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6 tips for better digital learning in the workplace

Today's companies need to upskill and reskill their workforces to stay competitive. Here's a look at some of the most important learning and development strategies that can help.

The corporate training landscape has rapidly transformed, and in the wake of the pandemic, digital learning has become critical. Employees want on-demand continuous learning opportunities that serve their needs, and smart leaders understand that.

The number and types of learning and development (L&D) tools is expanding, said Josh Bersin, industry analyst and founder of the HR development resource the Josh Bersin Academy, based in Oakland, Calif.

HR, talent and learning leaders need to understand which tools -- and approaches -- meet employees' needs while also serving their business goals, he said during a panel session on digital learning at the virtual HR Technology Conference and Exposition in March.

To that end, here are six tips that can help deliver better digital learning in the workplace.

1. Give employees flexible learning paths

The growing focus on online training brings with it a host of opportunities to accommodate the many learning styles employees may have and offer ways to collaborate on learning goals.

Corporate training and development that provides microlearning opportunities and learning in the flow of work will be more important. Organizations that focus on giving self-directed learning opportunities and on-demand digital courses -- in which employees can access corporate training and online resources when it is convenient for them -- have clear advantage over those organizations that subscribe to a rigid approach.

Providing inclusive and equitable working and learning opportunities is also important, even if a company decides to bring more workers back into the office and hybrid learning -- or, a blend of in-person and virtual training -- becomes a focus.

"We cannot go back to the places where we have 80% of the people in power in the office in a conference room," said Nuno Gonçalves, global head of strategic capability at food manufacturer Mars Inc., based in McClean, Va., during the panel.

For Sanofi, a multinational pharmaceutical company based in Paris, France, the right hybrid learning equation depends on the capabilities in question.

"We're going to be very mindful of the investment in face-to-face; it'll be based off of the skill, and what is best to serve that skill," said Christine Vaccola, head of global leadership development curriculum and transversal skills at Sanofi, speaking from the panel.

2. Provide opportunities to learn soft skills

People want to know how to be good managers, how to be good leaders, how to work in teams.
Josh BersinFounder, Josh Bersin Academy

Soft skills -- such as change management and managerial skills development -- are key to building successful companies since disruption has become the norm. Today, corporate training programs can use digital tools to teach those behavioral skills.

For example, change management is the No. 1 most in-demand skill in his academy for HR people, Bersin said.

"People want to know how to be good managers, how to be good leaders, how to work in teams," Bersin said.

Other soft skills include storytelling, growth mindset and influencing skills.

These are the type of skills Sanofi's business side deemed critical and the learning team used to build its offerings. Its first virtual offering was about leading through change, Vaccolo said.

3. Create consumer-like learning experiences

One of the major L&D trends is creating better learning experiences, and that means offering more consumer-like online learning opportunities. Employees want simple access to online resources and easy-to-use digital tools that have intuitive interfaces.

Take the experience of Visa, based in San Francisco. When chief learning officer Karie Willyerd started at Visa in 2018, the company already had digital training offerings, she said on the panel. People did contribute great content, but on the user experience front, it was difficult to navigate, so adoption was low.

Visa embarked on an ongoing digital transformation, as the company develops and refines its learning and development approach, Willyerd said. One priority has been simplifying the way users are able to access content on the front end. To that point, Visa uses Microsoft Teams to provide a simple user interface for learning.

Developers created APIs to stitch together about two dozen applications to create the current offering, Willyerd said. The learning experience platform (LXP) is the front end for learners, and on the back end resides the learning management system. For example, learners can access the Intrepid learning platform and Degreed upskilling platform through Teams, where they also collaborate.

"We're really experimenting with bringing everything to the learner in their workspace, even though these are all separate applications," Willyerd said.

We're really experimenting with bringing everything to the learner in their workspace, even though these are all separate applications.
Karie WillyerdChief learning officer, Visa

Getting feedback from employees on what they like and don't like is important, but there are also new technologies that can help.

One way to understand whether specific learning experiences resonate is through the use of xAPI, a protocol that allows companies to collect from different systems what learners are clicking on and using, store it in a learning record store, and apply analytics so companies can improve the offerings. It's an important new technology, Bersin said, pointing to Watershed as an example.

4. Find ways to boost learning engagement

Virtual learning experiences should be associated with rewards, such as credentialing through digital badges and gamification. These tools give important positive feedback to users and help foster active participation in training opportunities and knowledge retention.

For example, Visa built a bespoke gamified system from Leo Learning, Willyerd said. Through its connection to Watershed, a learning analytics platform, the L&D team can see the duration of engagement, where people drop off and other aspects of the learning journey. The vision is to connect that to the CRM to see how the online learning connects to selling.

The company also uses digital badging to give users points for completing certain learning sessions, such as sales courses. The vision is for the LXP to recognize this, connect through the talent acquisition system and suggest well-matched jobs to an employee.

5. Explore VR, AR for corporate learning

Modern technologies such as artificial intelligence are playing a key role in learning and development, and one of the most important of these technologies is virtual reality (VR). No longer just for gamers, VR and its close cousin augmented reality are powerful digital learning tools that have become more important since the pandemic began. 

Autodesk recently took advantage of VR for its Emerging Leaders Program, said Terry VanQuickenborne, global head of learning and organizational development at Autdodesk, a 3D design, engineering and entertainment software vendor based in San Rafael, Calif., speaking from the panel. It used a variety of modalities to target specific needs. Understanding the right modality for training -- for example, where personal coaching or on-demand videos are best -- is another important aspect of where L&D is going.

Autodesk partnered with Immersion to bring simulations into the online learning sessions, along with coaching support and a virtual classroom, VanQuickenborne said.

6. Create a purpose-driven digital learning strategy

Strategy should underpin all corporate online education initiatives. For example, business and HR leaders need to identify the core capabilities for roles, projects and the work employees do as a basis for creating continuous learning and self-directed initiatives that support business goals.

Organizations can deploy digital learning platforms and tools from vendors such as Degreed, EdCast and Microsoft very quickly, but understanding whether learning efforts are contributing to business efforts is another matter, Bersin said.

For Mars, that means working to simplify skills development. The company is implementing an ambitious Workday project, in part to become more agile and strategic with its learning efforts.

"We need to simplify our [job architecture] landscape," Gonçalves said. "How will we be doing marketing or sales differently or supply or manufacturing differently in the future, [and] how does that translate into our job roles?"

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