Corporate L&D’s Share of Learning Declining: Should We Be Concerned?

There is concern in the industry that a decline in formal learning is leading to a smaller share of the “learning market” for corporate L&D departments. The analogy is a marketing department’s concern over a declining share of the consumer’s wallet as other products or services displace their own. In our profession the worry is driven by a move toward employee-directed learning where employees are bypassing formal corporate training programs in favor of online learning opportunities offered by outside organizations as well as self-directed learning on the internet and informal learning through their own networks. Several studies in the past two years have confirmed the shift and it is certainly a growing topic for discussion in the profession.

So, should we be concerned about this shift? In general, I don’t think so. First, for the sake of those new to our profession, let’s be clear that it was never the goal of any corporate L&D department to control 100% of the learning for the organization’s employees. Nor was it ever a reality. There has always been informal learning going on outside the reach of a training department. Although not a fan of the 70:20:10 principle it certainly reminds us that formal training plays an important but usually limited role. With regard to control, most organizations have always offered discretionary or elective learning opportunities, including tuition assistance, where employees were free to choose their own learning.

Now, back to the question. I think the answer really depends on the mission of the learning department. If the mission is narrowly defined to focus on providing consistent, uniform basic skills to employees, and if those employees are now getting inconsistent and perhaps incorrect information on their own which detracts from their performance, then, yes, we should be concerned. Think of basic skills training in industries like manufacturing, banking, or food services where the goal is for employees to perform tasks in certain defined ways. Similarly, if your focus is primarily on compliance, you don’t want employees getting a lot of incorrect information on the internet. In these cases the amount of formal training provided has probably not decreased but the informal has increased so the share of formal has declined. More to the point, you may have to work harder or redesign your formal learning to take into account what employees are picking up through their own channels.

If the mission is to provide learning to improve performance through additional training beyond the basics, then I think there is less reason for concern. Think of formal learning to improve the performance of marketing employees or most leadership development programs. As employees learn more about marketing or leadership on their own, the share of the knowledge they have gained on these topics from your formal training will decrease but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, if they are actively looking to learn from outside resources that shows a high level of engagement. Like in the cases above, you may need to take these new sources of learning into account when you design your programs. You could incorporate the good sources that are consistent with your approach and refer to the issues or problems with the approaches not consistent with your formal teaching. In either case, the employees are probably going to learn more and be better prepared for the challenges they face on the job.

Last, consider a mission which is primarily to increase employee engagement. Here there is little reason for concern if employees are migrating to more learning opportunities outside your formal learning framework. Yes, your share of their total learning is decreasing but the good news is that they (hopefully) are finding what they want. In fact, in this case you would want to do all you can to help them find and access great learning – whatever the source. The easier you can make it for them, the more engaged they will be. Mission accomplished.

I think this shift towards deceased share of learning for corporate L&D departments is indeed a permanent shift and the trend is likely to accelerate as more outside resources become available and as organizations make it easier for employees to access them. Some caution is required depending on the department’s mission and type of offerings, and the shift is likely to force changes in how formal learning is designed, which is fine. I think the future remains bright.

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