Top tips from industry experts to maximize learning success in 2021

Two years ago, Elucidat launched the Learning at Large podcast. Gathering perspectives from our client base and beyond, the aim was to explore the different ways in which the challenges of learning at scale are being tackled. So what can we learn from global leaders delivering transformational learning at scale, and what does this mean for digital learning success in 2021?

4 top tips from industry experts for learning success

4 top tips from industry experts to maximize learning success in 2021

Here at Elucidat, we specialize in scalable digital learning. We support large distributed learning teams, who in turn support large volumes of learners. And by large, we mean 14 million! Typically we’re reaching up to 200,000 learners around the world at any one time.

Elucidat learning success
Those numbers are impressive, but they bring with them a level of responsibility. Have those 14 million people learnt something? Are they, as a result, having an impact on their business? Is Elucidat, through these learners, supporting transformational business change? 

These are the types of questions we ask of ourselves all the time, and with the Learning at Large podcast we started asking them of other people too: consultants to CLOs, HR leaders to CEOs. Four themes emerged from the conversations to help you maximize learning success in 2021.

1. Decentralize L&D

A key challenge faced by learning managers these days, particularly in large, distributed organizations, is how to keep up with the fast pace of business and change. Technology is key in meeting this challenge, and getting it right gives a much-needed competitive advantage in a crowded consumer landscape.

Miguel Primoli Decentralize L&D

Take the retail sector, for instance: high staff turnover, and shop floor staff who need to be well-informed of new product lines quickly and efficiently. 

“We need to provide this learning and this content at a very fast pace to many, many different locations, separated geographically. It needs to be the right content, at the right time, at the right moment – because they need to be able to do their job in the moment and as fast as they can.”

– Miguel Premoli, VP of HR, Boots Walgreen Alliance

Empowering employees, local teams, and managers

One solution proposed by Miguel Premoli (VP of HR, Boots Walgreen Alliance) is to identify experts on the shop floor, people who have the expertise and can share it with others. The role of the learning function in this case is to identify those people and facilitate the sharing – not to design and deliver the content directly. 

Seeing these challenges in your learning strategy? Read our detailed article on solving common retail challenges.

Giving the experts a platform to share might feel daunting: if you’re putting responsibility for learning directly into the hands of employees, how does central L&D keep a hold on what people are actually learning? And where does something like mandatory training fit into this model?

The answer is that it’s not either/or.

“There are certain things that we are going to provide from HQ, centralized, and then we supplement that with a more decentralized approach,” – says Melissa Taylor (Global L&D, Porter Novelli). “We ask the offices to provide ongoing training opportunities that really fit the needs of their office. Because they’re the closest in; they understand what the interests are. Local leadership has to support this too.”

“Our job should surely be to better enable and equip managers to effectively support, lead and develop their teams,” says Paul Goundry (Head of L&D, Utility Warehouse). He does this by providing home training toolkits – frameworks that can be used by people who are not trainers, to help them deliver a sophisticated, facilitated training experience with their team.

These three organizations demonstrate that there isn’t a single ‘right’ way to approach decentralized learning and development. It’s about expanding the reach and impact of learning by:

  • giving experts a platform to share;
  • lighting the fire within specific teams or offices, so that they are bought into delivering learning locally, tailored to their context;
  • empowering managers to take ownership of development within their teams; and
  • giving managers and experts the opportunity and tools – like Elucidat – to author elearning directly.

Democratizing and socializing L&D

Historically, the business determines that training is needed and L&D then acts as the order-taker. “What the learning teams should be doing is ensuring that learning is built into that thinking more, rather than seen as an afterthought,” says Lars Hyland (Chief Learning Officer, Totara). A more democratic approach to L&D, and one which is vital for guaranteeing impact, starts with identifying a need in conjunction with the business. 

Then it’s about working with the right people to deliver learning that’s relevant, authentic and personal. Tracy Tibedo (Director of Commercial Training, Thermo Fisher Scientific) socializes learning design and production. His version of decentralized L&D means his team managing best practice, before getting input from across the organization at project initiation and design planning stage: “Whenever we sit down to write a new course, we go through our process with the key stakeholders – which would be the sponsor, the subject matter experts, and any people who we might be calling upon for help, whether they’re technical experts or sales experts, or people in other countries.” 

Storytelling at scale

Storytelling is a tried-and-tested learning design approach, and it’s most effective when the stories are highly relevant to the audience. Storytelling at scale is entirely possible, as demonstrated by Daniel Hunter (Global Training Manager, 350) who reaches as many as two million learners but still manages to speak to feelings and tap into emotions.

