- B-to-b organizations need a formal learning plan to bridge major skills gaps
- Trends toward informal and social learning do not deliver results on their own
- Informal learning works best when placed inside a structured, business-goal oriented learning program
There are two big trends in the professional learning and development space right now that seem innocuous, but are not: the idea that the majority of professional learning should be informal learning that happens experientially on the job; and the notion that social discussion and commentary is one of the best ways to engage people in reflection and comprehension around new ideas or skills.
The challenge with this advice is that the science behind both conclusions is quite situational. It is dangerous to say, for instance, that sales reps in a highly technical field selling products that affect health care or major financial systems should learn their skills on the job. Likewise, it is unwise to mistake discussion for proof of comprehension, or participation rates for competency – especially when critical company numbers depend on marketing and selling accuracy. Just as liking a tweet isn’t the same as buying a product, commenting with a one-line response on a discussion isn’t the same as knowing it well enough to survive a tough sales call. There should be some informal on-the-job learning, and there should be social discussion and reflection. But the challenge in today’s workplace is not that everyone is spending all day in corporate classrooms, studying away instead of working. The challenge is that critical skills gaps exist in marketing, product and sales teams throughout the b-to-b space. Additionally, the appropriate structure, support and coordination of proper enablement and certification programs to bridge those gaps do not exist in most organizations.
In such an environment, headlines touting the importance of informal and social learning are especially seductive: Learning socially and informally is more fun, costs little and requires much less effort to facilitate. What’s not to like about that? For starters, the results: People forget 50 percent of what they learn after one week and, if the learning is not reinforced, up to 90 percent after one month. There’s not much learning at all in those numbers. A formal learning plan or curriculum is critical: It clarifies what people need to know and reminds people where to focus, what to prioritize and what matters to the company. Learning technology systems are great at pushing quick reminders, short refresher courses and quick bursts of information to keep team members focused and organized around the skills and activities that generate real results. They also can create short tests and activities that show where comprehension has shifted or fallen off. A technology-enabled learning program is the foundation of true skills transformation.
People also view formal learning programs as an investment in themselves, and it shows in their performance. High-performing employees are, unsurprisingly, those who engage with learning content more, pass with higher scores, and revisit the information more often. One of the great benefits of learning programs today is that you can correlate the learning process with performance, and see that intuitive relationship in action. People who view their organization as investing in them and experience success in their role are much more likely to stay and continue to deliver positive business results for the organization.
One of the basic facts of human nature and the human brain is that learning something new literally hurts. It requires the growth of new brain cells and the forging of new connections. We are hardwired to resist things that are uncomfortable, including change. But the natural push-back that comes with learning something new must be considered in the context of an organization’s business goals. We all work in a dynamic business environment that requires an agile and ongoing approach to skills development. This should be monitored by smart, forward-thinking people who can create curricula and programs that anticipate skills gaps before they hit the company’s bottom line. There’s nothing informal about that.