all the approaches we asked about more than their peers in other organizations.
Of note: the number 1 way L&D pros in high learning index organizations determine what is valuable is how well a method meets business needs. Usage data and evaluations follow closely.
L&D functions with strong learning cultures are measuring their learning methods against business results and keeping an eye on how valuable (or frequently used) those methods are to their employees.
Other organizations are still highly reliant on evaluations (their number 1 answer), followed by anecdotal feedback.
The sheer difference in reliance on these methods is jarring: 42 percentage points for business results and 26 percentage points for usage data.
This indicates that those organizations with strong learning cultures are listening more—not just with their ears, but with data—to understand what learning methods are important and valuable.
Real World Thread – Learning methods that meet a business need
L&D functions hold more ownership over big workforce development initiatives that allow them to respond to business challenges. At Healthcare Consultancy Group, Elizabeth Robinson, EVP of Talent Development, is an influential L&D leader who recognized the organizational need to upskill her workforce.
To do this, she and her team began using skills assessments. These assessments are intended to measure an employee’s skills around each of the organization’s core competencies. Based on the results, L&D then helps employees to craft intentional learning pathways to address any skill gaps.
For example, they currently have a research-based profiler that looks at eight different skills needed for innovation, one of the organization’s core competencies. Based on the results, L&D assists the employee by mapping out various learning and development activities. The goal is to build the employee’s innovation skills in a pathway that’s customized to them. Elizabeth was able to meet the business challenge by maintaining a sharp understanding of the organization’s current state and creating a solution using learning methods that aligned with its needs.
Fit the culture
Balance methods that support all learning behaviors
Culture is often defined as “the way we do things around here.” Implicit in that definition is “doing” things. Learning cultures, then, are defined by learning or development behaviors employees demonstrate.
Enter RedThread’s Employee Development Framework. This framework describes the behaviors organizations should encourage and enable for a strong learning culture. Figure 4 shows these 6 behaviors and the learning methods that align with them.
When choosing learning methods, organizations should understand what their options are, and which behaviors the methods are likely to encourage or enable.
The goal is not to invest in all methods, but to identify methods within each behavior that work within the confines of the organization.
As such, learning functions should understand
- The extent of the learning methods they are providing or enabling
- The alignment of those learning methods to the behaviors they’re trying to encourage
- The effect those learning methods are having in promoting that behavior
An easy way to think about it may be to visualize all the methods associated with all of the employee development behaviors as the entire universe. Organizations should be looking for the constellation that works best for their organization.
Strongly consider the methods that matter more to learning culture
Much to our surprise, our research revealed a number of learning methods impact learning culture more than the rest.
While learning methods are only a portion of how a learning culture is enabled, they do play a role. In fact, when we statistically analyzed the 49 methods, we collected data on to determine what (if any) effect they had on learning culture, a model emerged that identified 13 learning methods.
Together, these 13 learning methods explain 23% of learning culture. Figure 5 describes these methods and categorizes them by the learning culture behavior they support.
While that number may not seem huge, it is significant. Organizations can account for 23% of their culture by implementing and supporting these 13 methods.
Organizations should consider how they are utilizing and enabling these methods. Organizations can ask themselves:
- To what extent are these methods available to employees?
- How well does our organization enable these methods?
- What role can L&D play in ensuring their availability?
- How do these methods integrate with others offered?
- How well do these methods integrate with the organizational culture?
- How do these methods connect employees to each other?
Experiment to find methods that fit your culture
Choosing the right learning methods for a given organization is often about experimentation. There are no hard and fast rules on what will work best within a given culture, so L&D functions often find themselves using trial and error to determine which ones are best.
Interestingly, our data showed that organizations with high learning culture indexes are experimenting more than other organizations (Figure 6). That is, they aren’t putting all their eggs into a single metaphorical learning method basket.
Chris Casement, previous Managing Consultant for System Wide Learning and Innovation at Sutter Health, saw this to be true within his organization:
What the pandemic enabled us to do is jump ahead about 4 years on some pioneering experiments and push the envelope on how we engage people through different mediums.