Daniel Hunter storytelling at scale

“The reality is, people learn by what’s next to them. They learn by hearing an example. We wanted to start each online course with something that would elicit from people a position, a thought, a reflection on something that they did. We don’t want to create a belief that the knowledge is what makes it possible. The thing that makes it possible is your feeling…that feeling more than anything else is the heartbeat of what we rely on to make change..”

– Daniel Hunter, Global Training Manager, 350

Decentralization is a key success factor in scalable learning

Reaching more people more quickly, in a way that is relevant and effective, is only possible if we change our mindset, no longer taking orders from the business but instead setting direction, benchmarking best practice, and building a learning culture. 

  • We can set the standard for learning without being responsible for the production of every learning experience. 
  • We can expand our reach by sharing our skills, providing tools to help others deliver training and share knowledge, and creating a ripple effect across the organization. 
  • We can draw on, maximize and magnify the talents and expertise of colleagues and employees without threatening our own role within the organization.

Download your step-by-step guide to developing a successful digital learning strategy

2. Solve the right problem

Decentralized learning at scale means nothing if it doesn’t have the desired impact, so let’s focus in on design processes and methodologies. Every business need comes down to a problem that needs solving, so the first step in delivering high-quality design that guarantees impact is taking responsibility for really understanding what that problem is.

As David DeFilippo (Josh Bersin Academy and Harvard Business School) puts it: “[being] really clear about the overall problem you’re trying to solve for the organization – and being really, really aligned to the business – [ensures] that everything you do is ‘need to have’ not ‘nice to have’.”

Identifying the problem and learner needs

“How can we find out what is a problem in the business? And then, how can we really articulate what would look differently as a result of tackling that problem? That should be our North Star.”

Gemma Critchley, Head of Technology & Innovation for Learning, Aviva

Our conversations with experts across sectors and industries revealed three ways to really get to the crux of the business problem and unearth what the eventual learners want and need.

  • Get close to the problem by going to the employees. Building on the theme of decentralized L&D, “involve the actual people who receive it” suggests Nigel Travis (Chief Executive, Dunkin’ Brands). Nigel believes compliance training would be much more effective if end users were involved in its creation: a bottom-up approach “[encouraging] the individuals to challenge the whole notion of how the training is done”, making training more learner-centered and therefore achieving more buy-in.
  • Look outside the L&D industry. Treion Muller (Chief Product Officer, Korn Ferry) observes that “the consumer and the learner are one and the same person,” so when he looks to do what Nigel suggests and understand the need and what people want, he doesn’t limit himself to the organization, or even the learning industry. He looks to broader consumer behaviour and users this to inform the design and development of his learning solutions.

Design for what people care about. Nick Shackleton-Jones (Director of Learning & Performance Innovation, PA Consulting Group) says “just subjecting people to loads of information about [for instance] new operating procedures isn’t going to see a performance shift.” What people care about is rarely, if ever, the same as what the organization cares about, and the focus should be on making it easier for them to do their jobs. In turn, this will help meet business objectives and improve performance. As Harvard Business Professor Theodore Levitt put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

Nick Shackleton-Jones Identifying the problem and learner needs

“We use the Brinkerhoff, or a variation, case study methodology. What that means in practice is, at the start of a project, you talk to people about the problems that they’ve got in doing their jobs. You talk to stakeholders as well about some of the objectives of their program, and at the end of the program – along with the quantitative measures of utilization and so forth – you actually go back to those groups of people who are using the program and talk to them again about how it’s impacting their work.”

Nick Shackleton-Jones, Director of Learning & Performance Innovation, PA Consulting Group; author of How People Learn

Taking a more adult approach

Gemma Critchley (Head of Technology & Innovation for Learning, Aviva) advocates a move away from education as inspiration: “We started to move the organization away from the idea that tests equal learning. We stripped out your traditional tests and replaced them with a more adult approach, which was asking people to say that they’d read and agreed to the content and knew where to find help if they needed it.”

This approach may set alarm bells ringing for some and, of course, it’s experimentation: it might not work in every situation. Those experiments are how we progress and develop, but it’s important to test them before rolling out at scale. Elucidat’s own 5C framework builds in rapid prototyping to test concepts early, and Lars Hyland spoke about success he has had using control groups to assess the impact of new approaches.

