Content and continuous learning: The cornerstones of a learning architecture

What separates powerful learning and development organizations from the middling crowd? A May 2014 report from Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP looking at the role of a learning architecture identifies what high-impact learning organizations (HILO's) are.

In short, they actively make use of their technology, modalities and learning architecture in support of L&D objectives.

The HILO conversation began with last year's "The High-Impact Learning Organization Series: Maturity Model and Best Practices in the Leadership, Governance and Management of Corporate Learning,"1 emphasizing the importance of measurement, content and culture. This intertwined and influential trio is central to what differentiates HILOs from the competition.

According to the report, organizational leaders in high-performing environments foster support for developing metrics to get an accurate portrait of training and development initiatives on a project basis and drilling down to individual performances. Of equal importance, content and content management systems, which are highly dependent on the technology and tools at the organizations' disposal, either sustain culture and a focus on metrics or counteract them. HILOs, in the vast majority of cases, are able to align these three key aspects in support of a larger learning architecture.

In fact, Bersin's aforementioned report, "The Learning Architecture: Defining Development and Enabling Continuous Learning,"2 puts substantial emphasis on the role content plays in creating a functional learning architecture. The Learning Architecture is a "detailed definition of the basic scope of L&D," Bersin wrote, and content plays a key role in the learning architecture components of core processes and disciplines of L&D.

Fig 1:  Bersin & Associates Enterprise Learning Framework®

Regardless of industry, organizations have strong incentives to develop a clear understanding of learning objectives, as well as the tools and the processes necessary to achieve them. The study found "a company with a well-developed learning architecture is 14 times more likely to be a HILO." At the same time, these organizations see triple the profit growth compared to peers.

As a result, what we're seeing - and what the Bersin report supports - is a transformation in L&D organizations becoming high-impact, a movement that is gaining momentum.

A paradigm shift
A seemingly inevitable aspect of bolstering L&D organizations and creating a more robust learning architecture is content. New technologies allow organizations to create - and drown in - content more rapidly than ever before, but content management infrastructure is lacking.

Speaking to this point, the research highlights the fact that 68 percent of L&D organizations believe that the overwhelming volume of information makes it difficult to keep track of useful information. In other words: "The problem is context, not content." In truth, organizations are capable of developing high-quality learning content, but they don't have a management solution that streamlines all processes - collaboration, creation, distribution and tracking.

And these tech influences push L&D organizations in multiple directions. Just a few examples include e-learning, mobile learning, on-demand video and a diverse array of authors trying to put their stamp on each piece of content. Increasingly, organizations are finding their traditional methodologies aren't cutting it.

Accordingly, we're moving away from a concept of training as a singular, "start-to-finish" framework to the more complicated - and impactful - idea of continuous learning.

Why?

First, learning needs and styles have evolved. As Bersin asserts3, all employees should have access to content when they want and need on all types of devices, irrespective of role or ranking. Additionally, we've entered an era where members of the workforce assume control and responsibility for their learning.

"Research tells us that fully 70 percent of learning occurs outside of formal programs, and that L&D functions that focus solely on formal programs (or education) are woefully under-developing employees," the study4 explained. At the same time, informal learning approaches, including social learning, are finding inroads in HILOs. For instance, user-generated content and message boards provide employees with resources that are uniquely applicable to the issues they face on the job. Those with first-hand knowledge are capable of creating and consuming learning content, Bersin wrote.

Despite the obvious strengths of a continuous learning framework, it breeds complexity. We need to manage learning content using an agile framework and technologies that counterbalance complexity with a simplified user interface that unifies content. This means developing a consistent environment and design, ensuring elements are updated and complete and making sure authors understand audience needs. In other words, organizations need a single-source content management system, capable of reusing content effectively for distinct contexts.

What are the outcomes? Bersin indicates HILOs develop a workforce more capable of retaining information and knowledge, while content adapts to create a personalized learning experience for each employee.

Key takeaways
HILOs result from a cultural shift toward making L&D a continuous process, moving away from one-and-done training philosophies. In striving to become a HILO, content and content management are key pillars to developing a learning architecture. Most importantly, creating a functional foundation by leveraging instructional design and content development processes allows you to remove much of the uncertainty of deploying a high-impact learning solution to facilitate continuous learning.

1The High-Impact Organization Series: Maturity Model and Best Practices in the Leadership, Governance and Management of Corporate Learning, Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP/ David Mallon, Janet Clarey, Mark Vickers, September, 2012
2The Learning Architecture: Defining Development and Enabling Continuous Learning, Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, David Mallon, May 2014
The High-Impact Organization Series: Maturity Model and Best Practices in the Leadership, Governance and Management of Corporate Learning, Bersin by Deloitte, 3Deloitte Consulting LLP/ David Mallon, Janet Clarey, Mark Vickers, September, 2012
4The Learning Architecture: Defining Development and Enabling Continuous Learning, Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, David Mallon, May 2014