Learning On Demand: How the Evolution of the Web Is Shaping the Future of Learning

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We also do a lot through webinars. Hammock: Traditional learning and development has gone from instructor-led classroom training to virtual, global, scalable options. More people work from home, which makes it impossible to do constant classroom training. The virtual approach also gives people flexibility and appeals to the fact that they want to learn differently.

Some employees do the programs at night. Others want to do them during working hours. The biggest thing we get from virtual programs is that people can fit them into their lives. That is the central part of our core talent strategy. McKinsey is often referred to as a leadership factory; we have more than alumni serving as CEOs of multibillion-dollar companies. The biggest change in the past five years is the growth of demand for development. Our culture is now very inclusive in this regard: We look at all 28, of our people to determine how they can develop themselves.

That requires broadening and deepening our capabilities. With careers becoming less linear, is it hard to know what skills people need? We cope with that by creating a competency framework that addresses the skills and attributes required for every leadership role. As ladder promotions become less common, career growth happens through movement across our group companies. Hammock: You can never replace face-to-face interaction. The feedback from our big in-person sessions shows the value of bringing people together.

Technology is creating better ways to conduct learning virtually. Leadership development is an ecosystem. Each is a building block. So is our performance culture. We have very clear expectations of people at different points in their careers, and we give extensive feedback that provides ongoing development goals. The goal is to ensure that people are leading their own careers, exploring what they want to do, and making their own choices. What has changed is how quickly hard skills can become obsolete, especially in technical roles.

People struggle to stay ahead on the technical side, and they tend to be reactive—waiting to see how technology evolves so that they know what they need to learn next. Van Dam: There are challenges. Development experiences will vary according to career paths, and different roles require different competencies.

Even in a classroom environment, different people will require different levels of proficiency. They want us to direct them to the best, most relevant content. Some people like to learn by watching a video rather than reading a PDF. Finally, personalization is also about how much time people can allocate to learning programs. When employees are learning virtually, how important is it to form relationships with other participants?

A New Way of Learning

Hammock: Cohorts are critical. Even with virtual work, a top success factor is a well-rounded, diverse cohort that helps people feel engaged. We put a lot of care into assembling these groups so that our employees have a positive experience. With the shift to digital learning, do you worry about whether people are taking the time to participate?

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Online Learning and Training - O'Reilly Media

Padmanabhan: For midlevel employees and below, most knowledge is delivered via digital media. Every company has its own method. Take a store manager in a retail chain. That kind of content is largely about convenience, so there might be minute modules. The convenience increases utilization. For them, leadership development continues to be in the classroom and on the job, partly because that provides better networking opportunities.

The Future of Leadership Development

Within a couple of years of moving into the job, can the CEO manage multiple stakeholders? Is the CEO comfortable in the role? Many things contribute to how each CEO develops, but we look at whether learning and development programs and job rotations have contributed to creating an effective CEO, CXO, or group head. At lower levels there are more-measurable skills—a link to productivity, or better customer satisfaction. Can we do it better? We can grow only if we have more partners in the firm, so one measure is how well we are developing people to become partner.

But we know there is an ROI and a huge client impact. We also know that formal leadership development is only one piece of the pie. Globally and across industries, the typical person spends something like 40 hours a year in formal learning programs, out of 1, hours on the job. Is the cost of developing talent hard to justify when people are likely to leave the firm for their next job?

Ultimately we decided that we want to grow great leaders, and we want American Express to be known for that. For instance, we encourage employees to list the certifications they earn on their LinkedIn page, even though that increases their visibility externally. Traditional approaches to leadership development no longer meet the needs of organizations or individuals. A growing assortment of online courses, social platforms, and learning tools from both traditional providers and upstarts is helping to close the gaps.

T he need for leadership development has never been more urgent. There is also a growing recognition that leadership development should not be restricted to the few who are in or close to the C-suite. The leadership development industry, however, is in a state of upheaval. The number of players offering courses to impart the hard and soft skills required of corporate managers has soared. And yet organizations that collectively spend billions of dollars annually to train current and future executives are growing frustrated with the results.

Chief learning officers find that traditional programs no longer adequately prepare executives for the challenges they face today and those they will face tomorrow. Companies are seeking the communicative, interpretive, affective, and perceptual skills needed to lead coherent, proactive collaboration. But most executive education programs—designed as extensions of or substitutes for MBA programs—focus on discipline-based skill sets, such as strategy development and financial analysis, and seriously underplay important relational, communication, and affective skills.

