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Looking Ahead at Learning in 2016

This article was originally posted on Chief Learning Officer on January 22, 2016 by Cushing Anderson.

Chief learning officers are constantly adjusting the tactics they use so learning has the most impact on their organizations. With a broad set of tools, topics and techniques, they must mix and match content and delivery options to address their unique organizational challenges. But CLOs continue to wonder: Are alternatives or nontraditional approaches addressing their needs? Are other CLOs approaching issues differently? Do they see greater opportunity for emerging tools?

Every other month, IDC surveys Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board on a variety of topics important to senior training executives. Research indicates that training budgets are recovering. In many cases, CLOs reported their training budgets for 2015 were more than 8 percent above their 2014 budgets. CLOs have been increasing their focus on technology, training strategy and performance consulting. But do CLOs believe this growth and broader development mandate will continue in 2016?

Optimism Increasing

Training executives remain optimistic about employee development outlook. For the fourth year in a row, more than half of CLOs are more optimistic about the coming year, for several reasons. In the U.S., CLOs see improvement in the macro-economy that reflects in their stakeholders:

  • Decreasing unemployment
  • Raising stock market
  • Rapidly evolving business environment — globalization, customer requirements, regulations, etc.

Several executives said the optimism comes from a track record of success, and that leads to even greater expectations. Some learning leaders report their business leaders are more aware of the effect learning and development can have on business productivity. One CLO said training and development helped her overcome a severe talent gap: “We’ve decided to develop our employees and provide them with competencies critical to business success [ensures] skills are available, on-demand.”

Generally CLOs said 2016 growth will lead to increased relevance and opportunity for the learning function.

This year’s optimism continues a trend from 2013 when more than half of CLOs were more optimistic about the coming year. As recovery continues to take hold, training and development organizations are returning to the levels of importance they held early in the past decade. This bears out in CLO budget expectations as well. As we reported last November, more than half of CLOs saw a budget increase in 2015, and more than 60 percent expect a budget increase in 2016.

In addition to spending more, companies are expecting positive contributions from the learning organization:

  • Eighty-one percent of CLOs expect training to be more aligned with company business objectives.
  • Seventy percent of CLOs said the perception of training within their company will increase compared to last year.
  • A majority of CLOs said training offerings will be better integrated with other talent management functions.

Focus Carefully For Impact

CLOs continue to see leadership as an important topic, because “leadership training drives everything else.” Some learning leaders see leadership as a necessary, and possibly neglected, competency. One reported: “This is an area that has been lacking for a number of years. [But] the company has made a significant investment in the area of leadership training recently.”

Others see leadership development as an opportunity to address future pipeline requirements. Said one CLO: “Leadership development [builds] a prepared pipeline for workforce planning.”

Others are trying to engender broader employee success through conscious leadership training; “Continued support of middle managers is key to performance, accountability, positive morale and engagement.” For these reasons and others, leadership development remains a vital part of the CLO toolkit.

Competencies continue to be perceived as a significant opportunity. A strong competency program has overarching benefits, and, like leadership, appears to be a foundational element of high performance and helps organizations focus. One CLO said, “Competencies are the key to operational excellence.” But it can be complicated. As one CLO described it, “Currently we don’t have effective ways to evaluate skill/knowledge/application levels by role and/or function so we don’t have a progressive development plan to … measure these learners against the competencies.”

To maximize the effect of training and development activities, CLOs must adopt techniques that can be scaled and leveraged throughout the enterprise. Informal learning is expected to have a very positive effect on enterprises in 2016. Learning leaders are increasingly anticipating the value of self-directed and even incidental learning. They’re also making resources available to support self-directed, on-demand learning experiences. This approach can magnify the effect of a small learning organization.

Other key activities with significant impact are:

  • Instructor-led training, mentoring and executive coaching: All of these basic capabilities for CLOs have powerful potential. The expected impact of instructor-led training, mentoring and coaching reflect the power of the learners and experts working together to pass along knowledge. In some cases, focus on ILT is a result of disappointment with e-learning; it also can be more effective: “Hands-on, group interaction learning is the most effective for us,” one CLO said. CLOs see mentoring as essential to support learning transfer and the employee as well as to build a connection with the mentee. While this requires a formalization of relationships and activities, learning leaders said it is a great way to get consistent performance without impacting the bottom line. Similarly, executive coaching can provide candid, confidential support to senior management.

  • Informal learning: Some CLOs focus on informal experiences because of efficiency. “Informal learning allows our organization the biggest bang for the buck and allows for many areas to be touched on” and “informal learning is the only sustainable way to pick up knowledge, information and skills that are directly relevant for work.”

    In 2016, CLOs said the learning industry should focus more on some of the core learning and development capabilities: informal learning, measurement, knowledge management and getting knowledge into learners’ hands — mobile. Learning leaders also would like the industry to spend less time talking about wikis/blogs, social networking and even mobile learning technologies.

    Wikis and blogs have been waning for several years, likely because of the high volume participation required to keep them engaging and relevant. Social networking or social learning also seems to set off CLO’s hype alarm.

  • Mobile learning: It’s a conumdrum – it deserves both more and less attention, likely because it’s not so much about the device as it is the experience. As one CLO said, “Mobile is a way to deliver the training, just like the web. The tools to develop have gotten so much better that there doesn’t need to be a distinction.” But some said it’s only effective for some employees, such as people in field sales or technicians. Some organizations don’t have the infrastructure or the inclination.

To Technology and Beyond

Much about 2016 remains uncertain. Some think learning and development investments will grow, others are cautious.

CLOs offered predictions on the economy, hiring rates, new technologies, and the evolution of development, among other topics. Their challenges and opportunities include millennial ascension, the value of college degrees, technology evolution and tight-fisted department heads.

Generally, learning leaders feel optimistic that the tools they need are available to make learning strategic: “More companies will began to tie competencies and development directly to strategic goals within their strategic plan.” Therefore, the “industry will be viewed more favorably by leaders.”

While technology will be important, the role of relationships is increasing: One CLO said the industry will move “back to relationship focused training and coaching”; another predicted that “informal learning will become strategic.”

Those relationships also might extend to the relationship between learner and content. One CLO said, “In 2016, training will become more about context than ever before.” But, training has to be specific: “Training departments will have to focus on context — how does this tool, or this information apply to you to make your job easier or better.” And, “Training will be more customized, and business focused with content and sessions evaluated more critically against return to the business.”

Overall, CLOs said leadership development and increased use of informal learning will have a profound effect on organizational development. There is debate over the efficacy of mobile and social learning, but CLOs said technology use will increase.

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