Digital Age Is Rewriting the Rules for Employee Learning

HR can lead ‘convergence’ to boost skills development

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 15, 2017

Seventy percent of CEOs say their employees do not have the skills their organization needs to adapt to changing digital technologies, according to recent findings from Deloitte. The 2017 Global Human Capital Trends report is based on a survey conducted with more than 10,000 business and HR leaders from 140 countries.

Because technological advances are occurring at an unprecedented rate, for example, software engineers must redevelop skills every 12 to 18 months, contributing to the growing IT skills gap, according to the study that was released in February. And the average shelf life of skills that college graduates acquire during college is only five years, according to separate research conducted in 2016 by the Harvard Business Review in conjunction with Deloitte.

HR professionals have an opportunity, the latest report suggests, to "help leaders and organizations adapt to technology, help people adapt to new models of work and careers, and help the company as a whole adapt to and encourage positive changes in society, regulation, and public policy."

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One way to do this is through "convergence"—bringing together different departments or disciplines such as sales, marketing, finance, design and IT—to create cross-functional teams to more quickly create products or arrive at business solutions, according to the report.

As an example, Deloitte cited the Eli & Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine & Stem Cell Research at the University of Southern California. The center brought together leading scientific minds and the school's top cinematography students. The students were tapped for their knowledge of digital imaging and virtual reality to advance the science team's work.

"Every industry in some way has been disrupted by technology. As a result, organizations need to be less siloed than they've been in the past," said Heide Abelli, vice president of leadership and business skills at Skillsoft, an e-learning provider with U.S. headquarters in Nashua, N.H.

"There's much more of an emphasis on … areas of the firm working closely and effectively together in order to meet the needs of this digital age" and sharing information, such as the marketing department working closely with operations, she noted.

Microlearning Offers 24/7 Training

Training that is relevant, easy to understand and available 24/7 is important to employees, according to an Axonify study of 1,089 full-time and part-time U.S. workers that SHRM Online reported on in December 2016.

Employees are embracing digital tools to access content that helps them learn on the job, but organizations often still rely heavily on in-person classroom-style training.

Microlearning—a way of teaching and delivering content to learners in small, specific bursts—is one way to offer around-the-clock learning, said Rory Cameron, executive vice president of Litmos, Clicktools and corporate development for CallidusCloud. Litmos and Clicktools are learning tools. The San Francisco-based organization specializes in cloud-based sales, marketing, learning and customer experience solutions.

There is a significant increase in completion rates when the training is short, according to Cameron.

Skillsoft's Abelli said employers need to offer learning-on-demand so that employees can access it even when they are "walking between meetings [with] their mobile device in their hands."

It makes learning more meaningful when it is available "at the point of need," said Abelli, who also serves as an adjunct professor at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.

"When you take somebody out of their work context and put them in a classroom [with] an instructor in front of them ... you've taken them completely out of the context" of addressing a challenge they want or need to learn how to handle, she said.

Microlearning may not work for all topics, though, Cameron pointed out. "If you have a complicated product you need to teach employees how to support or sell, microlearning may not work," he said. "It depends on what you're trying to teach."

Meeting the Challenges

One challenge to effective learning and development is the tendency for an organization's departments to run their own training without HR's oversight, Cameron said.

They have "all become training departments" and there is no economy of scale, he said. A company's legal department, for example, typically oversees compliance training, while IT oversees technology education, he noted. And it's not unheard of to have multiple training vendors for different departments, he added.

He offered employers the following advice:

  • Use a single learning platform across the organization. Cameron thinks instead of having different departments overseeing their own training, all training should be centralized under HR. This avoids situations such as new employees missing training on sexual harassment that may have been offered earlier in the year by the legal department. 
  • Use automated follow-up messages, such as texts, to encourage employees to complete their training. 
  • Make training fun and engaging.
  • Deliver training in multiple forms—in the classroom and through mobile and desktop devices. "It should be one [training] strategy, one mission with different subsections," Cameron said. "It should be cohesive ... across an organization."  

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