A focus on problems de-risks and optimizes learning rollout at scale

As ever, there’s no single ‘best’ approach and it’s not all about methodologies and processes, but high-quality design based on an understanding of both the problem and human behavior is imperative for learning to make an impact. Paul Goundry (Head of L&D, Utility Warehouse) perhaps sums this up best: “People working in L&D would really benefit from being able to see themselves as product designers, as people who are actually waking up in the morning to solve problems.”

Shape your problem and audience needs with the elearning project plan template

3. Personalize learning

For the last three years, personalization has topped Donald H. Taylor’s Global Sentiment Survey results, cementing its place as a hot topic in L&D. But to what extent can you personalize learning at scale?

Making content relevant and timely

At its core, personalization just means making content more relevant and timely – not necessarily for individuals, but for a specific audience. Perhaps the most basic step that can be taken towards this is creating bespoke content for your organization rather than buying off-the-shelf training, as Nigel Travis (Chief Executive, Dunkin’ Brands) suggests. “It is something that actually relates to your retail company, or a manufacturing company, or a biochemical company – whatever it is. You need to relate it to the situation and you need to give clear examples.” 

If you’re an international organization, localizing your elearning content is a worthwhile investment. Tracy Tibedo (Director of Commercial Training, Thermo Fisher Scientific) highlights that localization is more than translation. “You do need to do some customization of your content, to make sure you’re aware of not just the language change, but also some of the cultural nuances.”

Diagnostics and transformation journeys

The next level of personalization is customizing content and learning journeys for smaller, or more specific, groups of people. 

During her time as L&D Manager at both Hitachi and Tesco, Sam Taylor used upfront diagnostics before a course or learning experience, “to assess where your knowledge level is or what your previous experience is, [and also] how confident are you in this?” In this way, the diagnostic helps to both build confidence and use learners’ time efficiently. 

At Korn Ferry, Treion Muller (Chief Product Officer) has created libraries of tens of thousands of microlearning experiences. Each microlearning experience is generic, but they can be combined in completely personalized ways. “These are expertly designed transformation journeys that take you from here to there: if you want to achieve this, here’s a journey that you need to go on, or that you can put your people on,” Treion explains.

Getting to know the audience

Personalization can only be achieved through knowing and understanding the audience well, sometimes through direct interaction with end users, as advocated by Nick Shackleton-Jones and other of our experts above. When that isn’t possible, consider looking at current patterns of behavior and usage to segment the audience and pave the way for personalized journeys for each segment. 

Karen Hebert-Maccaro (Chief Learning Experience Officer, O’Reilly) analyzed audience interaction with the learning platform and identified four types of learning behavior: linear, nonlinear, broadening and deepening. The behavior a person displays when interacting with the platform reveals where they are in their journey, their level of proficiency, and their needs.

Karen hebert-maccaro learning behaviors

“To successfully promote company-wide learning and development, HR leaders need to focus less on completion and compliance, and instead gain strategic and actionable insights into how employees consume educational content and engage with learning resources. […] Building to accommodate the differences in need of the learner, depending on which behavior they’re exhibiting [is] a way of almost getting some early indication of where your learner base is going.”

– Karen Hebert-Maccaro, Chief Learning Experience Officer, O’Reilly

Keeping pace with modern media

Personalized experiences feel relevant, tailored and relatable. For Jon Kaplan (former Chief Learning Officer at Discover Financial Services) this can only be achieved if we are living up to the digital experiences users are familiar with outside the workplace. We have to up the ante, keep pace, and not be scared to experiment with pushing users for a more testing, impactful learning experience. 

This doesn’t always have to mean complicated experiences and multiple pathways and journeys. Sometimes the best approach is to focus on just making sure the content is there at the right time. Lars Hyland describes this as “a shift from being just-in-case training, abstracted away from your everyday work, and swinging that much more towards just-in-time performance support built into the workflow: having learning opportunities or support pop up for you as and when you need.” 

Personalized learning can be achieved even at scale

Though it may seem daunting to consider scalable, personalized learning, the two can in fact work in tandem to deliver highly effective content and experiences to large numbers of users in diverse roles and locations. 

It doesn’t need to be complicated, and it’s not about delivering unique experiences to individual learners. Understanding the content and knowing the audience is key, allowing you to design and facilitate unique journeys through modular content.

Get the best practice guide to designing effective elearning

4. Measure impact

As an industry we talk a lot about impact, evaluation and measuring success, with a fair amount of criticism leveled at usage and completion rates. Karen Hebert-Maccaro (Chief Learning Experience Officer, O’Reilly) points out that “those things are not inherently bad, but they are inherently limited.” 

