Crafting a digital learning strategy that creates value
Written by guest blogger Michelle Ockers, Learning Strategy Expert and host of the ‘Learning Uncut’ podcast. Michelle helps build future-ready learning organisations. She is a leading contemporary learning practitioner at the forefront of modernising learning and keeping the profession relevant and impactful in organisations.
The digital learning conundrum
How is it that despite Learning and Development’s long-standing fascination with learning technology, 49% of learning was still being delivered face-to-face in classrooms at the start of 2020? Benchmarking shows that in the ten years to 2020 the number of digital learning tools used in organisations more than doubled from an average of 10 to 25 .
L&D is clearly curious about technology. And there’s plenty of it to be curious about!
The market is booming with new providers and tools entering the market continuously. Even before Covid hit, 50% of organisations were expecting to increase their investment in learning systems during 2020 .
However, this investment in technology is not translating to higher organisational impact. Benchmarking consistently shows that learning leaders have high aspirations yet make limited progress to achieve them. At the start of 2020 only :
- 25% report impacting productivity
- 21% report improving organisational performance
- 18% have helped provide a faster response to changing business conditions
This is a perplexing conundrum! In a nutshell, despite increasing investment in learning technology:
- high levels of face-to-face training persist until we are forced to make a shift, and
- L&D continues to struggle to create value.
One significant reason for this is that L&D has focussed on the wrong kind of value – learning value rather than business value. Laura Overton recently provided a compelling argument for why business value is L&D’s bedrock of digital success and the need to shift mindset in order to build stronger digital foundations.
Further insight can be gained by looking at how L&D responded to the pandemic.
2020: the swing to digital content and classrooms
The fierce urgency of the moment created by the pandemic demanded that L&D professionals adopt digital learning approaches. A study in May 2020 found that 94% of L&D had to change their strategy in response to Covid, with two in three making significant changes to what they do and how they do it .
There was a big push was to digital content. For example, National Australia Bank saw consumption on their third-party content platform explode from 15,000 hours per year to 9,000 hours per month . Another big shift was to move from physical to virtual classrooms.
In this early period L&D decisions were driven by expediency. As Dani Johnson, RedThread Research co-founder, put it, “All of the rules changed, and organisations needed to very quickly get their people up to speed on something that resembled sameness.” For many, that ‘sameness’ meant that content and classrooms were their immediate response. It was all that they were equipped to support. However, while content is essential to support learning and performance,  more is required to change behaviour and create business value.
What limits digital learning strategy?
While acknowledging that organisational policies and technology infrastructure are often a barrier, the key hurdles lie within L&D. This is good news as we can do something to make a change.
L&D team skill levels reported by learning leaders at the start of 2020 include only :
- 32% have adequate technology/infrastructure skills compared to 40% in early 2018
- 32% have adequate skill with virtual classroom/webinar delivery
- 29% have adequate digital content development skills
In part these gaps reflect the challenge of staying abreast of the accelerating pace of change in technology and shifts in expectations placed upon L&D .
More fundamentally, L&D mindset gets in the way. Key shifts needed to break through the digital learning conundrum are shown in the figure below. Specifically, fear that technology will make L&D redundant rather than augmenting what they do and allowing them to create more value. In addition to adopting a business value mindset, those L&D teams who create the most value let go of tight control and share responsibility for learning with others. They see others as connected contributors to learning rather than passive recipients of content and training. This shift engenders curiosity to use technology to do things differently, rather than just doing things more efficiently.
Lessons from L&D’s digital leaders
We can learn a lot from those L&D teams that had already changed how they viewed their role and put in sustained effort to build digital capability over a number of years. For these teams the adjustment required to support their organisations to adapt to Covid was more about volume of work and focus rather than about how they support learning. Examples include :
- Deciem, a small globally distributed beauty product manufacturer, focused on engagement and co-creation using their LXP as a hub for content, communication and community;
- Reece, a plumbing retailer in Australia and New Zealand, developed a completely peer-group facilitated leadership program with content just 25% of the digitally enabled learning approaches used; and
- The sales enablement team at GSK pharmaceuticals in India used a gamified digital approach to engage teams in challenges that built skills for new virtual sales channels.
