Organizations are continuing to make meaningful investments in employee learning, according to the 2018 State of the Industry report by the Association for Talent Development.
The research found that organizations spent $1,296 per employee in 2017, up 1.7 percent from 2016, representing the sixth consecutive year that per-employee spending on learning has increased. Knowledge, skills and abilities of the workforce continue to be priorities for organizations today, the ATD reports.
More than half of all learning is still delivered face-to-face in a traditional classroom, the study found. But as is seemingly the case with pretty much every HR discipline, the study confirmed that technology is playing a significant role in all aspects of the learning experience.
At this year’s HR Technology Conference in Las Vegas, Dani Johnson, a co-founder and principal analyst for RedThread Research, will conduct a breakout session on technology’s role in transforming the learning landscape.
Johnson has spent the majority of her career writing about, conducting research in, and consulting on human-capital practices and technology. Before starting RedThread, she led the learning and career research practice at Bersin.
HRE Editor David Shadovitz recently spoke to Johnson about the state of learning today and what lies ahead. Excerpts of that conversation follow.
What has been the biggest development you saw occurring in the learning space over the past, say, 12 months?
One that strikes me as maybe the most impactful is the idea of ecosystems. I know we’ve been talking about ecosystems for years, but I think we’re finally at the point where organizations are accepting the idea of an ecosystem, and vendors are planning to be a part of an ecosystem. When I talk to the big platforms, they’re not as much there, but almost every single-point solution that I talk to can tell me how they fit into an ecosystem and how to make use of their data in the larger organization. Most of them tell me that unprompted.
A Conference Board study recently suggested that CEOs are especially worried about whether their employees are going to have the skills to succeed with the evolving digital economy. In your opinion, are they correct in being concerned?
It’s definitely a concern. I think the biggest problem they have is the way that they’re thinking about their organizations. They think about them still in terms of roles when they should be thinking about them in terms of skills and teams. There’s better technology out there than there has ever been for understanding the skills in an organization. Right now, the biggest challenge is putting in place the processes and technologies that are needed to understand where the skills in the organization are, where the skills are that can be borrowed from outside the organization and how to combine … the people who have those skills into teams, instead of looking for a unicorn.
Are there certain skills you think are going to be more visible or prominent in this environment?
There’s a huge conversation going on right now about tech skills. Technology is moving so fast, the world is changing so rapidly, we don’t know what skills are going to be needed. Obviously, there’s more emphasis on soft skills, but I think it’s a combination of soft skills and the ability to learn, rather than the skills themselves, that will be important in the future.
Do you think HR departments are stepping up to the plate when it comes to addressing this issue?
I would love to say yes, but I really think that the vendors and the senior leadership of organizations are the ones that are calling this out more than anybody. A lot of the HR departments that we talk to are traditional in their ways of thinking. They still think of learning as a linear process, which we know is not the case. But I’ve seen some interesting things come out of vendors that empower the employee to learn. Vendors seem to be the ones out in front of this right now.
Are there any trends in the learning-delivery area that are particularly noteworthy?
I think there are a couple of really interesting things that are happening. AR/VR [augmented reality, virtual reality] has been around for a really long time, but it now [is no longer cost-prohibitive]. We see it being used a lot for the traditional areas like safety, but we’re also seeing it being used for diversity and inclusion, public speaking [and] any sort of thing that seems risky to the individual.
In the last five years, we’ve seen efforts [to make learning] a much better user experience. So, we went from a fairly common half-hour course five years ago to now breaking it up into smaller pieces and fitting it into the work itself. I think that’s interesting, but what is even more interesting is this idea of actually giving users information. It’s no longer just about giving them what I think they ought to know, but it’s about wrapping it into larger systems … to make the entire system provide a much better experience.
Data and AI are allowing organizations to give information to their individuals in two ways. First, they’re feeding them content that would be useful to them. But the other thing that we’re seeing are organizations, and the tech vendors that support them, give those individuals information about themselves. In the past, information has always been kept at a higher level [and used to] make decisions about what needs to happen in [the] group, organization or company. We’re now seeing that information being funneled down to the individual about his or her own progress [and] with suggestions to help that individual better themselves.
It’s sort of like having a virtual coach on the shoulder. We now have technology that can tell you how you can do things better, even down to soft skills.
In most areas of HR, AI, machine learning and the like are getting a lot of attention from the vendor community. Would you say that applies to learning, too?
I talk to a lot of vendors that say they’re using machine learning or AI and they’re not. In time, though, I think they will have a huge effect on how we do things.
Forward-thinking organizations are saying, “OK, what we actually need to do is empower our front line to get what they need in order to help the company move in the right direction. So, how do we do that?” A lot of times, it means infusing things like AI or machine learning to not only give [employees] content that we have as an organization, but also connecting them with people who can answer questions, connect them with the outside world, connect them with content that we have no control over and connect them with data that can help them make better decisions about where they’re going and what they’re doing.
What advice would you give an HR leader who’s evaluating vendors in the learning and development arena? What kind of questions should they be asking these vendors before they pull the trigger on purchasing a new solution?
I think there are a couple of really key questions they should be asking themselves. The first one is: How likely is this vendor to be on the … leading edge of what’s going on in the space? The way that you know that is by [the investment they’re making in] their technology.
The second one is: How well do they collaborate? One of the things that I’ve started to hear more and more is, “We have a really great customer-success team. We work with you to get exactly what you need out of the tool.” How willing are they to act as an extended team to your team to help you consider things that you’ve never considered before? Are they just going to help you execute what you already know you want to do?
Then the third one is: Can they explain how they fit in the larger tech ecosystem? I think this one is becoming more and more important. Can they clearly articulate how they play with others and who they are actually playing with? Do they fulfill needs that others in the tech ecosystem don’t fulfill?
You spend a lot of time speaking to vendors. So, how equipped are they at answering that third question?
I’d say about 60 percent of them can clearly answer it, and about 30 percent of them tell me without even being prompted, which is pretty remarkable.
The HR Technology Conference & ExpositionÂ® will be held Oct. 1 through Oct. 4 at the Venetian in Las Vegas.