28 September 2021

Next-Gen Learning Methods: Literature Insights

Heather Gilmartin Adams
Senior Analyst
Dani Johnson
Co-founder & Principal Analyst

TL;DR

  • As part of a new study on next-gen learning methods, we reviewed over 60 articles, books, podcasts, and webinars
  • We identified 5 key themes, 3 hidden gems, and 5 interesting articles that we encourage readers to explore
  • Next-gen learning embraces the value of experimentation and failure (for both employees and the L&D function)
  • Old learning methods are experiencing newfound appreciation
  • Next-gen learning methods support career planning

L&D is at a true inflection point

Learning and development (L&D) functions are finally starting to do what they’ve been talking about for so long: They’re starting to think about learning differently. For example, we’re seeing orgs move away from the ideas that learning = courses and that L&D should control all learning.1

To capture and share the best of these changes, we recently started a new research study on learning methods—part of a larger inquiry into the next generation of learning in orgs.

This new study asks: How can L&D functions choose development opportunities that help create the conditions for employees to continually grow their knowledge and skills? What are the most effective learning methods?

Before diving into roundtables and interviews to answer these questions, we first looked at what other writers and thinkers are saying. We reviewed over 60 resources (academic and business articles, reports, podcasts, webinars, and books), looking for common themes, best practices, and great examples.

When we started this project, we weren’t just looking at next-gen learning methods—we were also looking at the steps L&D was taking to infuse these methods in their orgs. This lit review addresses both aspects: the methods themselves and what L&D is doing to make the methods most effective.

What we saw

From this lit review, 5 major themes popped out—all reflecting an expanded understanding of how employee development happens in orgs (learning methods) and how L&D functions can enable that development. Here’s what we found:

  1. Courses don’t build learning cultures—people and processes do
  2. L&D functions are experimenting with different learning methods to see what works
  3. Next-gen learning embraces the value of failure
  4. Next-gen learning methods support career planning
  5. Old learning methods are experiencing newfound appreciation

Courses don’t build learning cultures—people and processes do

Many of the articles we reviewed addressed the importance of creating learning cultures. These articles emphasized how learning cultures help orgs develop resilience and agility to compete in ever-changing business environments.

Interestingly, most of these articles highlighted “nontraditional” learning methods—methods that build learning into how work happens in the org. One article stated this directly:

To nurture curiosity and learning in your employees, there’s no need to rely on your organization’s formal learning and development programs.2

Some methods these articles suggested to instill a culture of learning included:

  • 1 to 1s. Managers talking about learning goals with employees in 1 to 1s
  • Performance conversations. Building learning into performance conversations
  • Feedback. Giving constructive, continuous, and critical feedback to employees

These nontraditional methods have much more to do with connecting people and building learning into existing processes than with putting people through training courses.

L&D functions are experimenting with different learning methods to see what works

The pandemic and hybrid work accelerated the (already fast) pace of change in many orgs. To help their orgs compete, many L&D functions are finding ways to be more agile themselves (e.g., developing minimum viable products, testing new ideas quickly, making iterative changes over time).3

This agility includes frequently experimenting with and updating the learning methods and development opportunities L&D functions choose to invest in.

As one article described, when the pandemic halted most face-to-face training, top-performing companies tested a variety of other learning methods—including YouTube video clips, discussions on collaboration platforms, like Slack and Teams, and internal “gig” marketplaces—to see what could best meet employees’ and the org’s needs. The authors noted:

This is a major shift from traditional L&D frameworks, which were often quite rigid. Yet the L&D teams that responded effectively recognized the importance of reevaluating decisions and priorities as new data became available.4

Other articles discussed how L&D functions are increasingly using skills (rather than roles) to strengthen agility in their learning programs.5

Next-gen learning embraces the value of failure

Experimentation and failure get at the heart of true learning in the flow of work: They mean trying new things (not in a course or simulation but as part of our core work), examining the results, and adjusting accordingly.

Much of the literature noted that to build a culture of experimentation, orgs must help employees truly believe that failure is a good thing: It’s data to be learned from. As one author wrote, orgs that are good at experimentation adopt the mindset that:

Being wrong or running a test that doesn’t lead to meaningful product improvements is the only way you’re learning and moving closer to the right answers.6

Indeed, another article found that in academic settings, students who “productively” failed (i.e., they tried to solve problems before the key concepts were explained to them) had learning outcomes up to 3x higher than what a very good teacher could help them achieve.7

More concretely, a number of articles recommended establishing repeatable processes to facilitate experimentation. Helping employees understand how to develop testable hypotheses, collect data, and analyze results in a consistent manner were highlighted as key elements of building an effective culture of experimentation.

Next-gen learning methods support career planning

Traditionally, L&D functions could get away with providing learning that aligned incompletely (or not at all) with employees’ career goals. Often chalked up to a lack of resources, L&D functions offered the same courses and development opportunities to all employees (a “peanut butter approach” where learning was spread across the whole org evenly).

