26 January 2021

Facing Learning Tech Challenges in 2021: Content & Curation

Dani Johnson
Co-Founder & Principal Analyst
Heather Gilmartin Adams
Research Lead


This readout presents the highlights associated with our first roundtable of 2021, on the topic of content and curation. It includes an explorable mindmap and key points from the discussion, including:


  • L&D can learn a lot from museum curation, including how to create “invisible structures” that guide learners through content
  • A general rule of thumb may be to curate content to fill immediate or in-the-moment needs; create content to fill key skills gaps or meet strategic needs
  • L&D should make learning available at the time of need, easily consumable, and relevant to the work at hand
  • Learning automation allows L&D leaders and practitioners to focus on higher-value work
  • To make tech-enabled content delivery work well, L&D needs strong relationships with IT

Insights for Learning Tech Challenges

We recently gathered leaders together for our first roundtable of 2021, focused on content creation vs curation, learning in the workflow, automating learning, and tech-enabled content delivery. Some of the questions we covered include:

  • Content creation vs curation: How are orgs curating content? What are new ways in which orgs are developing or creating content?
  • Learning in the workflow: Rather than being the “Netflix of learning,” how can tech support learning in the workflow?
  • Automating learning: How are orgs helping their employees find the right information at the right time using tech?
  • Tech-enabled content delivery: What are the biggest challenges to tech-enabled content delivery? How can orgs overcome these challenges?

The mindmap below outlines the conversation that transpired during the roundtable.

Mindmap of facing learning tech challenges: 2021 roundtable

Note: This is a live document. Click the window and use your cursor to explore.

Key Takeaways

This conversation uncovered helpful insights into learning content, curation, and how tech can support learning in the flow of work. In general, leaders discussed the main challenges they face with content, curation, and automation—and also shared their solutions to some of these challenges. Here are our 5 key takeaways:

  1. L&D can learn from museum curation
  2. Curate content to fill immediate or in-the-moment needs
  3. Learning in the flow: Make learning relevant and digestible
  4. Automation is no silver bullet for learning
  5. Tech can enable content delivery

The following sections offer an overview of the key points for each takeaway.

L&D can learn from museum curation

Early in our roundtable conversation, leaders brought up museum curation as a way of understanding learning content curation. There are a number of similarities between the two—not least that both museum curators and L&D professionals need to consider their audience. Museums develop exhibits that target their language use and content selection towards their patrons, just as L&D professionals curate with their users in mind, to provide the most valuable content.

Leaders shared how equally important it is to use the available learning space wisely. While it is easy to fall into the expansive nature of a virtual learning “space,” acting as museum curators places an appropriate emphasis on offering concise information. Limits here allow for learning to become focused, not overwhelming.

The parallels continued as both types of curation require an organized backend, to help find the right content, and a clear frontend, to best communicate with users and viewers alike. However, they diverge on the point of personalization. Museums provide an experience that leads all guests through a cultivated, “invisible natural structure.” There is some room for individual exploration and personalization of the content, but not much. By contrast, leading content curation practices tend to focus on tailoring content to the individual. The question and essential goal for L&D leaders thus becomes: how does one create a “museum” for each individual?

Curate content to fill immediate or in-the-moment needs

A dilemma leaders face is when to curate vs when to create learning content. Leaders detailed 3 circumstances for which it's relevant to curate content:

  • When an individual doesn't have what they need at a moment in time
  • When an individual doesn’t have the time to find such information
  • When a search returns too many available options, requiring the user's energy and time to organize and identify relevant content for themselves

In these 3 cases, curating content best serves the user. However, when there's a critical business skill not supported by existing content libraries—either identified as a skills gap through data analysis or one an individual seeks to develop proactively—then that's the time to create content.

Leaders also shared other approaches, such as enabling user-generated content, to aid efforts in content creation; they tend to rely on external vendors to curate content for their learning platforms.

