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It’s Time We Made Learning Personal


It’s Time We Made Learning Personal

Chances are, earlier today you received a notification about a friend changing his Facebook profile image. Or, maybe you received...

9 Minutes Read

Chances are, earlier today you received a notification about a friend changing his Facebook profile image. Or, maybe you received a special discount on those tennis shoes you were looking at earlier. Perhaps you received a list of recommendations – articles to read, videos/movies to watch in your queue, people to follow. If you spend time online, you’ve likely been bombarded with consumer-oriented personalization with increasing frequency over the past decade. In fact, as more behaviour and preference data has become available, consumers have come increasingly to expect greater personalization in exchange for this data.

Very little personalization, however, has made its way into how that companies can help associates learn and develop skills and knowledge. Most training products and services – whether developed inside organizations or outside and subsequently offered for sale to organizations – continue to focus on a one-size-fits-all paradigm, resulting in one-size-not-fitting-anyone.

The central issue seems to be a framing effect: the expected experience is a classroom, with the design oriented toward a “sage on the stage” walking through a standardized curriculum geared around an average student assuring maximum coverage of material. The classroom paradigm, as I see things, stands in the way. The paradigm’s focus is not on each individual associate but on some abstraction known as ‘the learner’, an amalgamation meant to approximate some average person in a group of at least dozens, if not thousands, of people. Words matter. We can achieve the kind of connection and engagement with corporate materials if we focus on learning, rather than training. We can produce better impact if we focus on people, rather than learners. It’s time to make learning personal.

Personal. Not Personalized. A Story from Philips Lighting.

I say personal rather than personalized because paradigm shifts require different language that cannot be easily translated into one another. Personal is a reminder that we need to focus on people, not on the systems, processes, or approaches to create that connection. Personal focuses on what individual associates experience and accomplish through the systems, processes and approaches. Mind-set shift starts with shared understanding and shared language.

When I was at Philips, there came a moment of big transformation – how to change an entire organization, 55k people from an analog to a digital mind-set. In terms of related projects, it meant, how to help people understand that the shift from incandescent to fluorescent to LED lights requires a completely different business model and completely different technology. Because it’s not merely a modest update of some terms or some concepts, the idea of putting people through a two-day class or a five-module online webinar series, or a series of e-learning modules was quickly put aside. These classroom-oriented approaches would not address the different levels of awareness among the employees and support a major transformation. Nor would they radically change people’s behaviour or their skill/knowledge bases. It was decided to separate the “what” from the “how.”

The “what” is the goal, immutable, top down. Everyone required knowledge of a level around this new reality. It was agreed that the “how,” the path towards competence, would be freed from regimentation. Allowing freedom to people to decide their own paths. The prescriptive step-by-step directions were replaced with clarity around the goal and options as to how one chose to reach it. The approach meant that each Philips employee chose to reach the goal through e-learning courses, books, gamified practice, classes or even some combination. By focusing on the outcome and offering some choices, employees personalized a path that fit their needs. Giving them the ability to become willing owners of their career destinies resulted in better engagement and outcomes.

The “what” was focused on a knowledge-oriented assessment leading to a certification. We required the certification, but there was no set mandate around how to clear the assessment. Though we were not in the habit of calling Philips Lighting employees as “learners,” the fact that we presented the outcomes in this way treated those employees as adults who have vested interest in taking the appropriate next steps because everyone knew their current level of awareness. An employee could choose to take the thirty-minute exam with no preparation. If they did not clear it, however, they needed to take some additional step to acquire the knowledge. Here too, the means was theirs to choose.

An interesting lesson around certification is that the more difficult you make an assessment, the more the employees aspire to prove they have what it takes. The difficult assessment thus becomes their badge of honor and makes them proud of their achievement. In this example, offering flexible means to achieve a difficult goal resulted in employees being empowered to decide how to acquire knowledge and being celebrated on account of achieving knowledge.

Distinguishing Traditional, Personalized, and Adaptive

It may a good point now to put a few definitions in place. We may separate three distinct learning types:

  Overview Strengths Shortcomings
Traditional More often than not a one-size-fits-all design with a fixed, linear path through content Speed
Consistency of content
Efficiency of delivery
Accounting for individual awareness and skill level.
Personalized Offers individuals autonomy in the form of some choices in the pursuit of a goal, which is usually an assessment. Offers ability to address individual variation.
Allows curiosity.
Speed to achieve results
Adaptive Nonlinear approach through content, leveraging technology to monitor progress, motivation, application. Highly individualized
Continual learning
Performance oriented
Time to setup

I’d like to take a quick step back. In sketching out the difference between a classroom paradigm and personalization, I don’t want to leave a wrong impression: a classroom can address individual variation, provided that the instructor or facilitator has sufficient skill, time, familiarity with the class and the willingness to coach people instead of being the sage on the stage. It’s also safe to say that the outcome is neither assured nor likely. At best, the experience is uneven for the participants. Flipped Classrooms are also a proven approach: theory consumed before the class and the class is used to create common meaning, jointly work through problems, clarify issues under the guidance of a specialist facilitator.

With the three definitions above, we can see that the Philips Lighting example applied personalization, resulting in reduced time to knowledge proficiency and increased motivation. The Philips Lighting employees felt empowered with the options given to them. The organization’s role is to establish the desired outcomes and the mechanism to assure readiness. Personalization is more often a function of design than technology, as compared to Adaptive. Technology is not required in Personalization (though it can help).

Personalization is not a cure-all. But it works well when you need to address people of drastically different levels of awareness and proficiency. Putting them together, as in the case of Traditional, is sub-optimal, unless they are at similar, low levels of awareness and proficiency.

The Path to Personal Learning

There are companies which now give autonomy to employees to focus on their “what.” They are given the choice of moving from sales to technology or vice-versa. The corporate learning and skill development (L&D) function here does not provide career-specific plans but instead offers an approach – an individualised GPS, if you will - that assures an individual can develop and demonstrate the necessary skills or capabilities.

The thought I’d like to leave you with is that, as shelf-life of knowledge and skills decreases exponentially and the need for more highly adaptable organizations requires better speed to skill proficiency, the corporate L&D function will need to rethink design and systems so that individuals can pursue skills at speed and scale. The change is already happening, albeit in unsteady speed.

We have to figure out how an L&D organization can support a very personal experience to make the desired individual and business outcomes more visible. It could require knowledge sites and a way to empower people to get easy access to knowledge topics. It may require approaches we have not considered. But it will clearly need to support autonomy in learning to meet the way consumer personalization experience has shaped expectations. It will require that learning move much closer to daily work, and that it happens in the execution of work.

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