Over the last couple of years, learning strategy has been making a dramatic comeback. At the risk of dating myself, I’m going to characterize a few swings of the pendulum that I’ve witnessed over the course of my career:
- 1990s: Certain types of learning strategy were so integral to our design and development processes that we couldn’t even imagine doing accelerated development. It would have been malpractice. Because the cost of course production (particularly digital development) was high, it justified the expense of an experienced strategist methodically studying business needs, learner demographics, and job tasks.
- 2000s: With a strong hello to the web, we jumped headfirst into authoring tools, templatized development, and the allusive scalability of easy content distribution. Some may not admit that we questioned the value of thought-prior-to-action, but the math became very different. It became hard to justify the cost of old-school analysis when reworking a quick pilot would be significantly less than the cost of doing a full learning strategy.
- 2010s: This was the decade of all things micro and that included a scaling of our analysis practices. While it was still difficult to justify the comprehensive, three-month strategy exercises, we rolled up our sleeves for quick-and-dirty, rapid analyses, an approach that made strategic use of what was most obvious to the organization. We created snapshots of learning needs and tried to meet those needs with a proliferation of new digital modalities.
- 2020s: I think we’re already seeing a return to strategy. In the 1990s, we did a comprehensive analysis because of the depth of our expertise and the rigidity of our processes. Now, we take a comprehensive but specialized approach to maximize value and accelerate the rate of change. We may spend more on the analysis than other partners of our strategy, but we’re targeting the learner experience in the context of work.
Apart from the horror of realizing that, based on personal experience, I just characterized a shift in practice over the course of four decades is the excitement that where we are now really is the best of both worlds. Today, we might still use rapid analysis to target our efforts, but I think we know a lot more about how to scale our strategy and analysis toolkit. Here is a helpful comparison of ten strategies that each focus on creating a unique insight.
- Rapid: I’m starting with this one because I’ve already mentioned it. This is the 4-10 hour exercise that is mostly used to organize what we already know and not to discover new needs or to better understand complex ones. One of the methods that we use at TTA, focuses on results, audience, performance, insights, and design (RAPID).
- Performance: This approach seeks to fully understand gaps in learner performance so that we can target those gaps. We’ll want to assess performance data, talk to learners and leaders, and calculate the potential value to address these gaps.
- Job Tasks: We do this type of analysis to align learning with the tasks assigned to a role or group. We try to look at the system of roles and tasks to recommend specific learner tracks or journeys that correspond with the requirements of a specific job.
- Content: We have undervalued this very important focus of learning strategy. Today, we look at ourselves as curators—it’s hard to fill that function without studying the content and the context in which it will be used. Ideally, the outcome of this analysis ties to the learning ecosystem and provides continuous improvement and sustainability. If you have outdated content, you may need a learning strategist to help with your overall content strategy.
- Curriculum: This is not the same as your content analysis. In this case, we’re looking at the current state of formal learning tracks and evaluating them. We may look at LMS data, learner feedback, certification requirements, etc., in addition to talking to learners and their leaders. Ideally, the curriculum is an alignment with on-the-job experience that wasn’t possible before but that can be using new technology and methods.
- Technology: The value of this analysis is that you’ll better understand the job that each part of your learning tech stack is doing, feel confident that you’re using the right technologies for the right job, and be able to benchmark your approach with that of best practices.
- ROI: Like many, I’m in the camp of articulating the projected sources of value—there may be some immediate return for certain learner audiences but it’s more difficult to evaluate the indirect impact on performance. Doing so with rigor would be the work of the learning strategist when studying ROI.
- Change Readiness: Some learning strategists also have expertise in change management. These experts can help you look at the overall strategy for change in the organization so that the role of learning can be more impactful. The outcomes may include recommendations for business unit leaders, communication teams, and other stakeholders in addition to the learning team. The roadmap will likely coordinate these efforts in advance of a large rollout.
- Leadership: There are lots of leadership programs out there. How do you choose the program that is right for your organization? Do you build or buy a program? While there may be leadership needs that are general, they are also context-specific leadership best practices that can be evaluated, recommended, and laid out as a strategy for leader development.
- Benchmarking: Typically, we do this whenever a client organization wants to understand best practices. It requires both thoughtful definition and significant research to create insightful comparisons. We see this in rapidly growing organizations that are struggling with how to scale the learning function.
As you can see, we’ve come a long way from demographic questionnaires on media preferences, age or gender ratios, etc. Today’s analysis is less likely to be a canned or templated study and more likely to take advantage of data and existing insights. It also requires a skill set that you may not have within your organization. If you have a team of trainers and instructional designers, it’s worth noting that these sorts of studies are rarely done successfully by these roles (unless they have other specializations). At TTA, we can match you to a learning strategist with the specific expertise required for your analysis, and, as we learn more, we have the bench strength to pivot with additional or different experts.