The Adoption Gap in Learning & Development: How Learning Science Can Bridge the Divide


Key Stakeholders: Chief Learning Officers, Chief Human Resource Officers, Learning and Development Directors and Managers, Corporate Trainers, Content and Learning Product Managers

Key Takeaways: L&D vendors offer a vast array of innovative functionality and technology for their clients. Unfortunately, clients are overwhelmed by the breadth of offerings and desire guidance on what technology to use when, all in the interest of increasing adoption and the effectiveness of learning. An extensive body of learning science research exists that should be leveraged to provide clients with the much-needed guidance. This approach will reduce the existing adoption gap and improve the performance.

Over the past year I have spoken with dozens of vendors in the Learning & Development (L&D) sector. I have also spoken with many of their customers, partners, and potential clients. The good news is that the importance of corporate learning and development is on the rise. Continuous, embedded learning is expected by many employees, especially millennials, and corporations are beginning to see L&D as a profit, not a cost, center. There is still much work to do, but the trajectory is promising.

Unfortunately, the long-standing problems of 60 – 70% adoption and sub-optimal learning and performance persist. In this article, I address both of these problems directly. I argue that the “adoption” gap and sub-par learning and performance can be addressed directly by embracing the psychology and brain science of learning and the best practices that emerge from these considerations.

On the technology side the situation is clear. A number of innovative technologies exist in the L&D sector. From innovative new methods for content creation and delivery, to personalized learning paths, gamification and virtual mentoring, to advanced analytics dashboards for effective management and tracking, the technologies are impressive and hold great promise for revolutionizing L&D.

Unfortunately, customers, partners and potential clients are often overwhelmed by the breadth of functionality and content available to them. Instead of making informed decisions based on learning science, they often select functions and technologies based on personal preference, or the advice of a colleague. This approach works well in some situations, and for some individuals, but falls short in other situations and for other individuals.

The outcome: 60 – 70% adoption, mediocre overall performance, and no clear path forward.

As a learning scientist, I find this state-of-affairs simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. An extensive body of psychological and brain science research (including much of my own research) has been conducted over the past several decades that provides specific guidelines on how to bridge this adoption gap and how to more effectively train learners. As just one example, research suggests that hard skill learning is mediated by one system in the brain, whereas soft skill learning is mediated by a second, distinct, system in the brain. Each of these systems has their own set of neural process characteristics that are targeted most effectively with different training solutions. Put another way, the functionality and technologies that optimize hard skills learning are distinct from the functionality and technology that optimizes soft skills learning, yet most L&D customers use a fixed learning strategy to train both types of skills.

Despite the functional guidance that is provided by this research, few if any L&D customers are made aware of this information. The solution is to engage learning scientists so that they can translate this foundational research into “plain English” that is presented in digestible chunks and is embedded in practical narratives. This will allow the corporate world to adopt the best practices supported by millions and millions of dollars of research, and to offer guidance on these best practices to their clients.

By embracing learning science and the best practices that it suggests, adoption rates can be increased substantially. Adoption rates of 90-100% can become the norm. These best practices will also significantly enhance learning and performance. Employees will be more satisfied and productive, and employee retention rates will be higher.

A win-win for employees and employers.

Note – Vendors taken into account in this note include: Agylia Group, Cornerstone, Crossknowledge, Degreed, Expertus, Fivel, GamEffective, Lessonly, MindTickle, Pathgather, QStream, Salesforce, Skillsoft, Talentquest, Thought Industries, Totara Learn, and Zunos.

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