Learning theory of everything
February 7, 2019
by Dima Syrotkin
"The change is coming" is a paraphrased headline that is on everyone's mind in the business world. Primarily because of digital, but also due to many unforeseen side storms it brings with it. "Learning is the answer" is another headline that was trying to spark to life recently, but, according to my observations, is a little hard for the business leaders to believe in. This article is titled the way it is because I would like to unwrap a number of problems that are connected to Learning & Development as an industry and see if there are any realistic solutions available. The goal here is to see the big picture, Everything, and I would love for you to point out what I missed - so take notes and buckle up for the ride!
The problems of Learning & Development

I would claim that we (aka the management of the businesses) don't believe in learning. Just one example: L&D is one of the first areas to cut the budget. And there are good reasons for that. Of course, first of all we could say that the pay-offs tend to be relatively long-term. I would claim though, that the benefits of learning can also be short-term and that there are more factors at play. Let's think what could compromise the quality of learning.

Here is my mind map of challenges in learning. I would go over different elements further and it would be good to keep it in mind also when going over the possible solutions we could think of to tackle our problems.
  1. rategic challenges

In some way, strategic challenges in business are like trees in the forest: there are many of them and, in many ways, they represent almost everything that the forest is. In order for the learning to reap results for the company, the company's strategic direction along with the company's assessment of the required strategic capabilities should be correct and profitable in the long-term along.

Both of these challenges are often handled by consulting firms. One that I've lately worked with is Taival Advisory. They've written quite a bit about digital change (https://taival.com/digital-is-here-to-stay/) and AI strategy and capability development (https://taival.com/artificial-intelligence-strategy/).

(2) Cultural challenges

Learning culture is the new trend among the HRD community. In the recent survey we've done for the research of interest topics for our L&D podcast, learning culture came out as a winner. Learning culture is, essentially, a part of the bigger, organisational culture. And that, I would claim, heavily depends on the leadership. Since leadership and especially top management are by definition at the top of the hierarchy, few people can tell them what to do when things aren't working out. It's often hard to express that things aren't good, especially in a culture that doesn't support candour, which becomes a catch-22. Ironically, one of the best tools to develop leadership in an organisation that we have is training.

Another way to develop learning culture is through what I call "interventions" - any kind of systematic or non-systematic efforts that tries to improve the culture. That's usually an easier domain for the HRD. Easiest example is an office: modern and hip offices help to boost the motivation of the employees. Nevertheless, whether it's a new office or an innovation center, any intervention is difficult to measure. How do we know if our efforts actually work out, especially in the organisation with thousands of employees, where we can't "just feel it in the air"?

(3) Learner challenges

As you might have read in my previous article, perceived relevance of training for work is a thing and it influences the end impact quite drastically. That being said, I would say very often relevance is a strategic and cultural question. Strategically, is the needed capability going to be developed through the training? Culturally, am I as a learner aligned with the organisation's strategic direction and understand it?

Tools to empower learners is a different question. Previously, everyone was hyped up about e-learning. Mostly, because it's cost-effective. Nowadays, when we look at the statistics of the videos watched by the employees and the engagement metrics, we turn to microlearning as a new promised land. Microlearning or not, both HR development and trainers understand that if we want people to learn on their own, we need to enable them with proper, engaging tools.

(4) Trainer challenges

Finally, judging from my own experience as a trainer, all trainers are different in their skills and capabilities. I've seen both transformative programs and utterly boring and irrelevant ones, ultimately costing the same. Thus, a difficult objective for the HR is to buy quality trainers, preferably also affordably.

On the other bank of the river, an objective for any trainer is to improve his or her service. The better they are at their job, naturally, the more satisfied clients they get and the better is their business.

How shall we approach this bundle?
As you see, the amount of challenges connected to improving learning is quite extensive. Now, let's do a thought experiment. Let's try to come up with a solution for one of these problems and see how far we get with the rest.

