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Getting Smarter About
Digital Learning

Leadership Practices:
What’s Proven. What’s “Worth Less.”

Title: Getting Smarter About Digital Learning

Organizations often see technology as a critical enabler for human capital to the same degree that it is for other enterprise functions. Accordingly, many are investing heavily in implementing systems and methods for delivering a wide array of HR applications, including learning content.

Technology promises to unlock new levels of growth by adding flexibility for how, when, and where learning is delivered—and to better meet the needs of modern and next-generation learners. Yet, despite the high priority HR now places on technology adoption and the near-universal recognition of digital as a mandatory component of the contemporary learning landscape, core questions remain about tech’s benefits and limits when it comes to improving leader quality and generating business impact.

Worth Less PracticeWorth Less Practice: (Over)relying on Digital-based Learning

Millennials are often cited as the target demographic for aggressive pursuit of and investment in technology, but the findings of our research paint a mixed picture in the areas of implementing new forms of learning via technology and making the tools widely available to learning populations. On the other hand, buy-in for these methods hasn’t necessarily followed. In a recent study captured in the DDI Leadership Databank, we asked Millennial leaders about their most effective ways to develop. They chose among nine different learning methods, including four forms of technology-centric learning: instructor-led online learning, self-study online learning, mobile learning, and social learning.

As shown below, not one of the technology-based methods was selected by more than 25 percent of Millennial leaders; each fared far worse than five more-entrenched learning approaches. Whether due to higher technology expectations by Millennials or immaturity of current learning technologies, these forms of learning clearly haven’t yet proved their worth for most. Signs are especially problematic for self-study online (often seen by leaders as “on your own”) learning. Though the second most common learning method for Millennial leaders, it’s seen as the least effective, strongly preferred by fewer than 1 in 10 of these leaders.

Leadership Development Methods: Effectiveness vs. Frequency

Millennial Leaders

Best PracticeProven Practice: Supplementing Formal Learning with Technology-based Learning

We’ve also researched the links between a company’s use of various learning methods and two enterprise-level outcomes, including overall leadership capability and a financial performance composite of profitability, earnings per share, five-year rate of investor return, and stockholder equity. Technology-centric learning through self-study online courses, mobile devices, and social methods was the only one of three major categories of learning—the other two being learning driven by coaching and developmental assignments and learning driven by formal training—not to have a significant link to an organization’s leadership strength and financial performance. That is, when only technology-delivered learning was used heavily as a development solution, organizations were consistently below-average in leader strength and financial outcomes.

However, in our Global Leadership Forecast study we found convincing evidence that technology is impactful as a supplement to other learning strategies. Organizations that added technology-centric learning to formal training had leaders who were 14 percent more capable when compared to those who received formal training alone. Organizations that added technology-centric learning to abundant coaching/development opportunities had leaders who were 11 percent more capable. Even when both formal training and coaching/development opportunities were in place, technology still boosted leader capability by an additional 11 percent, as well as financial performance by 6 percent.

The take-away: Technology on its own is neither a most-preferred learning method—even for Millennial leaders—nor does it relate to leadership and financial outcomes to the degree that more established learning methods do. Yet, if designed and positioned as extensions rather than replacements for coaching, development assignments, and formal training (for example, mobile apps to provide just-in-time learning reinforcement or social learning to fill lulls and transitions between structured development activities), technology-centric learning can nonetheless generate incremental and sustained impact.

Learn more about DDI’s digital learning library.

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