10 Theses on Digitization of Corporate Learning - the full version

These theses summarize the experience from supporting a number of larger companies on their way towards a more digital corporate learning culture.

1. Learning digitally is a facet of working digitally.

It might sound obvious and from an employee perspective it certainly is: As work becomes knowledge work, the boundaries of working, knowledge management and learning become blurred. Nonetheless, the organizational set-up of larger companies still detaches “learning”, usually part of HR departments, from “working”. Thus, many aspects of digital learning are not even on the radar screen of learning departments. Learning and working need to be understood as indivisible processes with a large overlap. Consequently, most principles of digital working also apply in digital learning, such as collaboration, rich direct interaction amongst staff, the value of being agile and accepting beta-culture.

2. Digitization is not about substituting classroom trainings by converting them into e-learnings.

When advocating digital learning, we almost immediately face the challenge to prove the effectiveness of digital learning and end in a debate whether digital can substitute classroom training, given the obvious deficiencies of digital learning, e.g. often low completion rates, lack of haptic experience and the possible distraction of learners. First of all, it should not be assumed that classroom training has ever worked well - research rejects this based on strong evidence. Secondly, the paradigm of substitution needs to be overcome: E-mail is not a 100% substitution for physical mail, phone conferencing does not allow the same interaction as regular meetings - but we all use these techniques because they are simply the right thing to use in many occasions. The same applies to digital learning: It is an entirely new way of teaching and learning with its own strengths and weaknesses. Overcoming the substitution paradigm implies that great digital learning content is never a digitized classroom training which follows a linear pattern and limits personalization due to its synchronous nature. Although it is understandable that the transformation of proven classroom concepts into digital learning media is often the first step towards digitization, this approach at the same time is the reason for first- and second-generation e-learnings never gaining acceptance, neither by staff nor management. 

3. There is incredibly great stuff out there. Use it.

Following the patterns of classroom training, most companies think of digital learning products as media to be created and purchased or licensed from third party suppliers. Astonishingly, most larger companies do not make systematic use of the abundance of excellent learning offerings, which are freely available on the Internet, although of course all of us individually use for example Youtube as the largest single source of learning content. With institutions like Harvard University or MIT being committed to share as much learning content as possible, the potential of Open Educational Resources (OER) and other freely available web sources will continue to grow, both in quantity and quality. An innovative corporate learning strategy leverages this potential and establishes ways to systematically collect, recommend, and comment on these sources internally. Specifically, for very technical or generic learning objectives as well as for very fast evolving topics, existing web content can be an important pillar of a digital portfolio strategy, if embedded into an learning ecosystem that “curates" these sources.

4. You can create the best learning content internally.

Besides purchased third-party content and freely available web nuggets companies should build upon user-generated learning content as a powerful third pillar in their digital portfolio strategy. As learning objectives constantly become more specific and closer to strategy, companies will rely more and more on producing learning content - even with simple means - internally. Research supports that the learning effect of for example a less professionally produced three minute learning video will exceed the effect of “professional” high-end content, if driven by the unique passion, expertise and personality of its creator. Thus, it will become crucial to encourage, enable and incentivize employees to contribute to a self-supporting learning culture by sharing their individual expertise. Quality management of user-generated learning content needs to be in place but should be limited to avoid clearly misleading or even legally problematic content, bearing in mind that such a quality assurance instance never existed for similar non-formal learning events in the offline world, e.g. staff informally exchanging experiences.

