Effective Learning and Development (L&D) programs are critical for the success of both employees and their employers. But what does it take to develop initiatives that actually achieve substantial positive outcomes? Research suggests that an approach known as “learning in the flow of work” can help ensure that learners retain and apply new skills and concepts in their day-to-day workflows. In this piece, the author offers five tactical, research-backed strategies to help companies build programs that embrace this approach and deliver real results: Contextualize the learning, use frequent nudges, build in time for reflection, create micro-learning experiences, and measure progress. Ultimately, the author argues that to build L&D that works, employers must invest in programs that emphasize ROI, encouraging employees to learn not in the abstract, but directly in the flow of work.
Learning and Development (L&D) programs are critical for the success of any organization. These programs both ensure that employees have the skills and capabilities necessary to do their jobs well, and demonstrate to those employees that their employers believe they are worth investing in — ultimately boosting company culture and fostering greater commitment to the organization.
Unfortunately, many organizations struggle to demonstrate a return on their L&D investments. In fact, one estimate found that only 10% of the $200 billion spent every year on corporate training and development in the United States delivers real results. Why do so many organizations struggle to implement effective learning programs? Research has identified a few common challenges:
- Trainings typically take place outside of the organization, making it difficult to translate what is learned in the classroom into real workplace applications.
- Trainings tend to require the learner to invest a substantial amount of their own time, while still being expected to fulfill all their regular work duties.
- The onus for applying the learning is typically placed on the learner, with minimal follow-up from the instructor once the training has concluded.
The good news is, experts have also developed an approach that can help address these challenges, known as learning in the flow of work. As Shelly Holt, chief people officer at PayScale, explains, “the way people learn has fundamentally changed…We need to create an environment where you learn, you practice, and you apply it. And it’s bite-sized. It’s not 7 hours of courses and then figure out how to do it.”
To be sure, creating an integrated learning experience that’s truly embedded into the flow of work is no small task. But through an extensive review of the literature as well as my own research and experience as an educator, including analyses of more than seven years of L&D programs conducted with a total of nearly 500 participants, I’ve identified five research-backed strategies that can help leaders better align employee development programs with key organizational outcomes, ultimately boosting ROI for both individual employees and for the entire organization.
1. Contextualize the Learning
Research has shown that the greater the distance between the context in which something is learned and the context in which it will be applied, the less likely the student is to retain and use what they’ve learned. However, many traditional L&D programs are conducted outside the workplace, forcing the learner to transfer what they’ve learned between two very different contexts. This substantially reduces the likelihood that they’ll actually apply the new skills or knowledge in their jobs.
In contrast, when employees learn in the flow of work, the knowledge is contextualized within the employee’s organization and typical workflows, thus boosting retention and application. One approach to achieve this is with custom training programs, in which instructors target specific requests on an individual or team level. These programs can be effective in contextualizing learning within the organization, but they are also often expensive and time-consuming.
An alternative option is “learning meetings.” Rather than investing in a dedicated, customized learning program, managers can simply set aside a small amount of time for their teams to learn a new idea or framework, share what they have learned with their team, and discuss how it could be applied within the firm. For example, as part of my research, I conducted a training session on how to have difficult conversations (such as sharing negative feedback with a colleague) that utilized this method: I introduced a framework to facilitate the discussion, and then encouraged participants to share their own experiences with each other. The framework provided a foundation for how to approach these situations, but the group discussion helped the participants contextualize how the framework could be applied to actual conversations they were having within their organization. Just the act of sharing what they learned caused the learners to frame the information in the language of their organization, helping them to contextualize why it mattered and how it could be used in real-world contexts.
2. Nudge, Nudge, Nudge
Decades of research has demonstrated the power of nudges — small contextual factors that encourage people to take a certain action — in a wide variety of environments. In a learning context, short reminders sent via email or push notification can help to keep the ideas and frameworks learned at the top of the learner’s mind and increase the likelihood that they’ll actually be used. Of course, the specifics of implementation will vary, but in general, managers should stick to three basic ground rules to maximize the effectiveness of these nudges:
- Keep the nudge brief and to the point — a good rule of thumb is no more than two or three sentences.
- Clearly link the nudge to the idea or framework that was learned — use keywords the learner has already seen in the frameworks to reinforce a consistent message.