In our conversations with leaders, we found that L&D functions approach the alignment of methods to culture a bit differently than other organizations. These high learning culture organizations tend to be more:
Flexible and agile
Organizations that experiment more tend to adopt flexible and agile mindsets and systems, allowing them to quickly adjust when it becomes apparent that changes need to be made to the methods they have chosen.
Learning leaders in organizations where experimentation is prevalent are more apt to use data for decision-making. More of them tend to run controlled experiments, use A/B testing, and examine usage data to determine if learning methods are working.
L&D functions that experiment tend to be more circumspect, meaning that they are less likely to fall in love with a solution and implement it with brute force. They tend to take a wider view of learning methods, determining if and how they fit and sunsetting them if they don’t.
It also turns out that organizations with high learning culture indexes also just use more methods than everyone else. On average, those in high learning cultures support 21 methods compared to everyone else, who support an average of just 10 methods (Figure 7).
Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group, expressed her support for this sentiment:
We're using most methods, but we want to make sure that we are pushing ourselves on how we use those methods, strategically and creatively.
While we’re certainly not preaching quantity over quality, we are finding that experimentation and using more methods go hand in hand. Organizations that consistently experiment spend their energy identifying the best methods for their broad employee base.
Don’t forget human connection
We’re at a point in history where human connection really matters. Before the pandemic, many learning strategies (and the tech that supported them) focused on self-service learning—the Netflix of learning, as some people called it—and the ability to both scale and personalize development opportunities with tech.
We’re seeing the pendulum swing, however. Spending 2 years alone in our home offices has taken its toll, and organizations are now actively seeking ways to bring humans together. This effort is particularly important as organizations navigate their way through hybrid and remote work.
The desire to connect is also manifesting in employee development, and came through loud and clear in our roundtable and interviews for this study.
A talent development leader working at a large manufacturing organization we spoke to recognizes the role L&D functions can play in connecting people:
Because so many are now faced with all these ripple effects of what's happening, one of our priorities is to create more opportunities for learning that connects people.
Given this desire for connection and the role L&D can play, leaders are carefully considering the methods they’re investing in and deliberately choosing those that bring people together.
We found that over half of the 49 methods we investigated involve at least 1 other human for learning to take place. (Peer or manager feedback, for example, requires personal connection, whereas something like internet does not.)
We think human connection is an important variable, both because many organizations desire to reconnect, and because human interaction introduces other challenges to consider: lift on the organization (which we’ll talk about in a minute), variability to the learning experience, and additional systems and processes. Elizabeth Robinson, VP of Talent Engagement and Development at Healthcare Consultancy Group puts it this way:
Yes, having more connection in terms of communities of practice and mentoring and coaching to further support development—it's a really important thing for us right now.
As organizations identify the methods to invest in they should consider the level of human touch for each, and its ultimate cost and benefit.
Use methods that fit people into other methods
One of the oldest new ideas in L&D is that of blended learning. For decades, L&D teams have been identifying ways to use several methods together to teach courses or concepts. This seems to have become even more important since the pandemic.
Figure 9 shows learning methods that have strong correlations: the darker the square on the chart, the more likely it is that the organization offers both types of learning methods (row and column).
Interestingly, the Connect behavior correlated more with other methods than any other behavior. It had both high and numerous correlations with learning methods within its Connect category as well as with other behaviors.
Leaders we spoke to backed this up. Christel Londt, Last Mile Capability Manager, said,
[We] started to move away from traditional e-learning because people just don't retain the knowledge. Now we combine e-learning with discussion forums and role-playing—we want people to build a community to share their learning and experiences with one another.
In our roundtable, leaders spoke of particular methods they are using to add a human element, including
- Remote classes with an attached lab or cohort aspect
- Coaching as part of leadership development
- Manager involvement in employee development initiatives
- Communities of practice with a mentoring aspect
This research backs what we’ve known for ages: people learn from people. But we’re seeing new iterations as some of these methods become both more measurable, digitally enabled, and integrated with the work itself. We’re excited to see what comes next.
Real World Thread – A mentoring program to ignite connection
Employees want to learn by connecting with those inside and outside their organization.
Chris Casement, who used to be a Managing Consultant responsible for system-wide learning and training at Sutter Health, saw the desire to learn via connections. In response, his team supported a variety of hybrid programs, including a new-grad mentorship program for incoming nurses at Sutter Health.
