02 April 2018

L&D Trends for 2019: The Agile Workforce

Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst


This article outlines major themes associated with learning for the 2018 calendar year. These ideas later sparked the Responsive Organization research.

Simply put, L&D’s sole reason for existing is to ensure a skilled workforce. Hard stop.

In a world where businesses change so rapidly, employees move around frequently, and roles are constantly being adjusted, the job is now harder; but not impossible. New mindsets, technologies, and ways of working are creating opportunities for innovation in the employee development space.

Our learning and career research for the next six months will focus on creating an agile workforce. And as we set out to determine what exactly we should study, five fairly significant trends emerged.

  • The rise of reputation
  • Using tech to do completely different things
  • A more integrated breed of L&D function
  • Data as a development enabler
  • Learning organisms

Trend #1: The rise of reputation.

To this point in history, organizations generally determine who needs what training, or who gets what role based on a very one-dimensional view of the employee – generally what can be found on a resume or in an employee profile: level, education, role, tenure, or leadership responsibility. Learning and performance initiatives, not to mention readiness discussions about subsequent roles, are often triggered by one or more of these variables.

However, this is no longer adequate for two reasons. First, organizations are developing more open career models and encouraging movement outside of traditional career paths. Second, employees find development opportunities on their own – both inside and outside of the organization. As a result, most companies lack a good understanding of current skills and knowledge of employees, let alone the direction they’d like to take in their careers.

Organizations are beginning to augment information found on resumes or in employee profiles with other information that indicates the reputation employees have developed. For example, organizational network analysis, or ONA, provides information about an employee’s reach within the organization, which can indicate a person’s influence, the resources they have at their disposal, and what parts of the organization hold their interest. Several vendors, including DegreedPathgather, and Edcast, among others, build transparency about networks into their systems.

Other reputation markers or indicators, shared through other systems like LinkedInGithubYelp, or, if you’re in academia, RateMyProfessor, provide external data about how employees are perceived among their peers, or how they may need to develop to be more successful.

Trend #2: Using tech to do completely different things.

Most organizations use learning technology to automate things that they are already doing. A classic example of this is moving a course online rather than teaching it in the classroom. It’s both cheaper and more accessible, but chances are, there are few differences otherwise.

But we think there is more. In the past three months or so, we have seen organizations and tech vendors break out of traditional learning molds and begin to do completely different things through new technologies or combinations of technologies. While AI, VR, wearables, and the like, were considered too futuristic even a year ago, we are finding applications that help organizations personalize development experiences and build skills that they haven’t in the past.

Additionally, organizations are beginning to leverage technologies originally intended for other purposes for employee development. Slack and other messaging tools, business tools, like O365, (have you seen the resume helper that pops up when it thinks you’re drafting a resume?) are able to integrate opportunities for growth at the point of need. In fact, some of the biggest threats to the learning technology space will most likely come from the outside.

In the next few months, we’ll be talking about these technologies and their applications. Our goal is to help leaders categorize, understand, and make better decisions about the technology they use for development.

Trend #3: A more integrated breed of L&D function.

In the past, L&D functions have tended to be fairly siloed and often internally focused. Many have used vocabulary, metrics, and infrastructures that make sense only to them. This has made progress difficult for the L&D function, but has also hobbled the larger organization. Its tendency to remain separate has slowed down its ability to react to changes in the strategy and align to other business functions.

Lately, however, a new breed of L&D function has (finally) begun to emerge. Often led by leaders without an L&D pedigree, functions focus on alignment to the business strategy and external customer needs.

One way they do this is by integrating more tightly with other people practices. This integration enables systemic solutions – particularly those that result in a culture that supports the strategy. For example, if an organization competes on customer service, how employees are rewarded, trained, recruited, and led, should all be aligned to delivering great customer service.

These L&D functions are also aligning more closely to the rest of the business by viewing learning as something that happens inside the context of the work itself. Using the work for development simplifies the learning process (because context is built right in) and allows the organization to develop individuals at the same time it is improving the work, which leads to a more agile workforce.

Trend #4: Data as a development enabler.

While we’re at the beginning of this movement, we are seeing organizations start to use data to personalize development. Latent data collected from existing work tools – such as email, cloud storage, and calendars provides rich and useful information.

External vendor partners, such as Cultivate AI and Keen Corp are leveraging natural language processing (NLP) to turn latent data into data that can be analyzed. Analysis can determine politeness, engagement between individuals, and even bias. This information allows the system to provide in-the-moment feedback that helps them correct work at the same time employees are being made aware of language choices or biases that may hold them back.

This type of data can be a game changer for L&D. It moves them beyond smile sheets and completion data and helps them create systems that deliver business results, not just fulfill learning objectives. We’ll most likely be talking about this quite a bit in the following months.

Trend #5: The learning organism.

In more evolved organizations, learning has pretty much taken on a life of its own; they have in essence become organisms. that learn, grow, and develop based on their habitat and the ability to make use of it. The more in sync these organisms are with their habitat, the more quickly they are able to react to change, take calculated risks, and evolve as necessary.

We’ve noticed that more evolved organizations view the habitat in at least four buckets: the company’s attitude toward learning in all of its forms, the ability to use work and tasks as the main conduit for development, the infrastructure and technology in place, and the actual, physical and virtual environments. Evolved organizations emphasize alignment of these four areas and make them into a cohesive environment that encourages the organism to find what it needs, when it needs it.

In the coming months, we’ll be exploring this idea further, providing case studies, insights, and best practices for building the right habitat for development.

Do these ideas resonate? Did we miss something big?

Written by

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.

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