Accounting for the failure of corporate learning programs

This article was written by Darren Liviniuk, VP, Operations of Pathship, a company which is revolutionizing employee learning and development.

Businesses are falling behind because careers and roles are changing faster than the processes that support talent development; companies are failing to provide employees with the learning opportunities needed to be successful in the new innovation economy because corporate training models were created in the 1970’s when jobs were safe and roles were static.

Around us, the pace of technological change continues to accelerate. For context, a 2010 study unofficially dubbed “Larsen’s Law” asserted that the rate of scientific output had doubled every nine years since the end of World War II. Unfortunately, while we have learned more about the cognitive development of humans in the last ten years than in the previous two thousand, a time travelling student from the early 1900’s would feel at home in the modern classroom. Rather, innovation in education during recent years has been confined to the wide-spread proliferation of novel ways to share standardized content online.

For consumers, the digital age has ushered in an era of unprecedented personalization: insurance companies charge premiums that decrease as policy owners exercise, online retailers recommend products based on preferences and buying patterns, and thermostats program themselves based on daily routines. Technology-driven solutions provide mass personalization at minimal incremental cost, allowing organizations to deliver better outcomes to end users.

Corporate learning, however, has been mired in stagnation due to concerns about the cost of sessions — rather than leveraging mass personalization to achieve better learning outcomes, human resources executives have led a “race to the bottom,” emphasizing static content deliverable at massive scale to lower the cost of each user session. Despite this focus, the Association for Talent Development reports that the average cost of each learning hour used (meaning, if 30 employees attend a session, 30 hours have been used) is still in excess of US$80. For organizations in rapidly changing industries with greater learning demands, such as software development, this average increases as high as US$137.

With even the godfather of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun, calling massive online courses a failure, it is time for companies to rethink the standardized approach to learning. If nothing else, human resources leaders should consider the following factors before focusing on static content.

1. Learning infrastructure is costly and inflexible

For static eLearning (e.g. prerecorded videos, guided reading materials, or online assessments), the direct cost of delivery is trivial; likewise, for a classroom session held using in-house trainers. What drives the fully-loaded cost of learning so high?

According to Dun & Bradstreet, more than 50% of training expenditures for companies relate to staffing costs for dedicated learning professionals. Traditional organizations depend on a massive “learning-industrial complex” that defines learning needs, creates content, and facilitates delivery.

Using technology, we have witnessed a radical leaning of business processes: Amazon operates grocery stores without checkouts, Expensify creates expense reports without human intervention, and Google Assistant provides an executive assistant to every person with a (very expensive) mobile phone. It is time for corporate learning executives to use software to connect employees directly with the resources they need, reallocating much needed investment into high quality content and training opportunities for end users.

2. Content is outdated before it reaches users

According to a 2009 study, it can take up to 180 hours of dedicated staff time to create one hour of conventional instructor-led training. For organizations that deliver thousands of hours of learning each year, the requirements are staggering — an army of dedicated learning professionals creating content that cannot pass through multiple levels of review and approval until months later. Meanwhile, employees struggle with new developments for their industry, eventually receiving training only after having dealt with the issues on the job for months.

In a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world, it is more important than ever for employees to have access to on-demand learning opportunities — indeed, each customer interaction, client business, industry specialization, or marketing campaign requires a unique combination of skills and knowledge. As low-skill, routine labour is automated, it will become more critical for employers to provide personalized learning opportunities that suit the needs of the innovation economy.

Employers need to embrace the concept of self-directed learning. Rather than relying on top-down plans from learning administrators, line employees under a self-directed model are empowered to seek out learning opportunities that help them overcome weaknesses or roadblocks self-assessed through their day-to-day activities. Rather than being viewed as a checklist for compliance, learning under this model becomes an enabling factor performance. Dedicated learning staff become facilitators and coaches for personalized learning, rather than the directors of a standardized experience.

3. Quantity is not the same as quality

Where learning is concerned, Deloitte is a model organization — a progressive employer that practices what it preaches through leading human capital consultancy Bersin by Deloitte. As a professional at Deloitte, I was required to complete more than 100 hours of training per annum (compared to an average of 32 according to the ATD study above). Training was provided using all of the best practices expected from an organization such as Deloitte, leveraging a mix of delivery models and international sessions with peers from different geographies and functions.

Unfortunately, one ingredient was often missing: relevance — because of the differing nature of industries, clients, responsibilities, and teams, training has became something client service professionals do to check a box on performance reviews, while real learning would happen in the field through mentorship and hardship. Executives should be wary wherever learning hours are presented as proof of a healthy learning and development function. When employees are pulled away from revenue-generating activities, there is a real cost — learning professionals need to work relentlessly to ensure that each hour of training is relevant and productive. With this in mind, a more expensive form of delivery which has proven to have better results, such as one-on-one or small group coaching, can make sense.

Under the self-directed model for learning, employees have access to learning through a combination of static content covering routine activities and live coaching covering complex activities. Like a student visiting a private tutor, the employee can learn exactly what he or she needs to know at a given time, increasing the return on learning hours and allowing companies to reduce the total time allocated to learning activities.

Learning professionals need to evolve or lose relevance

The innovation economy is here, and with it comes new fluidity and complexity. It is time for human resources to change the way it interacts with employees; rather than driving a top-down process, learning professionals need to hand control over professional development to each employee, acting as coaches and facilitators. Using software solutions and crowdsourcing logic to automate planning and administration, learning professionals can focus on becoming proactive strategists and catalysts for their organization. Human resources needs to change, but this should be cause for excitement rather than fear as companies move into a bold new age for talent development.


To find out more about how Pathship is leading change in HR, let’s chat!