Learning tech expert Nelson Sivalingam argues organizations must put aside traditional, plodding approaches to developing learning content and adopt Lean and Agile principles instead. By creating “minimum valuable learning” content and iterating toward a fully viable product in sprints, professionals can develop relevant learning linked to business outcomes – at greater speed. Sivalingam, who heads a learning technology platform, refreshingly refrains from using his book as a marketing ploy, offering a convincing case for bringing Lean and Agile to L&D.
- In a world of exponential change, those who learn fastest will win.
- Apply Lean management principles to develop L&D initiatives at speed.
- L&D organizations often fail to match their products to their customers’ needs and wants.
- Connect your learning strategy with the work that needs to be done.
- To guide development of your learning strategy, create a one-page summary of your business challenge.
- Deliver personalized learning in the flow of work.
- To develop new learning solutions, adopt Lean approaches such as minimum viable products and sprints.
In a world of exponential change, those who learn fastest will win.
Firms listed on the S&P 500 once survived an average of 65 years; now their average life span is 15. Once-essential barriers to competition – quality, price, people – offer less protection today. According to the World Economic Forum, in 2022 more than half of all workers required upskilling to remain effective in their jobs. In this environment of constant and accelerating change, fast learning gives organizations and workers the best protection against both obsolescence and competition. Whether the challenge is to develop a vaccine during a pandemic or keep pace with required skills, speed matters.
“Speed of learning is your organization’s competitive advantage. The faster your workforce can learn and apply what they learn, the more likely your company will win.”
The key to success lies in learning faster than your competition in order to seize emerging opportunities first. Start-ups apply Lean principles and Agile approaches to develop new products and services: Through a process of iteration, they experiment to determine which challenges matter and which solutions will work for their customers, before they invest significant time and money. Learning and development (L&D) organizations should apply the same methods to develop and deliver content iteratively, while soliciting real-time feedback from learners.
Apply Lean management principles to develop L&D initiatives at speed.
Yesterday’s hierarchical, formal, plodding approach to learning must give way to fast learning linked to corporate objectives. This means giving up familiar but slow processes such as ADDIE (Assess, Design, Develop, Implement, Evaluate) in favor of Lean Learning: the application of Lean management principles to L&D. Lean Learning emphasizes close coordination with learners and the use of small chunks of learning. Chunking learning allows L&D professionals to revise and improve products while aiming the learning at the right people at the right time and linking it to the right business problems.
The L&D organization should first dive into the business problem it has identified. This means going deep into discovery and never selecting a solution before understanding the problem. In general, L&D professionals should adopt an action orientation, prioritizing speed over perfection, but time spent deepening their understanding of the challenge is well spent.
Once L&D understands a problem, getting a product into use quickly will benefit learners more than waiting for a beautifully designed course. By speeding a beta product into users’ hands, L&D can gain valuable feedback, engage in a process of iteration and deliver a series of constantly improving versions.
“Lean Learning is about helping teams learn what matters in the shortest time, apply it in the moments that shape performance and iterate based on feedback until you solve the business problem.”
Many organizations take a monolithic approach to course creation – that is, building a comprehensive product all at once rather than in pieces – and require multiple layers of approval. This approach results in development processes that can take months and products that cost tens of thousands of dollars or more, only to prove irrelevant to the problem by the time they launch. Instead, L&D leaders should collaborate with learners and should empower L&D teams to experiment, fail, learn and repeat in order to field relevant solutions faster, with less waste. Teams should iterate the most difficult or risky parts of proposed solutions first.
L&D organizations often fail to match their products to their customers’ needs and wants.
Despite overall annual spending of about $350 billion on corporate training, 75% of managers express disappointment with the results. Indeed, only 20% of workers would recommend their organization’s learning programs. Too many organizations build learning that serves little to no purpose. And their learning culture – whether by deliberate design or by default – often lacks alignment with business objectives. In this sense, L&D organizations frequently make the same mistakes that failing start-ups do: creating products without first finding out whether they’ll serve a need for customers. L&D professionals who design learning to close specific skill or behavior gaps, improve performance, or help employees achieve their career goals tend to gain an audience.
Some companies emphasize compliance in their training and offer workers the bare minimum necessary to meet regulatory requirements. Others go a little further, providing onboarding workshops, for example. These organizations typically offer centrally developed, formal classes. More advanced organizations build learning around skills development. They value learning and encourage employee development, but the emphasis remains on formal learning.
“So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.” (Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake)
None of these approaches can keep pace with the speed of change today and the need for continuous learning – both formal and informal. And organizations that take these approaches typically fail to track learning against measurable performance or outcomes. In fact, only about 10% of organizations today measure the impact of training and align learning offerings to business objectives and financial goals.
Connect your learning strategy with the work that needs to be done.
L&D professionals should invest time up front to understand the problem to be solved. Think in terms of developing a learning strategy, not course creation. Consider what job needs to be done, in the sense management thought leader Clayton Christensen defined: the end goal or purpose of the learning product or solution. Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” Then connect the learning strategy to that job-to-be-done.
Don’t make course creation your default solution to every problem. A worker might learn better by using an existing tool found online, for example, or by talking with colleagues. A one-on-one with a manager might solve a problem better than a learning intervention. Instead of attempting to solve every problem by building a new course, L&D professionals should learn what the organization needs and then make incremental investments toward fielding relevant solutions.
“The best way to avoid building something no one needs or wants is by talking to your customers.”