Being in the healthcare industry for many years, Chris knows about the impact of high turnover and burnout rates on nurses. Post pandemic, it's even more critical to support new nursing graduates as they transition into a new job and signal to nurses looking for a job that they won’t be alone here, they’ll be developed and supported.
By the end of this mentoring program's first year, the number of mentors increased from 3 to 25. Chris attributed much of the program's success to how it was built, delivered, and enabled by human connections.
Fit the audience
Consider overall preferences in your organization
While some methods can be tied specifically to a stronger learning culture, the appropriateness or fit for many of them depend on the target audience. To this end, L&D functions should consider their audience, its needs, and its preferences as they round out their offerings. Christel Londt, Last Mile Capability Manager said:
We analyze the needs of our target audience, understand their requirements, which helps us determine what will work best for them.
It should also be noted that the methods that fall under the Discover behavior aren’t actually used for learning per se, but rather for finding opportunities for learning. After much debate, we left them blended in with the other methods, as we feel that discovery of development opportunities is key to a strong learning culture.
A few high-level observations about the entire audience—all job levels, locations, business sizes, and industries—before we dive into different sub cuts:
- All but 1 of the top 25 methods tie to all of the behaviors of a strong learning culture. None of the methods in the Top 25 are tied to Experiment behavior. This isn’t surprising, but it is slightly disappointing.
- All the methods in the Discover behavior made this list, except for Automated Recommendations. Employees rely heavily on these methods to identify opportunities for learning.
- Most learning behaviors have an outlier method– one that is relied upon significantly more than the rest.
While this data and these observations can be useful to L&D functions, the data becomes even more interesting when we looked at different cuts.
Because learning cultures are nuanced, we compared reliance on learning methods across different groups. Our data showed some subtle and some not so subtle differences that are worth considering when choosing what to invest in. We explore these subsequently.
Use methods that fit the management level
Not too surprisingly, employees at different leadership levels rely on different learning methods (Figure 11). This was particularly true of the senior leaders who participated in our study.
Many L&D functions (and leadership development functions) intuitively take some of these differences into account. As employees move up the proverbial leadership ladder, some things change. For example,
- Senior leaders likely don’t have the same leadership support that others lower in the organization might (because they may be near the top).
- Senior leaders often have responsibility for strategy and sensing—both of which are often supported better with external resources (professional networks, videos, articles).
- Senior leaders leverage relationships and connection to get work done, and apparently to learn as well. They are more likely to leverage social and professional networks, peer feedback, and customer feedback.
Methods for individual contributors—and to a large extent, managers—tend to be the ones that help them perform in their roles (manager feedback, formal reviews, peer feedback). These employees also rely more on methods that are provided directly by the organization.
Choose methods that fit org size and maturity
This likely goes without saying: organizations should focus on methods appropriate for their size.[i] It might be unreasonable, for example, for a 20-person organization to create all kinds of custom e-learning.
Interestingly, though, the methods employees relied on didn’t differ much between large organizations and small organizations.
In fact, most statistically significant differences could be tied to the maturity of the people processes in the organization. In other words, employees appear to rely on whatever they have access to.
For example, in Figure 12, goal setting is relied on more within midsize and large organizations. This seems consistent with the fact that by the time an organization reaches midsize, goal-setting systems are usually in place. For small organizations, goal setting is not relied on as much because that method is not standardized yet.
This gives us a small hint not just about the methods employees would prefer and rely on, but also the methods that organizations are offering.
Figure 12 clearly shows that large and even midsize organizations are apt to have more systems and processes in place that aid in employee development.
This is interesting on 2 fronts. First, L&D functions in many midsize and large organizations fail to recognize the value of these systems for employee development and may be able to leverage them more. Second, small organizations default to courses for developing their employees (we even made this mistake in our tiny company).
In cases where a full-blown L&D function is not an option, organizations can leverage these other systems, likely already in place, to ensure that employees continue to develop.
Preach what you practice
When we compare how L&D pros learn to how others learn, we see some fairly large differences. We included this nugget just for L&D pros because it highlights a few important points.
