Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

The missing link in on demand learning

There is a lot of interest at the moment in micro learning and on demand learning. This involves packaging learning into bite size chunks which makes them easier to digest and making them available so that people can access them at the point at which they need them.

It is a great idea and we’ve incorporated this into our online learning, short video of 2 to 4 minutes seems to be well received by participants and much more likely to be completed.

It’s a compelling proposition that, for example, at the point at which you are planning your next meeting, you can access just the on demand learning materials you need to do this, at the time you’re actually planning the meeting.

Unfortunately, the problem is that the whole idea of self-directed and on demand learning assumes that the individual will be able to identify the need and will actually do something about it. From long experience as a line manager and trainer I have reluctantly concluded that a large proportion of people just will never do this without a stimulus and checking mechanism.

I first came across this as a manufacturing line manager when I took over a factory 30 years ago. At the time, it was in vogue to have “open learning centres” where you made available books, videos and other self-study materials.

At the same time, I was hearing from my production operators that they didn’t think we were doing enough to develop them and, in particular, that they wanted more six-month maintenance assignments where they could learn a broader range of mechanical or electrical skills, hopefully leading to promotion into a maintenance role.

When I checked how much the open learning materials were being used, I found they were only being used by a handful of people out of over 100 in the factory.

I changed the system so that people wanting to apply for a maintenance assignment had to show that they gone through the relevant self-study modules before we would consider them. When people complained, I asked why, if they were not willing to develop themselves a little, should we invest six months in developing them? Both the usage of the learning resources and the number of assignments went up.

Your top 10 to 20% of people will develop themselves irrespective of what you do, they already practice on demand learning, they read books, they learn on-the-job, they seek out experienced colleagues to talk to and harass you get on training courses. Your worst 10% will probably never develop even if you try. All the skill is in motivating the middle group to learn and to apply the learning.

One answer lies in triggering behaviours and actions against specific events. So, in our training if, for example, we have covered some content on cutting out unnecessary topics and participants from meetings, we ask people who plan to apply that concept to immediately get out their diaries and schedule some time before their next meeting to plan and implement the ideas. By associating the review of learning with specific events and dates in their diary, people are much more likely to think back to the content of the training and attempt to apply it in the moment. We are creating and scheduling the demand for on demand learning in advance.

We have found that blended learning is much more successful than stand-alone e-learning. If we have a “live” face-to-face or webinar kick-off to the learning experience to launch the process and explain the learning path then people are much more likely to complete the online tools, particularly if there is a follow-up webinar where they report back on their experience of applying the learning.

It may be fashionable and appealing to talk about self-direction in the moment and on demand learning but, as we used to say in manufacturing, “expect what you inspect”. If you leave development to the individuals themselves then a significant proportion of your workforce will not develop.

Individuals with busy jobs and with multiple distractions both at work and outside can always find a reason to put off self-development or find a higher priority. If you can do your online learning at any time, then there is no rush to begin. If you never begin, you never finish.

And finally, individuals are not experts in needs analysis. If you ask people what their training needs are they will often quote courses that they have heard about from others or the kind of training courses that their parents went on, such as presentation and interpersonal skills.

They may be experiencing challenges which are symptoms of a deeper skills gap. In our core area of matrix management training, people often experience an increase in meetings or lack of goal clarity and respond to this by trying to run better meetings and seek more clarity. In this case, they are dealing with symptoms rather than root causes. If we ask individuals to both diagnose their own needs and seek out the solutions, they may never get at the deeper underlying issues. In an on demand learning world they may be left to do this for themselves.

Please don’t see this as a preference for a return to the old days of mandatory sheep dip face-to-face training. We are enthusiastic users of online and on demand learning both via webinar and stand-alone. However, we know that we get a better experience when there is mediation involved and some impetus both from our clients and ourselves to drive people through a learning path. This does not need to be a matter of control or coercion, just giving direction, showing that you expect people to take the journey and making the journey engaging and participative.

Many of our clients are investing in large libraries of on demand learning with companies like Skillsoft or Lynda. They make the many thousands of online courses available to their people and hope that they will find and apply the right materials. From what we hear, completion rates of these types of online learning are very low.

We believe that successful on demand learning requires learning specialists to design a coherent learning path and give many people the impetus to begin and complete the learning through some form of moderation or live intervention.  It may not be the utopia of employees spontaneously recognizing their needs, seeking out solutions and applying them in a seamless way, but it will lead to a lot more development and a lot more application of learning.

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