But those one-size-fits-all approaches are falling by the wayside and we are seeing an entirely new category of learning methods focused on career planning—or, at least, the use of existing career tools (such as individual development plans) to support learning.

The literature emphasizes:

  • Learning as a benefit: L&D’s critical role in attracting and retaining talent8
  • Aligning individual development plans with business objectives as well as employee learning goals9
  • A mindset of mobility: L&D will help develop employees who may later leave the org, and that’s okay10

Whereas career planning used to sit with talent management and performance management functions, we’re seeing more and more about career planning in the L&D literature because learning is such a critical piece of getting employees and orgs from where they are to where they want to go.

Old learning methods are experiencing a newfound appreciation

Much of the literature addresses learning methods that L&D functions have used for many years, including virtual learning (learning online) and collaborative learning (learning from each other).

Interestingly, these methods seem to have gained new life. COVID has forced orgs to make a shift away from a belief that “good employee development = in-person, instructor-led experiences.” By necessity, learning virtually (either with a cohort or individually) has become the de facto way to learn throughout the pandemic.

And many articles emphasize—with an undertone of surprise—that learning virtually can work pretty well. In fact, McKinsey reported in Nov 2020 that:

“A well-designed virtual program can meet or exceed the efficacy of in-person offerings."11

COVID has also accelerated the adoption of what has traditionally been called “social learning,” as social features (e.g., liking, commenting, reacting—similar to what you might see on social media) have been added to more traditional learning methods. LinkedIn Learning reported that since the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve seen huge increases in the utilization of social features.12

Hidden gems

The literature contains a number of mini case studies—examples of real orgs putting some of these ideas into practice—that we thought were worth highlighting. Here are the top 3 “hidden gems” we found.

Virtual learning during COVID

When COVID hit, a South American multinational logistics company chose not to delay the full-scale business transformation they were set to execute. Rather, they switched from the in-person training they had planned to virtual learning via videoconference. They used these 3 guiding principles to design and deliver virtual workshops:

  1. Opt for interactivity over content. Rather than “death by PowerPoint,” sessions were focused on small-group discussion and engagement.
  2. Lean into the technology. The company had never used videoconferencing before, so they highlighted the workshops as an opportunity for colleagues to meet “face to face” when previously they’d only ever spoken on the phone.
  3. Make leadership visible. The virtual format made it possible for the CEO and other senior leaders to participate in the program, when travel and logistics would normally have prevented their in-person participation.13

#TagAGuru

We loved this simple example of how to create an expertise marketplace to help employees connect with colleagues they can learn from. Learning leader Anjan Acharya and his team implemented the #TagAGuru campaign:

The ask was simple: to share a piece of knowledge and tag three colleagues they knew who were experts or “gurus” in certain areas … Those who were tagged had to do the same, continuing the movement.

Acharya promoted the movement offline in team meetings and town halls, ultimately reaching a target audience of about 1,000 employees. The initiative was hugely successful, engaging employees and surfacing best practices over the course of about 6 months.14

Strategic use of in-person training

Deloitte and KPMG both run brick-and-mortar corporate universities that largely shut down during the pandemic. Now, as in-person learning has become an option again, both orgs are thinking carefully about what learning to keep online and what to bring back in person. They are creating holistic learning experiences by using multiple learning methods, including not only instructor-led training but also readings, coaching sessions, and guided practice.

And they’re using data to inform their L&D experiments:

Collecting the right data helped [Deloitte] discover that while many topics could be taught effectively virtually, others didn’t have the same impact without an in-person connection.

More specifically, Deloitte discovered that technical content did well online, while interpersonal skills were better taught in person.15

Articles that caught our attention

Of the literature we reviewed, several pieces stood out to us. Each of the pieces below contained information that we found useful and / or intriguing. We learned from their perspectives and encourage you to do the same. Titles are hyperlinked for easy access.

Team Learning: Why it Matters and How to Achieve It”

Marla Capozzi & Amy Edmondson

If your team cannot learn, your organization cannot learn.

This webinar suggests that team learning is ideal and achievable—and in fact, not having a team learning culture is detrimental.

Highlights:

  • Creating iterative cycles of action and reflection is essential to build learning teams
  • Orgs must have psychological safety for employees to leverage each other’s expertise
  • Leaders should focus on “moments that matter”—instances where they want to show up differently for their teams
  • Execution as a performance task (deadline driven) is not the same as execution as a learning task (feedback driven)

Building a Learning Culture that Drives Business Forward

Matthew Smith & Elizabeth Young McNally

Organizations that are successful at [promoting learning] start with storytelling and role modeling by senior leaders that learning and [a] long-term perspective are important.

This article emphasizes that learning how to learn is a skill: People can learn how to learn better. Companies should proactively and explicitly model and invest in learning to remain resilient and successful.