First, L&D pros may not be practicing what they preach. Although as a function, they have historically focused on more traditional ways of developing employees, we don’t see any of those methods in their top 10 list. Instead, they are utilizing internet, articles, and professional networks to learn.
From our interviews, we know L&D pros have long been wanting to move away from courses and have started to move in that direction. The knowledge that they aren’t relying on courses much themselves could be a catalyst for change.
Second, we again see the evidence of human connection in this data: 63% of L&D pros significantly rely on professional networks for development, significantly higher than their peers in other functions (by 27 percentage points). They also rely on social networks and peer feedback more than their peers. The takeaway: If it’s important for them, they should be enabling it for others, as well.
Finally, L&D pros have an obvious bent toward learning: of the 49 methods we gathered data on, L&D pros utilize 46 of them at a greater rate than their peers. It’s hardly surprising that they would tend in this direction: it’s their vocation.
So? L&D pros could consider a bias toward learning a potential blind spot, acknowledging that learning may not come as easily or naturally to all employees. Utilizing methods that integrate development into the work itself (like enabling manager and peer feedback) can alleviate some of this bias.
Real World Thread – Choosing the right method for the organization’s size
Organizations should choose learning methods that align to their size and maturity. Larger-sized organizations usually have more institutionalized employee development processes and systems due to the maturity of their organization.
Gina Mouch, a Senior Training Specialist on the Michigan Dining team at the University of Michigan (UofM), understands this concept well. She is one of almost 40,000 employees working at UofM, a university that’s also been around since the 1800s. For employee development in particular, processes for learning and growing staff are not only part of the culture, but they are entrenched into the employee development system.
As a training specialist for over 3 years on the Dining team, Gina relies on standardized processes put in place for employee development. For example, skills assessments are used consistently in the hiring process for Dining staff. It is essential that Gina and her team understand right away where someone needs to upskill and where they are proficient. This helps to drive the development efforts and training content for her staff.
Even now, Gina and her team are looking for ways to further leverage this current process in place to personalize learning for incoming staff as well as start to understand how the focus on skills can add to the value proposition in the hiring process.
Fit your resources
Don't forget low or no cost methods
Like other functions, L&D departments likely undergo a budget approval process toward the end of the fiscal year.
During that process, methods are considered: which ones they will continue to support, which ones they can afford to invest in, and which ones they may have to sunset. Cold hard cash—the cash that shows up on the L&D balance sheet—is a big factor. As one talent leader at a large manufacturing organization said:
Our end goal is to have skill-based career planning, but for budget reasons we've had to postpone that. Now we're trying to use what we have—our LXP—to help people record their goals and skills.
Often, however, L&D functions fail to consider alternatives to expensive methods. Figure 15 classifies the 49 learning methods we have data on into low, medium, and high cost (cost being money out of pocket that shows up on the L&D function’s balance sheet). Each method also shows the percentage of respondents who identified that method as being relied upon significantly.
Interestingly, slightly more than half of the learning methods that employees rely on are low or no cost to the L&D function.
Cost-conscious L&D functions should look for ways to encourage and enable the use of these learning methods, which are less expensive but still meet employees’ needs.
For example, Goal Setting and Manager Feedback have high usage, 46% and 52% respectively, and incur low out-of-pocket costs to the L&D function (and in most cases, the organization as a whole).
L&D can partner with other functions across the organization, to provide guidance, reminders, feedback, and data to encourage employees to utilize these methods.
One other observation: Some of the most expensive learning methods are not the ones employees rely upon the most. Granted, this could be because fewer organizations offer them due to their cost, but it may also indicate investments that could be redeployed into more effective options.
L&D should also take time to understand how valuable these learning methods are to their employees before doubling down on them.
Take into account organizational lift
When considering potential learning methods, one of the factors that is often overlooked (or at least not quantified) is the amount of lift on the organization. We define organizational lift as the effort exerted by the organization (IT, PR, managers, leadership, etc.) to implement and support the employee development method.
Interestingly, L&D pros in organizations with a high learning culture index do pay attention to organizational lift. In fact, 61% of L&D pros in high-learning culture organizations significantly consider implementation when determining learning methods, compared to 40% of L&D pros in other organizations. There are 3 reasons it’s important to consider organizational lift.
