27 April 2021

Trends in Learning Content & Content Management

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Senior Analyst

TL;DR

  • This readout presents the highlights from our roundtable on trends in learning content and content management, including an explorable mindmap and key points from the discussion
  • L&D leaders should use business objectives as a guiding light to inform decisions about content, by asking: What are we trying to do? What behaviors are we trying to change?
  • Forward-thinking orgs are focusing not just on business goals but on employees’ needs: Many are democratizing learning to enable people to access the content and opportunities they know they need
  • L&D leaders must guard against letting tech dictate content decisions

Insights on learning content & content management

As part of our ongoing research on learning content, we recently gathered leaders for a research roundtable focused on the latest trends in learning content and content management. The key question in this research is:

How are orgs enabling employees to have the right learning experiences—including accessing the right content, at the right time, in the right format for their needs?

Some of the specific questions we discussed were:

  • What makes a great learning content strategy?
  • How are orgs deciding what content to prioritize?
  • What’s most important to consider about content when choosing and implementing learning tech?
  • What metrics should orgs use to evaluate their learning content?

As we'll see below, the key to these questions lies not in the detailed answers but in the overall mindset and approach that forward-thinking L&D orgs are taking toward learning: a mindset of enabling, not providing, learning.

Mindmap of Learning Content Roundtable

The mindmap below outlines the conversations that transpired as part of this roundtable.

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

Key Takeaways

We had an engaging, energizing conversation—both verbally and in Zoom chat!—that helped us better understand learning content trends, strategy, delivery, and evaluation. Here are the 5 key takeaways:

  • L&D continues to move from providing content to enabling development
  • Can learning content drive business outcomes and meet employee needs?
  • “Pull” strategies can enable employees to access the content they need
  • Orgs are using skills to guide content priorities
  • Business outcomes should drive decisions about tech and delivery, but it’s often the other way around

L&D continues to move from providing content to enabling development

Looking back on the conversation, an underlying theme was the mindset shift from L&D providing learning to enabling it. This shift is one we’ve written and talked about extensively—and it came up again in this conversation about learning content.

An underlying theme was the mindset shift from L&D providing learning to enabling it.

Given the amount of content out there, the move toward personalization of development experiences, and the sheer variety of people in most orgs, it’s unlikely that L&D knows exactly what development opportunities each individual employee needs.

In this roundtable discussion on learning content, leaders recognized it’s almost impossible for L&D to push the right content to the right people at the right time, in the right format. Instead, they need to enable employees to access the right content at the right time and modality for them. Much of the discussion focused on the different ways leaders and their orgs are thinking about this shift.

Leaders recognized that in order for employees to access the right content at the right time and modality for them, L&D must enable, not provide, learning.

Can learning content drive business outcomes and meet employee needs?

When we asked, “What makes great learning content strategy,” leaders were very clear: Any learning content strategy worth its salt must help solve business challenges. It must drive the development of the capabilities and skills that’ll get the org where it needs to go.

Learning content strategy must drive the development of the capabilities and skills that’ll get the org where it needs to go.

As one leader noted:

“I regularly ask questions about the challenges we’re facing and the outcomes we’re trying to reach. Then I use coaching questions to help leaders and individuals identify their needs. Content is then 1 option or possible way to get to the outcomes.”

And content success must be measured by the things that matter to the business—key performance indicators (KPIs), objectives and key results (OKRs), or other indicators that business leaders care about. One leader in this roundtable highlighted that tracking learning content against business outcomes can be scary—because L&D can’t fully control the results.

That’s why many learning leaders are starting to look for correlations over time between learning content and business metrics, rather than direct causal relationships.

Learning leaders look for correlations over time between learning content and business metrics, rather than direct causal relationships.

Leaders noted that a great learning content strategy not only supports business outcomes, but also—equally—employee development needs. L&D can’t simply push content on topics that L&D or senior leaders have deemed critical—the content must be relevant and helpful to individual employees.