5. Make it crisp. Smart microlearning does not mean oversimplification.

Effective digital learning products follow a microlearning methodology and divide learning content into very small chunks, some of them with a learning time of less than a minute. Being accustomed to the structures of classroom trainings, these microlearning nuggets might first appear as infantile media bites for a distracted generation with a short attention span. Quite contrary, if done well, microlearning does not lead to oversimplification; it is the pre-condition to allow an individualized, adaptive learning experience. Based upon the relevant meta-data, microlearning nuggets can be arranged in an individual way in order to meet the personal preferences, learning objectives and pre-knowledge/-skills of individual learners. Additionally, micro nuggets allow learners to use the learning content to repeat and immerse even deeper on demand. The immediate personal relevance that results in the on demand usage goes along with very lasting learning effects: Instead of accumulating knowledge for hypothetical future needs, on demand learning fosters learning due to the immediate need to apply skills in the real world. By supporting repetition and deeper immersion on demand, learning offerings develop from linear courses to comprehensive learning environments for ongoing, self-directed and personalized learning.   

6. Mobile first in digital learning.

On demand learning is mobile by nature and can’t be bound to certain work places or devices. In private contexts, digital learning turns out to be primarily mobile and we need to adapt to this intuitive behavioral pattern with cloud-based, cross-device learning solutions that include BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).

Especially when understanding learning not simply as consuming learning media, but as active engagement, collaboration, sharing, and production of learning content, mobile devices are indispensable, e.g. for the production of user-generated videos. With features like push notifications, reminders and their 24/7 availability, mobile devices can additionally play an important role to change behavioral patterns (e.g. of leadership) and thus support direct application.

7. Employees will embrace digital learning – if done well.

In the past, the vast majority of employees have embraced all technological changes that led to more effective and efficient work. As digital learning is just a facet of working digitally, the same will apply to the shift towards digital learning. The fact that the first and second generation of e-learnings never gained acceptance, neither by staff nor management, is due to the lack of a convincing learning experience. Learning being an intuitive process, natural to all of us, we have a good sense of whether a learning experience is worth its time, money and effort. Compared to other services, creators of learning products tend to neglect the user/learner perspective in the development process and blindly follow a teacher perspective that is based on what they consider proven instructional design. In this sense, learning too often is patronizing and not really understood as a service to learners. Therefore, new creative methodologies, such as Design Thinking, with their empathy for and active involvement of users have a great disruptive potential in the development of learning ecosystems, both in terms of content, platforms, and user experience. Thus, the degree of active pull by staff to more digital learning is a measure for the quality of a learning ecosystem.

8. It is primarily a shift in learning culture and only secondly a technical challenge.

To the degree that learning becomes digital, employees need to overcome a traditional mind-set that has been taught to most of us in educational institutions as well as in the majority of vocational trainings: The rather passive attitude of being taught (by others) needs to evolve into learning actively (myself). An innovative learning ecosystem provides a broad variety of resources and orientation to users, but it always depends on the motivation, responsibility and ability of staff to steer their individual learning. Thus, beyond the shift in technology and content, the real challenge is to develop a culture of self-directed learning. This implies a shift towards a more active and autonomous attitude as well as fostering the competences to develop, follow, and reflect individual learning plans.

9. Leadership and HR have to obtain new roles in learning.

Leadership often followed an “outsourcing” pattern with regards to learning in the past: Learning needs were delegated to HR and HR delegated them to external suppliers. With the digitization of learning, leadership will have to engage much more in the learning of teams, e.g. by creating learning-rich settings, suggesting or even creating learning nuggets and encouraging team members to engage in learning continuously. But most importantly, by being learners themselves and reflecting and sharing their learning experiences – both subject matter-wise and methodology-wise. Walk the talk!

Learning departments tend to follow an operating model that is close to a procurement department: Identifying needs, searching and selecting providers, purchasing trainings, and managing quality. This operating model might work well for classroom trainings, but it needs to change as learning becomes digital. Training departments will work less as purchasers and much more as curators of learning environments and as enablers of learning and peer-to-peer teaching. This will require new roles, skills and mind-sets in training and HR departments.

10. You can start today.

Digital learning can use very simple, off-the-shelf technology (e.g. a simple WordPress-based intranet or any internal social media platform will do for a while). In fact, there are few obvious hurdles. Start simple, but start!