Investigation may prompt a different method
Often, once L&D functions understand the organizational lift required by a given method, they reconsider the method altogether. Figure 14 classifies the 49 methods we examined into high, medium, and low lift. It also shows the percentage of respondents who rely on the method significantly.
Considering lift can help L&D functions find fit-to-org solutions that still meet employees’ needs.
Think through whom L&D needs to collaborate with to implement a method
Our roundtable and interviews told us that L&D leaders actively collaborate with their peers in other functions to identify the changes to culture, tech, leadership, and communication necessary for getting a learning method off the ground.
In situations where L&D doesn’t own the method outright, their focus should be on, first, accounting for it in a development method, and second, on helping the owner make it more effective and efficient—through processes, necessary aids or guides, skill development, or knowledge.
What shows up on the balance sheet rarely explains the total cost to the organization
Considering organizational lift helps L&D functions identify all costs associated with a given method. Those costs may appear as time, effort, and resources. For example, IDPs (individual development plans) are used broadly and require a fairly large organizational lift. Collecting data about or from IDPs may require extra effort on the part of L&D. Employees and managers will spend time putting them into place and tracking against them. In some cases, software needs to be implemented, maintained, and integrated.
Most organizations utilize IDPs, but they often don’t consider the full lift it requires to get them done. Organizations understand that they’re valuable and would probably do them anyway. But when L&D functions properly take into account the full scope of the lift, they can identify ways to simplify processes, provide tools, and increase communication to make sure they are more effective.
Real World Thread – Using cost-effective methods for development
L&D teams have always needed to be mindful of cost when choosing learning methods, and this was especially true during the pandemic when profits were uncertain.
For one large organization in New Zealand, the operational demand within the business exploded at the height of the pandemic. They needed additional resources but were under resource constraints. The learning and development team had to quickly and cost-effectively upskill a large part of the organization to support the new demand.
The team decided to create and distribute standard operating procedures, checklists, and job aids to those transitioning to operational roles. These learning methods enabled employees to learn while on the job and fulfilled low-cost criteria. Even the learning and development team had to shift to working as operational staff and saw first-hand the usefulness of the resources they had distributed.
Learning methods that allow workers to learn while doing their jobs have been adopted by other teams across the company as a cost-effective learning strategy.
More than anything, this research has given us empathy for the position of today’s L&D leaders. The decisions they’re facing, coupled with the expectations placed on them, are putting them under a load of pressure.
Choosing the right learning methods may be a small piece of their overall responsibilities, but it’s a balancing act: not all methods work in all situations, and not all methods stay valid in an organization or for a specific function long-term. And the post-pandemic work environment is likely to continue to shift for some time in the future, making learning needs even more fluid.
The good news is that there are choices—lots of them. This body of research has identified 66 methods that contribute to employee development, and provides data on 49 of those methods.
Another piece of good news is that with that data, L&D leaders can be more confident about their choices. No organization needs to consider all the methods. The L&D leader’s role is to consider the universe of methods and choose the constellation that fits best.
And, as a reminder, by fit we mean:
- How well does it fit the business need?
- How well does it fit the culture?
- How well does it fit the audience?
- How well does it fit the available resources?
We strongly encourage you to complement this study with our previous study on learning methods: Next Gen Learning Methods: What to Use, How to Choose, and When to Let Them Go. If you still have questions, please reach out. We love to learn from you.
Note: for Appendices, including study demographics, research methodology, and contributors please download the PDF report.
[i] Small organizations = less than 100 employees. Midsize organizations = 101-1,000 employees. Large organizations = 1,001 employees and above.
Dani is Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research. She has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human capital practices and technology. Her ideas can be found in publications such as Wall Street Journal, CLO Magazine, HR Magazine, and Employment Relations. Dani holds an MBA and an MS and BS in Mechanical Engineering from BYU.
Lauren is a research analyst at RedThread Research. She has experience in various HR roles where she’s contributed to onboarding, performance management, and employee engagement initiatives. She's passionate about using the intersection of data and storytelling to help make organizations better. She holds an MS in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Baker College and a BS in International Business from Northeastern University.