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Jul 4, 2013

As companies recover from the economic downturn and strive to meet targets and goals, they face business challenges directly linked to talent recruitment, retention, and development with increased competition for technical expertise in a shrinking talent pool.

Many of these challenges can be solved by impactful and efficient strategies that accelerate talent development.

To accelerate talent development while fulfilling employee needs, companies should consider implementing a learning program that consists of clear learner expectations, education, exposure and experiences.

Traditionally, formal training has been the focus of 90 percent of talent development strategies, even though these programs account for only 10 percent of actual employee learning and skill development. Instead, companies may benefit from implementing employee-driven experience-based learning, despite difficulties in determining how to measure and align on-the-job (OTJ) learning with job competencies.

Defining learning from experiences

Traditionally, learning organizations have defined OTJ learning as a combination of rotational programs and controlled apprenticeship/technical experiences. However, today’s emerging technology solutions, paired with rapidly increasing demands for improved talent and learning opportunities, have encouraged companies to shift their mindset from traditional OTJ learning programs to employee-driven OTJ learning.

In other words, OTJ learning should be redefined from a formalized structured program to a concept that also includes individualized learning from experiences.

To adapt to this new approach, companies should:

  1. Implement structures that promote continuous learning from experiences.
  2. Provide on-demand content and micro learning generated by employees and the learning organization.
  3. Create opportunities for learning reflection.
  4. Use development conversations to plan the desired OTJ learning experiences


A recent Corporate Executive Board study shows that talent performance can improve three times as much by learning on-the-job instead of through traditional, formal learning programs.

This ratio does not suggest that formal learning programs are obsolete; rather, it implies that formal learning and experience-based learning are both important components of an effective learning program. Interviewees who participated in a recent study recognized that learning occurs daily through experiences and interactions. However, they expressed concern that because it is difficult to structure and measure such learning, they were compelled to utilize formal education for talent development purposes.

For companies to view learning as a part of work, they should establish guidelines and frameworks around employee developmental experiences. This requires a shift in how employees and organization conceptualize learning.

Employees need to shift their focus from what will be taught to them in a formal setting to what can they learn while performing their jobs. This will make their everyday experiences become more purposeful and their talent development will grow without a significant effort or cost to the organization.

Organizations can further aid in this shift by providing frameworks for experiences customized by employee positions and needs. Organizations will also need to encourage informal mentoring and networking to provide employees opportunities to engage with coworkers in OTJ experiences.

On-demand learning

To foster experience-based learning, learning organizations should also “crowd source” knowledge using new technologies.

Although learning organizations must relinquish a certain amount of content control, employees benefit as they collaborate and share knowledge with each other. New media such as YouTube has dramatically impacted how employees expect to learn while at work so companies should consider adapting these technologies for collective OTJ learning.

Learning organizations can catalyze learning experiences and give employees the opportunity to develop new skills quickly when needed by providing an array of connective and interactive tools to employee. This allows companies to keep up with the changing work environment.

User-generated on-demand learning

Technological forums such as blogs, Twitter and Facebook enable user-generated learning opportunities, which have been shown to increase productivity and enable immediate learning experiences.

Studies demonstrate that employees are more engaged and motivated when given autonomy, like the choice to pose questions to broad audiences, interact with mentors and problem-solve with peers. When more informal social media tools are integrated properly into a learning organization’s strategy, employees have demonstrated higher levels of learner engagement, more positive learning experiences, and better retention of materials.

Company-generated on-demand learning

Company-generated on-demand learning opportunities also accelerate talent development through micro learning opportunities, which can be an effective way for talent to develop new skills independently without relying on coworkers or formal learning programs. With the help of technology, on-demand content such as videos and job aids can be easily created and distributed.


A key component to experience-based OTJ is self-reflection. Employees should process what they learned to accelerate their learning experiences. Companies, therefore, should allow for reflection time so that employees can identify the key takeaways and areas for improvement from their experiences.

Reflection should not be a formal process; rather, it can take place through conversations with management, colleagues, and mentors or even personal journals. However, processes should be in place so employees can properly reflect to fully benefit from the OTJ learning experiences.

Professional development conversations

Employees should also have the opportunity to discuss development goals with their managers to identify potential experiences which could be beneficial for career goals. Although learning organizations should implement basic structures for these discussions, employees and managers should take ownership of the conversations.

These conversations will allow them to assess if the self-guided learning is meeting specific professional development aspects. The learning organization can assist the process by providing development paths with clear guidelines of how experiences, education and exposure can advance the talent growth of employees. These can then be customized by the manager for the individual.

Benefits of learning from experiences

Learning from experiences can benefit talent and companies alike. When learning organizations shift to employee-driven experience based learning, companies may be able to:

  • Provide cost-effective learning. Employees get high value learning at a lower cost by capitalizing on crowd sourcing, new technologies and employees’ desire for self-improvement.
  • Quick response to increased skill demand. Employees can quickly participate in OTJ learning to learn new skills to support changing business expectations.
  • Accelerate learning through on-demand learning and work relationships. Companies can combine formal learning programs and OTJ learning through experiences to accelerate learning.


Several challenges can emerge as companies move from formal learning programs to OTJ learning experiences:

  • Behavioral changes — Adoption to the new approach may be slow; communication and change management around the new approach may be required.
  • Control — Relinquishing control can be a struggle; but, if learning organizations put structure and guidelines in place to allow for autonomous experience-based learning, employees can influence their own skill development
  • Tracking and measuring  — OTJ learning calls for a more informal approach but still needs to include measurement, feedback, reflection, and manager involvement to maintain effectiveness.

A new era of OTJ learning

Companies may be able to meet their business goals and employee needs more easily as they shift from formal OTJ learning to experience-based OTJ learning.

In the new era, companies should act as catalysts for experience-based learning by framing and channeling existing experiences to enable success. Companies should expand their definition of learning from as a formal program to one that includes employee-driven experience based learning. They need to realize the value of day-to-day interactions and how they can provide a foundation to this type of learning.

By partially surrendering control of learning content, less time and resources may be needed to implement and maintain effective talent development.

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