Executive education programs also fall short of their own stated objective. Traditional executive education is simply too episodic, exclusive, and expensive to achieve that goal. Corporate universities and the personal learning cloud—the growing mix of online courses, social and interactive platforms, and learning tools from both traditional institutions and upstarts—are filling the gap.

There are three main reasons for the disjointed state of leadership development. The first is a gap in motivations. Traditional providers bring deep expertise in teaching cognitive skills and measuring their development, but they are far less experienced in teaching people how to communicate and work with one another effectively.

The third reason is the skills transfer gap. Simply put, few executives seem to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to their jobs—and the farther removed the locus of learning is from the locus of application, the larger this gap becomes. To develop essential leadership and managerial talent, organizations must bridge these three gaps. This challenges the very foundation of executive education, but it is not surprising. Research by cognitive, educational, and applied psychologists dating back a century, along with more-recent work in the neuroscience of learning, reveals that the distance between where a skill is learned the locus of acquisition and where it is applied the locus of application greatly influences the probability that a student will put that skill into practice.

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This is called near transfer. For instance, learning to map the aluminum industry as a value-linked activity chain transfers more easily to an analysis of the steel business near transfer than to an analysis of the semiconductor industry far transfer or the strategy consulting industry farther transfer.

New skills are less likely to be applied not only when the locus of application is far from the locus of acquisition in time and space as when learning in an MBA classroom and applying the skills years later on the job but also when the social Who else is involved? More to the point, it heightens the urgency for the corporate training and executive development industries to redesign their learning experiences. Organizations can select components from the PLC and tailor them to the needs and behaviors of individuals and teams.

The PLC is flexible and immediately accessible, and it enables employees to pick up skills in the context in which they must be used. In this article we describe the evolution of leadership development, the dynamics behind the changes, and ways to manage the emerging PLC for the good of both the firm and the individual. The traditional players in the leadership development industry—business schools, corporate universities, and specialized training companies and consultancies—have been joined by a host of newcomers.

These include human resource advisory firms, large management consultancies such as McKinsey and BCG, and digital start-ups such as Coursera and Udacity. As demand grows for executive education that is customizable, trackable, and measurably effective, new competitors are emerging. Business schools, consultancies, corporate universities, and digital platforms are all vying to provide skills development programs, and each player has certain advantages and constraints. Limited capability to provide contextualized learning.

Inadequate follow-up when customization reaches the realm of personal learning and design. Inadequate technology and know-how for evaluation and feedback. A shortage of expertise in relevant functional domains. Limited ability to measure skills acquisition and application. Limits on contextualized learning and the development of relational, affective, and collaborative skills. First, the PLC has lowered the marginal cost of setting up an in-house learning environment and has enabled chief human resources officers CHROs and chief learning officers CLOs to make more-discerning decisions about the right experiences for the people and teams in their organizations.

A Unicon study reports that the number of corporate universities—which provide education in-house, on demand, and, often, on the job—has exploded to more than 4, in the United States and more than twice that number worldwide. We believe that in the future, however, even as firms offer learning opportunities to more leaders throughout their organizations, the shifting cost structure resulting from the digitization of learning environments will lead to only a modest increase in resources devoted to leadership development.

The second trend is the decline of standard classroom-based programs for executive development, such as those primarily offered by business schools and universities. Most organizations are demanding pre- and postmeasures of the acquisition and application of relevant skills—such as communicative competence and leadership acumen—that traditional programs were never designed to deliver. The dominant platforms now count millions of enrollees in individual courses and tens of millions of total users.


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These trends are linked and form a cohesive pattern: As learning becomes personalized, socialized, and adaptive, and as organizations get more sophisticated at gauging the return on investment in talent development, the industry is moving away from prepackaged one-size-fits-all material and turning instead to the PLC. The PLC enables the fast, low-cost creation of corporate universities and in-house learning programs in the same way that platforms such as Facebook and Instagram facilitate the formation of discussion groups.

Underlying and amplifying these trends is the rapid digitization of content and interaction, which is reshaping the leadership development industry in three important ways. First, it allows the disaggregation or unbundling of the low-cost elements of a program from the high-cost ones. The more high-touch services included in the package, the more a provider can charge. Second, digitization makes it easier to deliver value more efficiently.

For example, classroom lectures can be videotaped and then viewed online by greater numbers of learners at their convenience. Similarly, discussion groups and forums to deepen understanding of the lecture concepts can be orchestrated online, often via platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Google Hangouts, allowing many more people to participate—and with less trouble and expense. Millennials are already comfortable with social media—based interactions, so the value of being physically present on campus may be wearing thin anyway.

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