Highlights:

  • Orgs can assess their learning fitness by asking questions like:
    • How are we talking about learning?
    • How are we demonstrating we favor learning?
    • Are we spending money on learning?
    • Are we explicitly setting aside time for learning?
    • Are we creating psychological safety to facilitate employee learning?
  • Leaders should explicitly connect L&D spend to the business strategy and learning to performance management
  • Orgs should hire and train for adaptability—“adaptability is malleable”
  • Orgs should assess skills gaps by starting with those most critical to business value

Workplace Learning Report 2021: Skill Building in the New World of Work

LinkedIn Learning

Two-thirds (66%) of L&D pros globally now agree that they are focused on rebuilding and reshaping their organizations.

LinkedIn Learning’s annual workplace report is chock-full of insights and data about learning, skills, and their connection to employee engagement.

Highlights:

  • Gen Z is learning more than ever and focused on career growth
  • A majority of L&D pros agree that internal mobility is more of a priority now than before COVID-19
  • L&D can employ certain tactics to drive engagement in hybrid work—create relevant learning paths, get close to learners’ needs, and help learners find their purpose
  • L&D budgets are nearly back to pre-pandemic levels and 1/3 of L&D pros expect their budgets to increase

“The Practices that Set Learning Organizations Apart”

David G. Collings & John McMackin

The disruptions caused by the pandemic have shown companies how rapidly the priorities and requirements of L&D functions can change. This volatility challenges L&D teams to be responsive and agile.

This detailed article lists 7 principles that L&D functions can implement to be most effective in helping their orgs succeed.

Highlights:

  • Orgs that had strong L&D practices in place pre-pandemic have been better equipped for recovery than those without strong L&D practices
  • Orgs that understand the skills required for their workforce to execute their strategic priorities are leaders in their industries
  • L&D functions should shift to just-in-time, more organic learning blended into workers’ daily flow
  • Individualized learning pathways are becoming more the norm
  • L&D must help employees understand their current and future skill sets

Closing the Capability Gap in the Time of COVID-19

Jon Garcia, Garrett Maples, & Michael Park

The imperative to create more capable workforces has never been greater.

This article is based on a series of case studies from the pandemic and offers concrete examples of how orgs are not just addressing the challenges associated with remote and hybrid work, but how they are helping employees regularly acquire and apply new skills.

Highlights:

  • The guiding principles for sustaining behavioral change have not changed since before COVID
  • Orgs should focus on critical actions—evolving digital delivery, building new tools and approaches to engage learners, and employing new reinforcement techniques
  • Learning is complete when behavioral change is achieved
  • Remote collaboration requires technological fluency and problem-solving in tandem with content

Additional articles to check out

  1. After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview),” N. Bonnevalle, MERIT, undated.
  2. Let Your Top Performers Move Around the Company,” K. Oakes, Harvard Business Review, 2021.
  3. Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development,” S. Glaveski, Harvard Business Review, 2019.
  4. Learning and Development in Telecoms: 2020 Report, Mpirical, 2020.
  5. "Why Every Executive Should be Focusing on Culture Change Now," R. Hollister, K. Tecosky, M. Watkins, and C. Wolpert, MIT Sloan Management Review, 2021.

Footnotes

  1. “How to Create a Learning Culture,” R. Grossman, SHRM, 2015; “After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview),” N. Bonnevalle, MERIT, no date; and “10 Content Curation Strategies for Corporate Training,” A. Pandey, eLearning Industry, 2019.
  2. 4 Ways to Create a Learning Culture on Your Team,” T. Chamorro-Premuzic and J. Bersin, Harvard Business Review, 2018.
  3. See “The essential components of a successful L&D strategy,” J. Brassey, L. Christensen, and N. van Dam, McKinsey & Company, 2019 and “After Covid-19: How to Rebuild Learning and Development (Interview).”
  4. “The Practices That Set Learning Organizations Apart,” MIT Sloan Management Review, D.G. Collings and J. McMackin, 2021.
  5. 7 Ways to Boost Employee Development Amid Covid-19 Crisis,” L. Paulise, Forbes.com, 2020 and “How corporate universities fit into hybrid learning strategies of the future,” A. Burjek, CLO Magazine, 2021.
  6. How to Build an Experimentation Culture in Your Team,” D. Velikova, Medium.com, 2020.
  7. “Students who ‘productively fail’ may learn more,” Futurity.org, ETH Zurich University, 2021.
  8. The essential components of a successful L&D strategy.”
  9. 7 Steps to Creating an Employee Development Plan,” GetSmarter, 2019.
  10. “Why Companies Need Returnship Programs,” C. Fishman Cohen, HBR IdeaCast, 2021.
  11. Closing the Capability Gap in the Time of COVID-19“, J. Garcia, G. Maples & M. Park, McKinsey Accelerate, 2020.
  12. Workplace Learning Report 2021: Skill-Building in the New World of Work, LinkedIn Learning, 2021.
  13. Closing the Capability Gap in the Time of COVID-19“, J. Garcia, G. Maples & M. Park, McKinsey Accelerate, 2020.
  14. “Work in the flow of learning,” A. Acharya, CLO Magazine, 2021.
  15. How corporate universities fit into hybrid learning strategies of the future.”

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.

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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