Idea 1

The easiest to think of first are trainer challenges. First of all, how do we help HRD with their choices? Well, let's see how it's done in some other industries. Choosing a doctor, lawyer or consultant isn't easy either. Usually we try a couple of options and settle for good enough hoping that the difference between good enough and great isn't worth our time spent searching. On the other hand, if we think about choosing a hotel, a restaurant or a taxi we have dedicated marketplaces that help us navigate through the quality of those goods. A hotel can be evaluated through AirBnb or Booking.com, a restaurant - through TripAdvisor, a taxi driver reliability through Uber or similar app's rating. I've wrote about the need for building a corporate training marketplace 2 years ago and the article was a hit.

Idea 2

Nonetheless, while the idea has some merit, as you might have observed, hotels, restaurants or taxi drivers are much easier to evaluate and compare than training providers. How could we possibly measure learning? Well, as it appears to be, there have been quite a number of scientific models developed and papers written on the topic. Many of those have been implemented as a product on a consultancy basis. The challenge with such a model is that companies can't afford to pay consultants the same amount of money they pay for most of the training - it is just way too expensive.

Recently, a number of Software as a Service (SaaS) dashboard analytics products have appeared on the market. Unfortunately, the challenge with those is the fact that the their main feature - collecting data from different sources and creating dashboards - isn't enough for providing solid insights to HRD and L&D professionals who often don't have data analysis background and don't reap proper results from the dashboards presented to them. And even if the software would be perfect at providing insights based on the data we feed it, data collection remains to be a problem.
Would could be the solution? Thinking about the factory system, division of labour and industrial revolution, it reminds me of... Standardisation! Oh well, and also the recent rise of automation and Artificial Intelligence. We need the SaaS' power of lowering costs and the consultancy's power of providing rigorous results. That's where AI comes in handy. But for AI to work we need an ungodly amounts of data (and yes, this data should actually be standardised for the algorithms to make any sense of it!). Standardisation of data collection in corporate training evaluation could potentially be a big breakthrough allowing to lower the costs of the evaluation by one, two or more orders of magnitude!

Idea 3

Yet, the challenge of data collection remains. If we have the best AI on the planet but aren't able to collect proper data (which in this context means feedback from participants) - the solution won't work. And as you have guessed, people don't like giving feedback. They like surveys even less. That's why it makes sense to provide some value to learners in exchange for the valuable information and not just interrogate them without an end in mind. Of course, the purpose is improving experiences of learners and that should be sufficient, but, unfortunately, that's too far off in the future.

While everyone thinks about the microlearning, the mobile phones come to mind. Our phones became a big part of our lives. What if we could develop a learning assistant that could help people learn and not just interrogate them? A chatbot could be a good mechanism for the collection of data, but also for helping people to learn with methods like coaching. One of the main benefits of such a learning assistant could be its ability to interact and remind people of itself over time, send notifications and interact with the learner. This learning assistant could also be much more than just a chatbot, also providing people a spaced out microlearning content, providing a forum for a discussion with the trainer from a recent course and provide analytics and insights about the learning metrics for the particular employee.

Now, imagine that we could create a learning assistant that could help us collect better data by empowering learners, a framework for collecting standardised data and algorithms for analysing it and providing actionable insights to the HRD and the management as well as the public platform where some of the metrics could be displayed in order to compare different training providers between each other. That's a lot of ifs, but this is a thought experiment after all. We had to do all this in order to solve a single problem in learning. As you see, learning is no easy nut to crack. But now let's see if we have tangentially hit some other problems.
It seems like many things in learning are interconnected. As you can see, we would have solved at least half the picture with our 3 ideas. First of all, the platform and quality standards would enable HRD to know what they are buying. Second, the training evaluation framework would allow trainers to improve in their craft. Third, the learning assistant could be a perfect tool and platform for other tools for the learners. Fourth, the training evaluation framework in combination with the collection of the contextual data with the learning assistant would allow to evaluate the effectiveness of cultural interventions.

The other half of the picture just shows us how leadership is interconnected with learning, culture and strategy. And, frankly, that half still seems to be pretty hard to control. That being said, welcome to the learning theory of everything! Oh, and if that isn't obvious yet, all of the 3 ideas featured about are the ideas that we currently work on at Panda Training - a startup concerned with bringing corporate education to a whole new level.

Anything we got wrong or missed? Let us know in the comments and let's develop the "theory" together!