Why Learning Programs Fail

To adapt to the changes brought about by the convergence of a worldwide health crisis, a large-scale transition to remote work, and the ever-increasing pace of technology, more organizations have leaned in to efforts to upskill and reskill employees to meet emerging needs. In the process, many are discovering a familiar challenge — that developing a learning culture and embedding continuous learning into their employees’ day and workflow isn’t a simple reality.

According to Josh Bersin, the average employee only has about 22 to 24 minutes to dedicate to learning per week. So if organizations want to integrate learning into their workforce and workflow successfully, they need to make it manageable. Yet companies are either unsure of where to start or don’t know how to better foster learning among employees of all departments and levels. 

So, why exactly do companies struggle to implement learning initiatives? 

1. Lack of Clarity Around Purpose 

Learning programs often have alignment problems. Companies want a curriculum, but aren’t sure what exactly they want out of it or what purpose they are hoping it will serve within the organization as a whole. Typically, these learning programs fail to align with business needs or totally disregard the interest and value of the learner. 

To be successful, learning needs to address a commercial imperative and strategy, while also capturing the learner’s interests. As an aside, in a recent Gallup study, only 35% of managers and 29% of individual contributors understand how their performance affects their opportunities for promotion which illustrates the potential disconnect. 

When educational material and options don’t align with the interests or perceived needs of those doing the learning, it is natural they will fail to see why they should invest their time in the program. In many situations, the learning material may lack a direct tie to career aspirations, or people may view it as a “compulsory program” instead of something that will help them succeed in their careers and personal lives. Going the extra mile and explaining the tangible value of training is an essential step towards a productive program.

2. Disengaged Management

If the management team isn’t passionate and involved with learning, teams can often question the value behind it. Why should they be passionate or involved with learning if their bosses don’t see the value in investing their time as well? 

Front-line and mid-level managers are the key fulcrum point in any learning program, but according to Gallup, only 66% of managers say they participate in a learning program — and most report not having opportunity for growth and advancement. 

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Meanwhile, management accounts for  70% of employee engagement. When management isn’t engaged, it doesn’t help promote learning among employees. This is precisely why there needs to be investment in development at every level of an organization. If executives engage with and champion programs, employees are more likely to follow suit.

3. Content Detached From Reality

Not all content is good. If the material fails to be realistic and applicable, learners won’t relate to it. An analysis of 1.1 million unique learners from January to March of 2020 showed that pre-pandemic, learner needs were more operation-specific (cloud computing, for example), while mid-pandemic needs were around personal development (confidence-building, listening, etc.). When these soft skills are the focus, it’s essential to provide training that feels authentic to the user experience. 

Training also needs to continually adapt so that people can apply learning to real-world scenarios. Too often learning leans on abstract, theoretical videos or exercises far removed from reality. This can create confusion, making people feel detached and less motivated to continue the learning because they don’t see how it could benefit them.

4. Lack of Prioritization Among Learners

There’s a very limited amount of time workers can dedicate toward learning each week. The standard 1.5 hour learning session can’t fit into the average day, meaning organizations must make learning happen in the flow of work by ensuring that content is integrated and accessible within normal job functions. Learning needs to be always on and always available, allowing employees to engage with it as it fits in their day. Content broken down into 5 to 15 minute sections can be accessed during breaks between meetings or engagements, allowing for a more seamless integration into people’s workflow.

With more intentional implementation and thoughtful content integrated and placed in front of learners, companies are likelier to find success with their programs.

Mark Onisk is responsible for leading all aspects of the strategic direction, roadmap, and development of Skillsoft’s content catalogue. Prior to his role as the company's chief content officer, Mark was SVP of Skillsoft Books (formerly Books24x7), launching the company’s book summary product and increasing the audiobook collection by over 60%. Prior to Skillsoft Books, Mark led strategic business development where he worked on cross functional project and services teams to deliver integrated learning experiences.

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