Posted by Jeff Carpenter ● December 12, 2016

2017 Learning Trends: Custom, Adaptive, Anywhere, and Impactful

2016 to 2017.jpgLearning is getting more customized, more adaptive, and made available however and wherever… but as ever, the only trend that really matters is delivering business value.

The way the world works continues to evolve at a rapid pace—and with it, the roles and expectations of the learning & development organization. Learning deliverables must be available in the time and place and format that users need them. Performance solutions are increasingly interactive and customized. And more than ever, business stakeholders are holding learning leaders to account when it comes to justifying budget requests and proving the value of L&D initiatives.

Make no mistake: these are all good things. But they require a commitment on the part of learning professionals to recalibrate the way they think about the role of L&D within the larger enterprise.

We asked more than 100 chief learning officers and other learning leaders at some of the world’s biggest companies to identify the top L&D industry trends heading into 2017. Their responses ranged from emerging technologies to some of the same business-related challenges that, frankly, became commonplace for other organizational departments years ago.

Before delving into 2017’s top learning trends, we’d like to mention one non-trend: gamification. Despite being the source of a lot of discussion in recent years, it is increasingly clear that gamification will not be a key driver of the learning experience, but rather merely a part of the larger learning toolkit. Some of L&D’s loudest voices have sold gamification as the next big advancement in learning, but the time it takes to develop and its difficulty to maintain has dimmed the prospects of this once-shining star.

Here are the top 7 L&D trends of 2017, as ranked by learning leaders…

7. Measure Twice, Train Once

Before awarding funding for L&D initiatives, more C-suites are finally demanding that anticipated bottom-line impact be determined before the allocation request comes across. This boils down to building a defensible business case for everything L&D does. To the extent that this qualifies as a trend, it’s a long-overdue expectation that other business units have approached as routine for decades. Learning organizations have been getting shorted on funding for some time now, and in many cases, it’s because they haven’t been adequately quantifying the value that they provide. In the old days, companies simply set aside X-percentage of the total budget for L&D; in all but the most staid of organizations, the learning function is now expected to go through the same formal budgeting process as everyone else.

Learning leaders like to focus on end users when it comes to analytics, but that’s only a small part of determining business impact. Business counterparts want to better understand how their investment in L&D is driving business results in business terms. It’s no longer acceptable to simply provide means metrics—training hours and learners served, for instance—but, instead, L&D needs to illustrate how it’s enabling results. This causes learning organizations to focus on repeatable processes, innovation, and visibility into their operational practices while partnering with the stakeholders.

The business side wants deeper analysis on how L&D expenditures will deliver value and ROI—it’s a perfectly reasonable expectation. Thankfully, our industry is finally recognizing and responding to this responsibility.

6. Interactive Video Pushes Into the Mainstream

Interactive video has been lurking on the fringes of the learning space for two decades now, but it’s always been more awkward gimmick than valued training tool. Back when VHS tapes were still a thing, “interactive video” meant having actors address the audience, followed by the trainer pressing pause to engage some live component before pressing play on the next segment. Those kinds of cheesy interactive videos, while mildly entertaining and marginally useful, mercifully never caught on in any major way.

Real interactive video is finally ready for primetime, and is expected to become a mainstream category of learning deliverable over the coming year. Even without resorting to complex branching and expensive coding or animation, developers are able to mesh video with the concept of hotspots to create an immersive choose-your-own-adventure storyline, creating a level of realism that resonates. The best part: with software and device costs dropping every year, many organizations are finding abbreviated interactive video development to be a more cost-effective alternative to a full-blown eLearning program.

A note of caution: we expect a near-term tilt toward overuse of low-production video in order to quickly fill the content void. This will need to be reassessed in subsequent years, as technological capabilities and popular devices change over time. Take your time jumping on the interactive video train.

5. Learning Experience Gets Customized

Customizable learning through the use of HTML5 and Experience API (AKA Tin Can or xAPI) will continue to gain pickup in 2017. HTML5 provides the environment for learning professionals to develop training courses for a wide range of platforms, and the Experience API provides the standard for the capture, analysis, and customization of learners’ experiences in those environments. The combination of HTML5 and xAPI is the technology behind custom mobile apps, games, instructional videos, social media, informal learning activities, and advanced simulated learning environments. xAPI allows for learning paths to be customizable to each specific learner’s needs, and allows workers to learn at their own speed.

4. Curation Over Creation

It’s too soon to tell if the massive movement toward curation will be a net positive for L&D, but there’s no doubting that it’s a trend. The amount of content created every single day in 2016 was enough to fill 250,000 Libraries of Congress; you needn’t wrap your head around that to realize there’s a tremendous amount of information out there. And unless you’re training on some brand new technology or an issue wholly proprietary to your organization, you can be sure that somewhere out there, the learning content you’re planning to design already exists, at least in a generic format. Some of that content is great, much of it is mediocre, most of it is bad or useless. But rather than recreating the wheel, it’s increasingly the job of learning professionals to find and identify the best of what already exists and piece it together in a way that addresses the performance issue at hand… and then make it available to users in a format that helps them do their jobs better.

For learning leader Jill Killroy, the assistant vice president of learning solutions for Horace Mann Companies, curation combines the cost-savings and speed to market of off-the-shelf eLearning with the quality and relevance of custom development. “For the past decade, the trend was to buy a ton of eLearning courses so that people could get their hands on just-in-time training,” Killroy says. “Now, it’s more about the ‘right’ courses, as opposed to simply quantity and speed. The focus is on how to sort through all of the information and training content to find the right solutions.”