Learning in the flow: Make learning relevant & digestible

Increasingly, orgs are discovering that many employees learn best “in the flow of work,” not through separate trainings that require them to step outside their normal jobs. Discussions around finding what people need starkly contrasted with the “Netflix of learning” approach that helps individuals find what people want.

One leader described the difference as watching a video about how to fix a sink late at night, in bed, and when no sinks are broken—as compared to watching the same video with water flowing up to your knees. This analogy exemplifies the importance of serving up relevant content that meets an immediate need.

Another way to think about learning in the flow of work is in creating digestible content, available in bite-size increments. One leader shared that finding content she could consume for a few minutes throughout the day or during her lunch break would be ideal. Another suggested that learning in the flow could involve creating multiple paths and mastery levels for individuals to learn sequentially.

Ultimately, leaders agreed that learning content should be available at the time of need, consumable, and relevant to the work at hand.

Automation's no silver bullet for learning

The question of “when to automate” was a frequent one in this discussion. The group discussed a quote by Donald Taylor, chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute—who happened to be a participant in this roundtable. He once shared this insight:

“If you can fully explain your job, it can be automated.”

Automation allows leaders to focus on higher value work, rather than getting caught up in automatable tasks.

Leaders also discussed automation as a highly skilled manual process that a human expert must design and drive. This idea dispels the notion that automation requires little human involvement.

Leaders noted that, although LMSs and LXPs are often viewed as the “magic bullets” for automation, in general, employees would rather speak to a person in a time of need. This discussion continued around chatbots, as some expressed a preference for speaking with a colleague whose expertise was relevant to the task, in lieu of consulting a bot.

However, one leader reflected on the role of tech as an enabler of human connection, stating that …

“… Rather than pretending that technology can replace the people, recognize the people are there and bring them out into the light of day.”

In this light, the conversation turned to how tech can connect individuals with the right people in the org, mapping out the experts so they can be contacted instead of using tech to replace them.

Tech can enable content delivery

When discussing tech’s role in enabling content delivery, one leader stressed the importance of developing a strong relationship with IT—a recommendation echoed by other participants who had also witnessed good partnerships between L&D and IT resulting in better implementations of content delivery. As one attendee stated,

“There’s no AI without IA (Information Architecture).”

Since L&D professionals aren't necessarily equipped in the realm of technology, working well with IT is increasingly critical as more content becomes tech-delivered or tech-reliant.

Some leaders also discussed using multiple technologies and platforms to deliver content, while others focused on 1 content delivery platform. Implementation and maintenance of these platforms appeared to be equally important. One leader expressed concern that, at this point, tech is focused on “surface learning” as opposed to “deep learning”—enabling tactical learning at a point of immediate need rather than developing deeper skills in, for example, leadership or strategic thinking.

Leaders drew a parallel between surface vs deep learning and perishable vs durable skills—a distinction introduced in an article by Matthew Daniel. Leaders in this roundtable found his ideas illuminating and shared the article during the event.1They concluded that future tech may be able to facilitate and measure this deep learning and its impact on skills and behaviors.

We're extremely grateful to the attendees who enriched the conversation by sharing their thoughtful ideas and experiences. As always, we welcome any feedback or suggestions from you at [email protected]

Dani Johnson

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.

Heather Gilmartin Adams

Heather is a senior consultant at RedThread Research. Trained in conflict resolution and organizational development, Heather has spent the past ten years in various capacities at organizational culture and mindset change consultancies as well as the U.S. Department of the Treasury. She holds a masters degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a bachelors degree in history from Princeton University. She has lived in Germany, China, Japan, and India and was, for one summer, a wrangler on a dude ranch in Colorado.

Sana Lall-Trail


  1. Daniel, Matthew J. “Skills Aren’t Soft or Hard – They’re Durable or Perishable.” Chief Learning Officer – CLO Media, 9 Nov. 2020, www.chieflearningofficer.com/2020/10/29/skills-arent-soft-or-hard-theyre-durable-or-perishable/.


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