To learn more about the problem and the context, talk with the people who will use your solution. Ask them about the problem and why it matters. Ask what success will look like, whom your solution will help and what they’ve tried before. Ask what they think will work best, why, and how they get the job done now. Prepare your questions before the interview, and have a means to record the conversation. Listen attentively and demonstrate curiosity. Share the highlights of these interviews with your team. Compare your notes from multiple interviews, looking for patterns. Along with the material from these interviews, consider data from corporate systems, the results of surveys and other relevant information.
To guide development of your learning strategy, create a one-page summary of your business challenge.
Break learning problems down into their smallest components, and work on solving each component individually. Scientists call this the first-principles approach; they use it to strip a problem of biases, assumptions and constraints in order to see it clearly and surface solutions they might otherwise have missed. You can apply the same approach to learning challenges. For example, if you’re considering whether to purchase a learning management system (LMS), begin by asking what business challenge you expect the LMS to solve. What LMS features will bear directly on solving this problem? Don’t purchase an LMS just because everyone else has; start with the problem you hope to solve.
To apply the first-principles approach systematically to developing a learning strategy, create a one-page statement of the business challenge. This summary, called a Learning Canvas, covers every important aspect of the learning strategy. It includes the following nine sections:
- A summary of the problem you’ve identified.
- A list and brief description of the types of people who will use the solution, based on jobs, departments, locations, and so forth.
- The benefits the solution will deliver for these people, by group.
- A description of the solution you intend to build in order to achieve the benefits you’ve listed.
- A list of the critical learning resources you’ll build, buy or borrow for learners to use. These might include links to information, new courses, short videos and the like.
- A list of the key partners and stakeholders with whom you expect to collaborate, such as subject-matter experts, IT professionals and team leaders.
- A list of the metrics you’ll use to track progress. These should link directly to business objectives.
- The ultimate measurable outcomes you hope to achieve.
- Estimated costs to develop and deliver the solution.
Deliver personalized learning in the flow of work.
People learn best in the context of their work; they pay more attention to learning when they need a skill or knowledge now, in order to do something. By delivering learning when it’s needed – in the flow of work – L&D professionals can make their contributions more impactful and relevant.
Don’t waste time and money building courses people don’t need. According to a 2017 report, employees get 79% of their web-based learning outside the organization – from learning resources they find or even create on their own. Most of the resources people need already exist somewhere on the web, either free or available for license. On average, organizations spend $30,000 to create just one hour of original learning content. Finding and curating quality content that already exists will save time and money. Knowledge exists inside the organization, too; you might only need to help people find each other or provide a platform for employees to share their knowledge through wikis, videos or other microlearning content.
“The research suggests that the timely delivery of just enough learning, personalized to the individual’s need and incorporated into everyday work, is how people learn best.”
Some companies hold hackathons to help employees learn and ideate. Open online courses permit employees to learn together. Simple job aids, such as templates, checklists, charts, QR codes and instructions, support as-needed learning that takes place while people engage in important tasks. Ongoing, timely coaching and mentoring can make an enormous difference in people’s learning and career development.
To the extent possible, create learning environments free of distractions. Leverage technologies that help employees access learning, suggest relevant and timely content, or connect employees for peer learning. Give employees access to online resources for self-paced learning, and consider holding flipped classrooms, where employees learn material on their own and then discuss it as a group. Give people the time they need to learn, and offer content that fits their available time. Create psychological safety, so employees will feel free to take risks and share ideas.
Verify that learners have gained new knowledge by administering tests before and after the learning or by asking learners to articulate what they’ve learned. Test skills development by using simulations or giving stretch assignments that allow learners to demonstrate their skills.
To develop new learning solutions, adopt Lean approaches such as minimum viable products and sprints.
The Lean approach, whether applied in manufacturing, software development or other contexts, starts with the creation of a minimum viable product (MVP). Teams build an MVP quickly, according to their best hypotheses as to a solution that would solve their problem. They don’t expect the solution to succeed immediately; rather, they use the MVP to gain important feedback from customers.
L&D professionals can adopt the same approach. A “minimum valuable learning” (MVL) should include all the elements of a learning experience that will deliver the outcome you seek, according to your Learning Canvas. Creating an MVL can help you test and validate solutions, collect feedback, and iterate toward a full solution. This approach reduces development costs, allows L&D to respond at speed to business challenges, spurs co-creation with learners and earns their trust and buy-in.
“The important thing is not your process. The important thing is your process for improving your process.” (Agile and Lean coach Henrik Kniberg)
For each iteration of the MVL, execute a sprint of two to four weeks. Break the task into small chunks, and address one or more chunks per sprint. Assign a knowledgeable sprint master – similar to a project manager – and a challenge owner – akin to a product manager. Both should work with the learning experience team to execute each sprint. Each sprint will drive an iteration that includes mapping ideas, planning the sprint, building and testing the MVL, gathering feedback from users, discussing the results and capturing insights for use in the next sprint.
When the MVL has evolved into a product ready for implementation, promote and market it to learners by using social media, reminders, influencers and nudges, as well as traditional marketing methods. To measure and demonstrate the solution’s performance, link learning outcomes to key performance indicators such as customer satisfaction, cost reductions, new client acquisition, and so forth.
About the Author
Learning and technology expert and serial entrepreneur Nelson Sivalingam is the co-founder and CEO of the London-based edtech platform HowNow. He also hosts the L&D Disrupt podcast.
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