A Brief History of Employee Learning

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L&D departments are in the middle of a learning revolution, whether they realize it or not. At Saltbox, we’re interested in navigating, and even guiding the direction of this revolution, but it helps to understand where we’ve come from to predict where we’re going. In this blog, we’ll investigate why the traditional methods of workforce training are no longer adequate to meet modern expectations.

Workforce training before computers

Before computers were readily available as a workplace training tool, the primary instruments L&D managers had at their disposal were employee manuals and on-the-job training.

  • Manuals were (and are) dense packets of information, requiring low interactivity on the part of the learner. Because of this, they usually result in low retention. Manuals are difficult to update regularly, let alone at the speed needed to remain relevant to employees.
  • On-the-job training is more interactive than manuals, which sometimes comes at the expense of standardized content. Formal, in-person training is usually only performed during onboarding, even though most employees need to learn constantly throughout their careers.

Workforce training after computers

The introduction of computers empowered L&D managers to standardize the learning experience, disseminate it quickly throughout an organization, and supposedly offer a more accurate measure of employee readiness. At the center of this new paradigm was the Learning Management System (LMS), a centralized platform for learning leaders to develop training programs.

The LMS was certainly an improvement over previous methods; it was more interactive than static manuals and less resource intensive to deploy than in-person training. But there were crucial facets of employee learning that remained unchanged:

  • Top-down learning workflow: L&D departments remained the sole “supplier,” controlling the learning material used by LMSs. Training information was still packaged by learning leaders to be consumed by employees.
  • Sluggish updates: LMS content, in its standardized SCORM-compliant format, was unwieldy and difficult to modify quickly. Like an employee manual, this content provided instructions for ideal conditions, not the realistic, constantly changing conditions employees actually faced.
  • Elusive measurements: Despite the move to digital data, measuring employee readiness through an LMS was still incredibly difficult. At best, you could be sure that an employee had completed a course and perhaps passed a standardized test. Learning leaders still had little reason to feel confident about the true readiness of their organizations.

Touted as a revolution, the introduction of computers actually left the model of learning fundamentally unchanged. But the world around the LMS was evolving rapidly.

What changed?

Over the last several years, technological and social changes have been exposing flaws in the LMS-centric model and the entire approach to employee learning altogether.

First, business conditions are shifting faster than traditional training can accommodate. The speed of business demanded by eCommerce, online services, and social media (just to name a few) strain the inflexible content found in LMSs. Employees are increasingly teaching themselves needed skills by seeking answers online in this new era. Additionally, employees are collaborating with each other over social networking tools, enabling them to crowdsource innovative solutions in real time.

Continued technological advancement is also altering consumer expectations towards user-friendly learning tools, and away from the often clunky LMS experience. “Bring your own device” policies and the proliferation of mobile apps for every purpose has eroded L&D as the central (and only) provider of learning information. The employees’ new motto is to decide what they want to know, when they want to know it, and how they choose to learn it.

L&D’s dilemma

Taken together, the swift changes workforces are now experiencing constitute the real learning revolution that the introduction of computers to the workplace was supposed to bring about. The prospect of being a learning leader at a time of flux may seem scary, and it will be for those that dig in their heels and continue applying old methods to an obsolete model of learning. But in the following series of blogs, I will begin exploring the mindset, mechanics, and power structure of this new era, and how we at Saltbox envision L&D surviving, and eventually thriving in the learning revolution.