The Latest Trend in L&D: What You Need to Know When You Need It

In today’s job market, providing employees with a paycheck and benefits is not enough to retain talent. Even for perk-loving millennials, catered lunch and unlimited PTO won’t necessarily do the trick. According to a Gallup survey, 87% of millennials say that professional development and career growth are significant to them. Additionally, another survey found 46% of employees say limited opportunities to learn new skills is the top reason they are bored in their current roles and looking to make a change.

Studies from leading organizations (including SHRM) estimate that every time a business replaces a salaried employee, it costs an average 6-9 months of the position’s salary. For an entry-level associate making $40,000 a year, that’s $20,000-$30,000 in recruiting and training expenses, according to PeopleKeep. Businesses simply can’t afford to ignore the writing on the wall – that employees are motivated by the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge, even more so than cool perks, informal work environments and money. This coupled with the pace of technological change in the workplace has made it vital for today’s employers to offer workers the opportunity to upskill and reskill on the job.

The union of these trends has made performance adjacent learning –  learning within the process of work – a valuable variant of performance support. Yet, many businesses struggle with how and how much it will cost to accomplish this. The first step for organizations interested in modernizing their learning and development (L&D) efforts is to understand this shift in learning and how to capitalize on it, then arming employees with the learning and development tools they need to succeed.

What is performance adjacent learning?

Performance adjacent learning does not mean embedding tools directly into a workflow, but instead, minimizing the effort and time it takes to access information, so a person is able to return to their workflow quickly. Many organizations already employ a variation of performance adjacent learning in performance support tools.

For example, a call center employee may have a computer program that runs them through the introductory speech provided to incoming callers. From there, the software might provide customized responses to queries and solutions, enabling the employee to solve issues without having to memorize dozens, or even hundreds of protocols. This type of learning can be highly effective in various settings and puts information at the employees fingertips. However, such designs require custom tools to meet each individual workflow. Performance adjacent tools do not have to be directly embedded in the workflow and so can be inclusive of many different workflows across many functions within an enterprise.

How does it work?

The keys to successful performance adjacent tools are frictionless access, finely tuned search functionality and the ability to return a variety of content types so the user can quickly and easily get an answer, solve a problem and then quickly get back to work. This is important because most learners aren’t simply reading an e-book or watching a video demonstration in its entirety and then applying those lessons immediately.

In fact, data from O’Reilly Media found that 42% of learning events were nonlinear, driven by the need to solve a problem or get an idea in the moment. What’s more, learners who are more advanced in their level of proficiency in a particular topic are more likely to behave in a nonlinear manner. This has significant implications for learning professionals because it suggests that to optimize nonlinear learning is among the best ways to continue to support the growth of more proficient learners.

How do you measure it?

Performance adjacent learning, which occurs both constantly and sporadically, requires that we think differently about how to measure it. Metrics, such as time spent in a learning module or moving onto a next level are not relevant for learning that is happening all the time and at particular moments of need on the job. Despite this, the value of short bursts of learning is significant and can have immediate impact.

For example, a software developer is working on a particularly challenging piece of code for a new product feature. They find themselves stuck and unable to proceed and ask a few members of their team but are still unable to find a resolution. As a next step, they enter a learning ecosystem, search for a term that describes the problem, and are directed to the precise section of a course, book or video that addresses the specific issue. Instead of continuing to troubleshoot, the employee is able to find the answer and returns to work within minutes.

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How to get started

Learning is no longer confined by classroom walls, working hours, desktop computers or even books. Technology has made learning ubiquitous, and it can and should happen all the time in the course of work. As such, performance adjacent learning is an obvious path to stay in-step with the pace of technological and business change. This can be in the form of highly searchable and indexed learning ecosystems, augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) training and a host of other options that make it easy for workers to find what they need and return to their workflow, learning while they work.

Enterprise organizations that want to succeed need to embrace performance adjacent learning. Not only does it empower employees to learn in the moment of need, but it can also help keep employees happy, engaged and less likely to seek opportunities elsewhere. Learning tools designed specifically for performance adjacent learning can also increase efficiency and improve productivity. Lifelong learning and development is no longer a nice-to-have, but a need-to-have, and organizations that don’t get on board risk losing their most important asset: their human capital.

Karen Hebert-Maccaro

Karen Hebert-Maccaro is chief learning experience officer at O’Reilly Media, Inc. where she is a key member of the executive management team, responsible for leading and managing the organization’s content and learning strategy. In this capacity she oversees the development of learning initiatives and programs for Safari, O'Reilly's learning and training platform, manages both creation and curation of available content, and directs the internal editorial teams in acquisition, development, and delivery of content and products for learning, training, and events. She additionally oversees the relationship and execution strategy for academic markets.

Immediately prior to O’Reilly, Karen was chief learning officer and VP of people development at healthcare technology and biotechnology companies. Most recently she served aschief learning officer of AthenaHealth, a healthcare technology company. In this capacity she oversaw all learning and development from new hire through to executive development.

Prior to her corporate roles, she had a 15-year career in academia and independent consulting. Karen held academic leadership and faculty appointments at both Babson College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) where she was the founding associate dean of WPI’s School of Business and still holds a post as affiliate professor of business. At both academic institutions she taught undergraduate, graduate, and executive courses on leadership, organizational behavior, change management, managing conflict, influence, decision-making and organizational design.

As a practitioner, educator, researcher, and consultant she has developed extensive expertise in the areas of talent management, leadership development, influence and change management, and innovative pedagogical design.

Karen holds a PhD from Boston College, an EdM from Boston University, and a BA from the University of Massachusetts.