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Modern Learners

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

Meeting the Needs of the Modern Learner:

Technology Gains Its Footing, But It’s a Slippery Slope

Evan Sinar

The scope and variety of learning methods continue a rapid advance at a pace that is only likely to accelerate as pressure mounts to adjust and revitalize learning in academic institutions and graduates flow into the workforce. Fueled by demand from incoming “digital natives” and funded by tuition increases, educational institutions are often at the leading edge of learning transformation. In the workplace it’s daunting to respond to these pressures and decide among the vast range of learning methods and approaches. HR professionals face particularly difficult choices about synchronizing complementary modalities, how to appropriately blend technology-centric and high-touch (formal training, coaching) learning, and how to apply learning back in the workplace. Although organizations want to meet the needs of all modern learners, the choices and tradeoffs are complex and becoming even more so. In this research, we took stock of the leadership learning landscape, factoring in company usage and leader preferences to recommend an evidence-based path forward for learning design.

Meeting the Needs of the Modern Learner

Meeting Modern Learners’ Needs

To understand where learning needs to go, we started with the needs of learners themselves. We saw high consistency across generations. The three features learners prefer most include (in this order):

  1. Personalized learning experiences.
  2. Coaching from external mentors.
  3. Formal workshops, training courses, and seminars.

While this is what learners want, what they actually get can be far different. In the graphic, we juxtaposed learner preferences with company use for 19 learning types and methods, to yield three categories:

Leaders Want More than They’re Getting (5 types)—This category includes coaching from external mentors, long-term developmental assignments, personalized, on-demand, and mobile device-based. It spotlights leaders’ thirst for external perspectives on their challenges—many of which aren’t unique to their own company—as well as immersive development and personalized “anytime, anywhere” learning.

Leaders Get More than They’re Wanting (4)— Methods include coaching from the current manager, books/articles, self-study, and internally developed learning. Surprisingly, many leaders would prefer a bit less manager coaching, perhaps because many managers aren’t very good at it. Leaders also have reservations about “on-the-job learning” morphing into “on-your-own” learning through self-study and books/articles. This category also reflects the limitations of internally developed content, which might not fully capture the external business context.

About Right (10)—Coaching from peer leaders, coaching leaders receive from their employees, short-term developmental assignments, formal workshops/training courses/seminars, microlearning, game-based, externally developed, computer-based, social network-based, and podcast. These learning approaches are roughly in line for what leaders want and what their companies are offering. This category includes two rarely used technologies: game- and social network-based learning. Leaders might not have seen these methods enough yet to gauge their value.

Technology Alone Isn’t Enough…

Despite its immense attention and expense, our data shows that technology isn’t having a notable impact on leadership or business outcomes above and beyond coaching (from managers, peers, external mentors, and employees). Nor is it surpassing high-touch methods such as formal learning and development assignments.

…But Adds Value When It’s Need-Matched

Technology’s role becomes clearer, however, when viewed as an accelerator of learning impact. The link between learning programs and leader quality is 46 percent stronger when technology is used heavily. It also improves back-to-the-job application, raising it from 55 percent with minimal technology use to 63 percent with extensive use.

The future of technology in learning will be driven by companies using it to address the unmet needs of the modern learner identified in the “Leaders Want More than They’re Getting” cluster. It’s not about implementing technology for its own sake, particularly not to enable the self-study forms of learning that many leaders shun. When technology is designed and implemented to match a need, it generates value for on-demand, personalized, and mobile learning, and to connect leaders with external mentors. Technology works best when giving “always on” learners the tools and access they need to constantly seek opportunities to grow themselves and others.

Where to Start
  • Pursue learning personalization. This was by far the dominant feature defining what leaders want most. Technology’s potential here is immense to bring personalization to large-scale learning. This includes new techniques such as machine learning and natural language processing to rapidly distill information into personalized recommendations.
  • Restore the value of manager coaching. Leaders’ opinions of manager coaching—comparing needs with wants—are decidedly neutral, but don’t have to be. Reinforce managers’ coaching skills to push this form of learning back to a “want more” state.
  • Understand the learning problems technology will solve. Don’t invest further in learning technology until you’re certain you understand the problems it will solve and needs it will meet. This is the key to stronger technology impact and ROI.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Shift away from self-service. Technology driven or not, learners want much less self-study learning. Make learner enablement about on-demand rather than assignment, and tailored to a leader’s own development plan rather than generic.
  • Experiment with game-based learning. Though few companies are putting these approaches in place, they are more sought-after by Millennial leaders than other generations.
  • Extend learning beyond the classroom. Learning reinforced through prompts and practice—often, but not only, through technology tools—better “sticks” once the leader is back on the job.
  • Appoint a Learning Experience Manager. Only 37 percent of companies have this role in place, but those that do are 5.5 times more likely to have highly effective leadership development systems.
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