Additionally, we can draw upon two robust bodies of research about learning innovation and technology: 16 years of L&D benchmarking from Emerald Works (previously referenced) and the 2019 learning technology ecosystem research from RedThread :
Lesson 1 – Think Differently. Reimagine how you create value as an L&D professional. There is much higher leverage in enabling continuous learning through shared responsibility rather than L&D controlling learning. Be aware that your current technology may be creating blind spots, so put it aside as you seek to look beyond content and classrooms to innovate. Take it a step further to unshackle your mind and drop the assumption that all learning activity needs to be tracked.
"I realised that you can create such a blended, flexible, co-created strategy that reinvents what a learning moment is and when and how people learn. It's been transformational. It's hard to see that if your technology doesn't serve you the right way." – Kristina Tsiriotakis, Deciem 
Lesson 2 - Think strategically. Define the value proposition for learning in your organisation for all of your ‘customers’ – senior leaders, managers and the broader workforce. Ensure you have a documented strategy co-created with all stakeholders that describes the organisation’s vision for learning and how this will be achieved. Digital is just one pillar in a well-rounded learning strategy that is aligned to your organisational strategy and culture.
Lesson 3 – Think user first. Adopting a human-centred design approach means starting with the user experience, then considering the technology that will best create this experience. This is just as relevant for the design of your overall technology suite as it is for specific learning solutions. Find out what technology people in your organisation use for work, learning and social connection, why and how they use it. This includes unauthorised tools and personal use outside of your organisation. Use these insights to inform your technology roadmap. Additionally, ensure that you consider all relevant use cases. Consuming content is just one of 11 learning technology functionalities that organisations use to develop their employees . Others include experimenting, connecting and performing – as well as administrative functions performed by L&D.
"Our lens is not the technology. Our lens is the experience we want to deliver. What we consider very deeply through our human centered design process is “What is the ideal experience or the best experience that we may be able to deliver to affect learning transfer? And to really enable and support our people in this experience?” – Gareth Killeen, Reece 
Lesson 4 – Think ‘I can become capable and confident’. The skills required to craft a digital learning strategy include technology management, digital design and delivery, organisational learning strategy and human-centred design. Every member of your L&D team needs a broad understanding of the contemporary technology landscape, plus proficiency with the tools relevant to their role. Larger L&D teams often have specialist roles to manage learning technology and lead technology-enabled innovation. Regardless of whether such roles are in place, create an environment where all L&D team members are able to keep themselves up to date, experiment, and share new ideas and practices with one another.
Business Value Mindset: Critical to Successful Digital Learning Strategy
Something fundamental needs to shift if L&D is to break through the pattern of ‘sameness’ and low levels of organisational impact despite high investment in technology. Breaking the digital learning conundrum requires different thinking. A shift in L&D mindset is a critical first step to craft a digital learning strategy that creates business value.
3 tips for crafting a digital learning strategy that creates value
1. Start with strategy, not digital
- Approach your learning strategy with a business value mindset
- Define the value proposition for learning in your organisation
- Co-create a well-rounded learning strategy
2. Focus on user experience
- Describe the experience you want to deliver to support your learning strategy
- Research how your people use technology for work, learning and social connection
- Define learning technology use cases
3. Get the technology into perspective
- Technology is an enabler of learning and performance not the saviour
- Learning is a responsibility shared by people, not outsourced to technology
- Technology augments L&D people rather than replacing them
 Back to the Future. January 2020 – Emerald Works
 The Fosway Group 9-grid Report for Learning Systems. January 2020 - Fosway
 Back to the Future. January 2020 – Emerald Works
 How is COVID-A9 Changing Learning? May 2019 - Fosway
 Learning Uncut Episode 61 Leading Learning Transformation - Damien Woods
 Learning Uncut Emergent episode: The Rise of Technology and L&D
 Some argue that classrooms are not essential. For example, Anne Bartlett-Bragg on Learning Uncut Emergent episode: The Future of Physical Space for Learning and Development
 Back to the Future, January 2020 – Emerald Works
 For an analysis of the rising skill gaps in L&D refer to Are Learning Professionals Being the Adults? Febraury 2019 – Michelle Ockers
 For more on these case studies refer to Learning Uncut Episodes 56 (Deciem), 58 (Reece) and 63 (GSK)
 The Rise of Learning Tech Ecosystems. October 2019 - Redthread Research
 Learning Uncut Episode 56: Making Learning Human – Kristina Tsiriotakis
 Choosing Learning Tech Infographic. March 2020 - Redthread
 Learning Uncut Episode 58: Experience Centred Digital Learning Strategy - Gareth Killeen