5 Factors driving Modern Workplace Learning

“If you were an employee on Henry Ford’s assembly line in Detroit in the 1920s, you received a high degree of training and preparation before you ever set foot in the factory. You learned what your role was, and were given all the tools you needed to accomplish your job from Day One. From then on, your role never changed—you did your part to move a product forward along the assembly line, from the day you began until the day you retired, 40 or 50 years later. Since those days, the business world has transformed .. but the workforce training process hasn’t kept up with the pace of change.”

I believe this quote from Karl Mehta  summarizes the situation pretty accurately, and like Karl (and others) I think this means we need to adopt new practices to support learning in today’s workplace. So I in this article I want to take a look at 5 factors that are impacting the workplace and driving a new approach to workplace learning.

1 – DIGITIZATION

There has been a lot written about the effects of digitization on the workplace, as Microsoft explains

“The exponential growth of digital connectivity, devices and information is driving profound changes in the way we work, all around all the world …”

But in a business this involves far more than converting paper-based or off-line processes into online processes. And in workplace learning terms it involves far more than converting classroom training into e-learning – as Microsoft explains (my emboldening)..

“In order to survive in this world, companies need to rethink everything from culture to tools and environments.”

So L&D will also need to rethink its whole approach to workplace learning: the culture, tools and environments – by adopting a new, modern understanding of what it means to learn at work.  The second factor gives us some clues as to what that might look like.

2 – CHANGING LEARNING HABITS

It is increasingly clear that learning habits are changing. Individuals no longer rely on being trained as the only way to learn for work, many appreciate they learn as they do their work as well through their interactions with colleagues, clients, their manager and maybe even a coach. They also make significant use of the Web – not just to access online courses, but also a variety of resources (in different formats – particular video) as well as to build their professional networks of connections from around the world on social networks (like Twitter, LinkedIn). And in doing so they often bypass L&D to solve their learning and performance problems more quickly and more easily.

For L&D this means no longer trying to maintain the role of learning gatekeeper. Nor does it mean being the learning police – banning access to anything that hasn’t been created by them. What’s more beliefs like “our people don’t know what to learn” or we “can’t trust them to learn the right things” are no longer appropriate. A “we-know-best” attitude no longer works! In fact the recent Towards Maturity Learner’s Voice report showed that employees like to be in charge of how they learn, with 91% wanting to learn at their own pace and 82% knowing what they need to learn in order to do their job.  Laura Overton, Founder of Towards Maturity, commenting on the report, said “The message is clear: L&D teams must adapt to the needs of colleagues rather than force them to do what L&D wants them to do.”

So L&D needs to embrace these changing learning habits. But they doesn’t just mean creating courses and resources in ways that are more consistent with the ways people learn on the Web (although that’ll be part of the future). It means  actively encouraging and supporting individuals to find their own solutions to their learning and performance problems in the ways that suit them best.  This is particularlh important for the next reason.

3 – MULTI-GENERATIONAL WORKFORCE

We are now seeing a multi-generational workplace – 4 generations in the workplace for the first time. Much has been been written about the different attitudes to work and learning of each of these generations, in particular their exposure and use of new technologies. But rather than stereotyping people on generational grounds e.g. assuming that a Baby Boomer will have no interest or experience with social media whilst a Millennial will be a fully Web savvy person, or that a Baby Boomer will prefer a classroom course whilst a Millennial will prefer to watch a YouTube video – what needs to be recognized is that everyone is different, and that a one-size-fits-all (“sheep dip”) approach to training is no longer appropriate.

This doesn’t mean creating resources in multiple formats to ensure everyone’s preferences are met (a pretty impossible task) but rather supporting flexibility and autonomy so that individuals can construct their own learning experiences in the way that suits them best. And there is another good reason for this approach too.

4 – EXPONENTIAL INFORMATION GROWTH

We are now living in an era of exponential information growth. Huge amounts of data are being created every day. But what is more, the half life of a piece of knowledge today is just around 5 years. In other words, knowledge is decaying and skills are quickly going out of date. It has been said that a college degree will be out of date before the loan is paid off.

So whereas, in the past, as we have seen, individuals were trained to do their jobs once and this would last them their whole careers, over time, as job roles became more sophisticated or new technology or procedures were introduced, training became a full-time operation just to keep people knowledgeable, skilled and up to date. So this doesn’t mean L&D needs to work even harder –  creating even more training. There is a finite amount L&D can do. Rather it means adopting a new approach – one that comes from not trying to do it all themselves and controlling it all, but recognizing that everyone need to be constantly keeping themselves up to date – learning and developing new skills and expertise – in the ways that best suit them – encouraged and supported by their manager. So L&D’s role won’t be to create more stuff, but focus on helping people with the new skills many will need to learn things for themselves. And there is an additional factor influencing this …

5 – THE EMERGING GIG ECONOMY

The emerging Gig Economy means that there is no longer such a thing a job for life.-  in fact, for most individuals this means they are going to have a life of jobs. One estimate is that current students will have more than 10 jobs by the time they are 38. Companies are also going to be seeing a growing contingent workforce (made up of freelancers, independent professionals and temporary contract workers). Research from Ernst and Young shows that two in five organisations expect to increase their use of the contingent workforce by 2020.

This means that people are going to be recruited WITH the skills to do a job; not recruited AND THEN trained to do the job. So if employees want to stay in a company they will therefore need to keep their skills up to date themselves. But in fact, supporting individuals to do just this will actually be beneficial to the organisation as it will reduce the costs of recruitment, So this means helping individuals organize and manage their own professional self-development inline with organizational objectives to achieve a  new level of performance.


All this means a very different organizational learning culture from the long-standing traditional culture that exists in most workplaces. I call this Modern Workplace Learning (MWL)  and  I’ve summarised the key differences in the diagram below.

Clearly such a culture change won’t happen tonight – but there are a number of steps L&D can make to do things differently and doing different things  to help build this new world of workplace learning.  MWL doesn’t JUST mean  providing modern trainingDesigning and delivering modern content and learning experiences in line with new ways of learning on the Web but also  supporting manager-led learningworking with managers to help them value and support everyday learning both individually and in work teams and groups – as well as empowering employee-led learningHelping individuals take responsibility for their own continuous self-development aligned with organisational objectives,  and sharing their  experiences so that the organisation can benefit from it too.

[Find out more about Modern Workplace Learning in my latest book, Learning in the Modern Workplace 2017.]

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Jane Hart

Jane Hart is the Director of the Centre for Modern Workplace Learning, which she set up to help organisations and learning professionals modernise their approaches to workplace learning - through public workshops and bespoke consultancy. She is the Editor of the Modern Workplace Learning Magazine, and is the author of a number of books including, Learning in the Modern Workplace 2017. You can contact Jane at Jane.Hart@C4LPT.co.uk.

6 Replies to “5 Factors driving Modern Workplace Learning”

  1. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on how this applies to workers in schools. Often teachers are passive recipients of professional development.

  2. Great article Jane!
    I think another powerful aspect has been the “hyperlink” and the huge increase in apps on cell phones. Also, I think from the user point of view – the worker, its the number of “clicks” required to get to the information needed. With the speed of access to Google and YouTube, etc., we’ve all become impatient with “time to an answer”. We’ve started to create more microlearning assets to target learning needs based upon analytics…

  3. Very nice article, we all should definitely change our approach towards workforce training as the technology and buisness change with time. Thanks for sharing the article.

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