Questions that matter more than these statistics are about whether “people [are] finding what they need, getting support to do their jobs better, getting back into their work and doing it with greater ease, with more productivity, with better outcomes,” Karen says. These things are more nuanced and yes, more complex to measure. So how are people rising to this challenge?

Using advanced analytics

One way is to get comfortable with data and analytics that go deeper than hours engaged in content, completion rates, quiz scores and so on. Elucidat offers advanced analytics that help organizations move beyond SCORM and the easily-trackable stats, to start identifying patterns in what people are doing or saying. We offer our users insights into global trends, scale (how many people the content is reaching, directly or via the ripple effect), interaction level and behavior. 

Finding new data

Another way is to move away from systems and stats entirely – or at least to combine those with a more person-focused approach. For Jon Kaplan (former Chief Learning Officer, Discover Financial Services) it’s simple: “Probably the best proxy for how effective learning is, simply ask the learner. Say ‘Was this learning valuable? Do you intend to use this in the future? Would you recommend this?”.

Given the advice above about looking to other consumer-focused industries, Net Promoter Score is worth considering. It’s an index that measures customer willingness to recommend a product or service to family or friends, and is used as a proxy for gauging overall satisfaction with the company and their loyalty to the brand. Companies such as Degreed also base their tracking on similar concepts. 

Applied to L&D, NPS could be used to gauge satisfaction with individual programs or experiences, or with the L&D offering overall. It’s a fairly simple concept that can carry a fair bit of weight when combined with other metrics and evidence. 

Looking for ‘mega impact’

Iris Ware (Chief Learning Officer, City of Detroit) introduced a new dimension to the discussion on measuring impact.

“I think we need to go back to mega impact. What happens when I educate a 40-year-old person in my department and they learn, for instance, to use a computer or Microsoft Office and they can now help their children, and their children are exposed or they see the importance of technology[?] It really has to be your impact on society, because we know that poverty is so often generational, and the thing that typically breaks that is learning or education.”

– Iris Ware, Chief Learning Officer, City of Detroit

Hers might seem a specific example, but the idea of thinking about the much broader impact of what we do is interesting. Is it beyond the realm of possibility for most of us to impact the wider world or society at large through what we do within our organizations? Or can a problem-focused way of thinking, promoted by several of our experts, provide a way into this?

Rather than just looking internally at performance support or compliance requirements, you might look at broader business problems such as social responsibility – topics that really do have an impact externally. There may not always be a role for L&D in solving these problems, but sometimes there will be an exciting opportunity to expand our sphere of influence and really look at the reach of L&D and the wider impact of what we do.

Rethinking measurement to reveal the value of learning at scale

The real measure of learning success has to be whether the hundreds, thousands or millions of people we reach have had an impact on their business: scalable learning is a wasted investment if it doesn’t make a difference. 

Uncovering and proving that impact perhaps requires a new perspective on measurement.

  • Usage stats and completion rates are only a small part of the picture; we need to get comfortable with advanced analytics and global metrics.
  • Talking to people is a good way to bring the stats to life and to understand the difference that learning programs are making to employees on a day-to-day basis.
  • Finding new data can help to uncover a new facet of L&D impact, whether that be Net Promoter Score metrics or wider societal impact.

Discover the everyday guide to learning analytics

Digital learning success in 2021: the people are the key

Every single one of the organizations represented by the experts we spoke to is successfully using learning to support real-life impact. If there’s one common thread that weaves through all the interviews and success stories, it’s advocating an approach where people underpin everything else. Advanced technology, creative use of media and innovative design methodologies all have their place, but what truly elevates them to a new level is being people-centered at every stage of the process. 

The L&D leaders that put people at the center of their learning strategies are the ones causing the biggest ripples in – and even outside – their organizations. 

Join our people-centered learning community

Our vision at Elucidat is to give everyone the power to produce people-centered elearning, so we are delighted to hear examples of people-centered approaches delivering success in a range of organizations. 

If you feel as passionate about your learners as we do about our 14 million (and counting), sign up to our Pledge to join a community of like-minded professionals delivering people-centered learning. You’ll receive our toolkit and checklist, invitations to exclusive events and webinars, and forthcoming whitepapers, as well as a link to all the Learning at Large podcast episodes featured in this report.

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Co-authorStephanie Karaolis