Will Contextual Learning Upend Traditional L&D?

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Jul 11, 2017

Businesses devote a lot of time and money into corporate training programs. Last year, total U.S. training expenditures increased slightly to reach $70.65 billion, with companies spending an average of $814 per learner compared with $702 the year prior.

It’s no surprise that these impressive figures continue to grow. Millennials – who comprise the majority of today’s workforce – are not only accustomed to speed and flexibility, but crave constant and continual professional development opportunities. A Deloitte study found that millennials want to see the number of hours focused on professional development increase from the current average of 2.7 hours per week to 4.5 hours per week.

The question is: how effective are investments in learning and  development? By some estimates, only 10% of corporate training is effective, which could ultimately lead to inefficient programs and frustrated employees. The challenge is for learning and HR professionals to identify engaging and cost-effective ways to incorporate programs that support and satisfy the needs of workers.

In the last few years, a slew of learning and development tools have emerged aiming to make learning more appealing and digestible. These have included from microlearning (small bursts of “how-to” videos), mobile video training, social learning and integrating gamification elements into critical learning paths.

Contextual learning advances

While it’s clear that technology developments will have the greatest impact on learning and  development in the next few years, it’s really the advent of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence that is transforming learning and development to become more real-time, personalized and measurable – what is called “contextual learning.” This diagnoses what a person knows when he or she is using a system, and then providing only what is unknown – based on data derived by deep analytics and AI.


What is “contextual learning”? According to Robert G. Berns and Patricia M. Erickson it is, “a conception of teaching and learning that helps teachers relate subject matter content to real-world situation, and motivates students to make connections between knowledge and its applications to their lives as family members, citizens, and workers.”


There are five reasons why contextual learning is uprooting traditional learning and development models:

1. Contextual learning stays current

One of the biggest challenges when rolling out traditional learning and development programs is that thanks to the fast pace of doing business, training can become outdated very quickly. Particularly if the training is focused around a particular technology, once the interface changes or there are updates to the system, any materials will need to be revised. Contextual learning, which is embedded within a system, does not need to worry about making these adjustments, as it is designed with built-in guides.

2. It doesn’t rely on our memories

In reality, research shows we’ll forget 70% of what we learn in a day, and people need to apply what they’ve learned immediately for it to stick. But when it comes to traditional classroom-style approaches, employees don’t instantly use those learnings to their jobs – and the longer time elapses, the harder it will be to remember, because it’s being taught out of context. Obtaining the information when it’s needed means that employees aren’t digging through old notes trying to decipher what was written, or delve into their recollections – rather, what they need is clearly outlined in front of them.

3. It is performed in real-time

Today, we’re craving information and updates in real-time. Rather than waiting for the annual performance review, employees want opportunities for constant feedback. Similarly, if an individual gets stuck on a task, it’s common for him or her to turn to a co-worker, search for the answer, or – if it pertains to using a system – ask IT helpdesk for support. There’s more pressure today to find the information instantly, which classroom learning, webinars and knowledge bases struggle to provide.

4. It is personalized to the employee’s behaviors

A key benefit of contextual learning is that by tapping into the latest advancements in machine learning, a system can identify and “learn” the job function, skill sets and behaviors of an individual employee to understand what he or she needs to do, and then proactively guide them through a task.

For example, if an employee needs to complete a performance appraisal using a software that he or she hasn’t used before, through contextual learning the individual can be guided on each step. In contrast, if the employee is well versed in filling in his or her goals in the appraisal but has recently moved to a managerial position, contextual learning can focus on guiding him or her to accurately review and sign off on the performance review of a person he or she is managing.

5. It can improve the bottom line

The Harvard Business Review notes that new hires who use old learning methods can take eight to 12 months on average to become fully productive. Additionally, the time spent in creating a training module, arranging the logistics for everyone to attend, maintaining the information so that it stays current and responding to employee questions can make it learning and development initiatives are long-winded exercise. Tools are becoming more readily available that can make a significant improvement to this process, saving time and money.

The rapid acceleration of new technologies – especially around AI and big data – means that it’s an exciting time for learning and development initiatives. New developments reflect the broader trend in how organizations are rethinking the resources they need to address their employee’s demands, adapt to changes in the workforce, and grow in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

The future of learning will be focused on delivering relevant, timely and measurable information, where speed and flexibility are critical. Savvy learning and HR professionals should not only understand how these changes can affect their training programs, but know how these trends will tie back to overarching corporate goals.

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