Does this mean L&D is no longer a creative profession? Of course not! Instructional design will always have some art to it, but the underlying construct is undergoing a radical and long-term shift. The fear that instructional designers are becoming more like librarians than authors is overblown, but there is a growing component of their role that includes curating existing content and making sure it's relevant and reliable, versus starting storyboards from scratch.

This is also part of a broader movement toward L&D doing fewer things, but doing them better. Consider the case of a major software company, which identified its key goals for learning—everything else was designated for curation, and the learning organization would no longer create or even update content. Instead, that L&D function now just provides links to external, self-directed training, updated as users provide input and suggest additional content.

3. The Rise of Adaptive Learning

Adaptive learning systems—programs that are truly personalized and customized to each individual learner—have long been seen as the holy grail of L&D. Based on artificial intelligence, algorithms, and deep analytics, true adaptive learning remains something of a futuristic technology… but rudimentary versions of the concept are already cropping up in beta testing, and it could see widespread pickup within the next year or two.

With adaptive learning, the system determines a user’s unique performance support needs based on their job requirements, the results of skills and knowledge assessments, and their near- and long-term career goals, and it generates a learning plan and content recommendations specific to that individual. Two people in the same job role might have wildly different learning paths because of divergent skill gaps and interests. Besides the obvious theoretical benefits to the individual learners, adaptive learning systems could provide company executives with tremendous insight into personnel needs and organizational strengths, allowing them to optimize resource development budgeting and workflow balancing.

Gone are the days of having rigid curricula that all learners must navigate. Learners need to self-assess and be presented with a series of learning experiences—not events—to help them achieve personal and professional goals. This can be augmented by learning experiences, provided or encouraged by managers, to ensure learners are given additional opportunities to round out their portfolio. While some of the items on this top trends list are a bit backward-looking, this is one trend where learning leaders are very much on the leading edge.

2. Create “Impact,” Not Merely “Learning”

Not every performance issue requires a learning intervention. This isn’t news to successful learning leaders, but it remains a foreign concept to a large swath of business stakeholders. Fortunately, L&D has begun pushing back on demands for training solutions when training simply isn’t the right solution. Learning leaders are ditching the order-taker mindset, instead adopting a consultative adviser role to uncover root causes of performance issues. “It’s about moving to a portfolio management model and prioritizing requests in terms of how they fit within the broader context of the portfolios,” says Teri Hart, chief learning strategist at Discover Financial. “From a process, people, and tools perspective, this represents a huge organizational overhaul.”

Moreover, the learning landscape more generally is changing, and L&D needs to broaden its capabilities and functionalities accordingly. “While formal and informal learning design will still be a part of the portfolio, we need to think outside the box to create performance solutions that are integrated into the work of the organization,” says the CLO of a major retail chain. “While learning objectives are important, our focus needs to be moving the business forward, and if we are not impacting our most strategic business objectives and business results, we are wasting time and money.”

1. Deliver Learning on the Learner’s Terms

We live in a mobile, on-demand world. Learning that happens on someone else’s schedule, at a predetermined time or on a designated device, becomes more outdated every year. To remain relevant, L&D has to make learning solutions and job aids available to its user population however and whenever they want to consume it.

Mobile learning in particular has seen a lot of false starts over the past decade—it’s been an almost-trend for several years, but its share among learning deliverables has struggled to go much beyond the 5% mark. Everyone talks about it, yet not many folks have actually been using it. But with mobile-friendly HTML5 having emerged as the HTML standard, it’s never been easier to create device-agnostic performance support. As BYOD (bring-your-own-device) becomes an increasingly acceptable practice within most IT departments, mobile learning will finally rise.

We expect 2017 to be the year that on-demand mobile learning breaks through from hot buzzword to standard learning deliverable. If your L&D organization hasn’t already started down the path toward implementing some form of mobile learning program, you’re already a big step behind.

L&D Takeaways Heading to 2017

Business leaders are becoming better at understanding the specific value of learning and how to leverage it. As L&D has become a field of study (like management, marketing, finance, etc.), business leaders are becoming more sophisticated at integrating the strengths into their planning process. This has caught many L&D leaders flatfooted and scrambling to provide their teams with the business acumen to be credible with their business peers. So how can learning leaders stay ahead of the curve in 2017 and beyond?

  • Focus your time on fewer learning interventions, but do them better.
  • Make precision impact—avoid shiny objects in search of greater-value innovations, like adaptive and customized learning.
  • Be personal, ensuring the end user remains part of the conversation.
  • Don't let technology overshadow the fact we are still a people business, but instead leverage it to provide data supporting efforts and results.
  • Above all, be conscious of proving the value of L&D at every opportunity. Spike the football.

One final note: We’ve heard a lot of people recently claim that classroom training is dead, but they couldn’t be more wrong. The classroom is still king, but it needs to be leveraged differently. The days of stand-up-and-lecture are over, but the multimodal learning experience is the future. The classroom needs to become the laboratory of the learning experience, where learners are working on issues, experiences, and problems together, to learn how to adapt and react to real-life issues. So don’t send out classroom’s obituary quite yet.

In short, it's a great time to be in L&D, and the brighter light shining on proving the value of learning will only make it better… for those who are truly creating bottom-line impact at their organization. If you’re not on board with that basic idea, then it's time to open up an antique shop. That’s a prediction you can count on.

Topics: Learning Trends