- End each nudge with a call to action that encourages the learner to apply the idea as soon as possible — include a specific behavior that the recipient should undertake within a set time period to motivate near-term action based on what they’ve learned.
In my research, I implemented weekly nudges for a variety of training programs, and the learners in these programs consistently reported in follow-up surveys that the nudges helped them retain and apply the content they had learned. As one participant explained, “[the nudges] offered me quick reminders to take the time to do simple things to improve my management/leadership of my team.” Another described how the nudges “reinforced the learning concept,” while another shared that they “liked that the reminders put the information on the forefront.” These short messages encouraged participants to use what they had learned in real-world workplace situations, cementing the information in their minds, and making it a lot more likely that they’d continue to apply it going forward.
3. Build in Time for Reflection
Reflection is a critical component of the learning process — and yet it is rarely built into traditional learning experiences. To create effective L&D programs, learners must be encouraged to reflect on how what they’ve learned can be embedded into the workday.
For instance, in the trainings I ran as part of my research, I always scheduled dedicated time for reflection at the end of each week. During these short meetings, I would ask the learners to think about and share how they used the information learned that week. I then asked them to describe the impact of those meetings, and I consistently heard that by forcing them to take a step back, slow down, and consider how they applied what was learned, these opportunities for reflection helped the participants better understand and apply the new information. “[Scheduled reflections] really increased the likelihood of me continuing to use what I learned,” one participant explained, while another appreciated how “they got me to slow down and think about how I could use what I had learned.”
4. Create Micro-Learning Experiences
Research suggests that breaking up training content into smaller chunks that can be interleaved into other activities both enhances learning and improves retention. Rather than asking employees to learn an entire subject all at once, effective L&D programs present the ideas from the subject in an easily digestible framework that can be served in bite-sized portions. For example, instead of requiring employees to take a day-long workshop, managers could encourage employees to sign up for short online courses that can be more easily woven into workers’ weekly schedules.
This was supported by feedback from learners in the programs I conducted, in which content was chunked into 15-30 minute microlearning experiences. The participants reported that they strongly preferred these shorter lessons, and they believed they were more likely to employ what they learned when lessons covered just one core idea and how it could be used throughout the workday (rather than including many different ideas in a single training).
5. Measure Progress
Finally, to accurately assess the ROI of your organization’s investment in L&D programs, you have to measure each learner’s progress. This means conducting pre- and post-assessments, as well as tracking real-time changes in behavior, in order to capture the macro-level impact of a learning program. Especially when it comes to measuring the effectiveness of training programs for soft skills, which can be harder to quantify, it’s critical to identify metrics that can help you determine when an L&D initiative is (or isn’t) working.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that learning is an individual process and results can vary widely on a learner-by-learner basis, whether due to different people’s unique needs and skillsets, or due to the impact of events outside of the learner’s control, such as changes in workload or unexpected life events. As such, to assess the overall effectiveness of a learning program, it’s often helpful to aggregate individual results at the team or organizational level. This analysis can help you determine organizational level outcomes, such as how employees’ commitment levels or key competencies have changed as a result of the training. In my own work with organizations, I have found that the following assessment questions can help me identify when a program is working, and where there may be room for improvement:
- Did you use the framework this week?
- If so, how did you use the framework?
- If not, how might you use the framework next week?
Analyzing participants’ responses to these questions enabled me to identify changes in learners’ behaviors that could be linked directly to application of the material they had learned. In addition, encouraging learners to track how they apply what they’ve learned also makes it easier for them to demonstrate the value of these learning programs within their organizations, ultimately increasing the chances that their managers will continue to invest in effective programs. For example, while learners typically list the trainings they have taken over the past year on their annual evaluations, providing mechanisms for learners to measure their progress enables them to provide not just a list of the programs they’ve completed, but also those programs’ direct, measurable impact on the organization.
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Learning and development programs give employees the tools they need to successfully carry out their jobs and advance their careers. Unfortunately, traditional programs often fall short, demanding unrealistic time commitments and failing to demonstrate a measurable impact on key organizational outcomes. To build L&D that works, employers must invest in programs that emphasize ROI, encouraging employees to learn not in the abstract, but directly in the flow of work.