There was, therefore, a perceived tension between supporting business outcomes and employee needs. How can L&D enable employees to access content that drives business outcomes and that’s relevant to individual employees? One way leaders deal with this perceived tension is by helping employees pull the content they need. We explore this idea next.

Pull strategies can enable employees to access the content they need

Leaders largely agreed that one effective way to enable (rather than provide) employee development is to move from a push strategy for learning content to a pull one. Orgs are making content more widely available to more employees so that they can access whatever they need, when they need it.

Orgs are making content more widely available to more employees so they can access whatever they need, when they need it.

Many leaders said their orgs are broadening access to content by purchasing licenses to online content libraries for all (or many) employees. Others are experimenting with (or thinking about) giving individual employees learning budgets that they can draw on to access any content or other development opportunity, regardless of where it is.

However, moving to a model in which L&D enables learning means the org must provide the cultural supports—time, information, infrastructure—to employees so they can pull the learning and development they need. As one leader put it:

“Even if you give people a budget for learning, you have to give them time to invest in their development as well. It is a cultural issue.”

Leaders also linked the shift to a pull strategy to the democratization of learning—making learning and development opportunities available to more and more employees, not just a select few.

Orgs are using skills to guide content priorities

A number of leaders reported that their orgs are starting to use skills to inform employee development decisions at both the organizational and individual levels.

Skills support org-wide L&D planning

Leaders increasingly see skills as a way to inform L&D decisions. They want to know:

  • What are the skills the business needs—at the org, team, or department, and individual levels?
  • What skills does our workforce currently have?

The answers to these questions can help drive targeted decisions about where to dedicate development resources.

Indeed, many leaders noted that without information about skills, L&D efforts can often be off-target. As one leader put it:

“Without insight into what skills are in demand and what skills people have, L&D tends to push out what we think people need. That’s rarely an effective approach.”

Skills help democratize learning

As orgs make more development opportunities—including content—available to more employees, we previously mentioned that they must provide the support employees need to find and take advantage of those opportunities.

A key element of this support is information about skills:

  • The skills individuals have
  • The skills they need
  • The skills the org needs
  • Skills trends in the market (outside the org)

This information enables employees to make more informed decisions about their own development—thus, setting themselves up to be in-demand in the future. As one leader put it:

“We want to know what are the most in-demand skills by role in the market, then provide that information to employees on what skills are increasing in value and what skills are decreasing in value.”

Business outcomes should drive decisions about tech & delivery—but it’s often the other way around

Leaders agreed that, ideally, learning content development starts with business outcomes and goals, which then inform decisions about content, which inform decisions about tech and modalities. They emphasized that having learning tech doesn’t mean you have a well-targeted learning content strategy.

However, leaders noted this ideal flow is often hampered—even sidelined—for these 4 reasons:

  1. Buzz. People—in L&D and the business—become focused on buzzwords and the next big tech when, in fact, that tech may not be the best solution for the business challenge at hand
  2. Vendor marketing. State-of-the-art demos help obtain buy-in and funding for new tech, making it easier and more urgent to focus on tech than on outcomes
  3. Lack of strategic advice. The literature covering new tech rarely addresses the questions:
    • When is this tech useful?
    • When should orgs use it?
    • And when not?
  4. Real limitations on modalities. One leader (who works in healthcare) shared that most development opportunities happen during team huddles, during which learning must be delivered only on paper or—perhaps—on a smart phone. Such limitations can shape decisions about delivery through sheer necessity.

Leaders also discussed a related problem: The fact that people often conflate learning content—the information or knowledge itself—with the delivery modality. Some leaders posited that disconnecting the two may help L&D enable development experiences that are more helpful to employees and drive business outcomes. Others, however, see content and delivery modality as intricately and necessarily linked. We plan to explore this conflation question in upcoming interviews.

A Special Thanks

This session helped us more clearly understand what’s really important in learning content—particularly the need for L&D to focus on changing the behaviors that matter to the business and to employees.

Thank you again to those of you who attended and enriched our discussion. And, as always, we welcome your suggestions and feedback at [email protected].

Written by

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.

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