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Developing a Sustainable Learning Strategy

May 18, 2022

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Natasha Roberts

Director, Learning & Development
Helen Keller International

When people speak about developing a learning strategy, there is a lot to consider. We hear explanations about building the right learning environment; utilizing the latest technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality; creating a culture of learning and growth; aligning to the business objectives and strategy; and conducting a needs assessment. The first time I had to develop a learning strategy, I wondered what all of this really looked like in action? No one organization is the same, so how do we develop the right learning strategy and ensure that it is sustainable in the long run?

Start with the Culture and the Data

Find the data: Is the learning function new in your organization? What kind of data has been collected on past trainings and workshops? Have employee engagement and workplace culture surveys been conducted?

Learn the culture and consider your own experience: Meet different team leaders and others across the organization to find out how people collaborate. What is the preferred mode of communication? What has their learning experience been like? How do they like to learn? What kind of role do their supervisors play in supporting development and learning? What are the organization’s values? How are people interacting with you? Do behaviors align with organizational values?

Consider the organizational structure: Is the organization decentralized or centralized? How do units interact with each other? Where are units located? How are processes standardized and customized?

All of these questions are part of a standard needs assessment process, though you don’t need to conduct a formal data collection process to get your answers:

  • Go on a listening tour to meet different department leads
  • Read policies, internal communications, and other emails about the organization and its strategy
  • Review any information on the mission and values: how were they developed? What are they? How do people describe them?
  • Ask questions during team meetings and in hallways
  • Be open to learning and listening during all of your encounters.

Outline your Learning Landscape

A learning landscape includes different elements:

  • Learners
  • Internal and external partners
  • Learning methods
  • Systems and tools

Get to know your learners: Who are they? What knowledge do they bring to the table? How do they think about learning: a seminar, video, etc.? what languages do they speak? Why did they join the organization? What inspires them to come to work every day? Take a deep dive and learn about who they are, how they communicate, and how they describe positive learning experiences.

Identify your current partners: Once you know more about the organization, begin to identify your executive sponsors and champions: who are the people advocating and supporting the learning and development of staff? Do you need to establish new partners? For example, in a prior organization, I set up a Training Committee with representatives from each department/unit who were responsible for:

  • Communicating their team learning needs to me
  • Providing feedback on proposed learning initiatives and frameworks
  • Marketing the learning offerings to their teams

These members played an instrumental role in keeping me abreast of the changing learning landscape and in ensuring their teams were aware of learning opportunities.

It is also important to determine your current external partners, such as vendors providing external content. For example, when it comes to compliance-related topics, I usually prefer to outsource these trainings to external vendors whose sole expertise is focused on these topics. In some cases, you may consider building custom content, and in other cases, it may be best to purchase something off the shelf.

Assess current learning methods: How have learners learned in the past? Are there “brown bags”- informal presentations over lunch?? What about newsletters or rotation programs? How do people respond to experiential learning methods? What about online trainings? Answers to these questions will help you determine what kind of learning culture currently exists and how people define learning. For example, I once worked in an organization where all learning was expected to be hands-on, experiential and in-person. This is what staff were accustomed to and it’s what I used as a building block to expand our learning offerings.

Your tools: Do you have a learning management system (LMS)? If not, how are records kept? How do learners find learning content or sign up for a training? What tools are used for collecting data on training effectiveness, or even project management, and information sharing?

Implement, Evaluate, and Iterate

Diversify your learning methods: Once you know answers to the questions on learning methods, you can establish a baseline from which you can start to diversity the learning being offered. For example, in another organization, people expected learning to be a lecture or presentation that lasted about an hour. This organization hosted a ton of internal brown bags s. The first time I introduced the idea of a two-hour workshop using experiential learning methods, I encountered a lot of resistance from my subject matter experts. They did not think the activities would be effective in engaging in learning—it had never been done before. Given this situation, I opted to introduce these methods slowly and on topics where I was the main facilitator and subject matter expert (i.e., onboarding or management and leadership topics). Over time, I  gained  the trust of my subject matter experts. By the time I left the organization, I had introduced blended learning approach by creating a self-paced program with online learning, job aids, and interactive discussions and assignments using Slack. It takes time to build a learning culture, so be patient, take small steps, gather data, and gain trust!

Enhance your tools: Consider all your options, and then get creative. If you have a limited budget, an  LMS may be out of reach. However, perhaps your organization utilizes Microsoft Office 365, and you may have access to Microsoft forms. Maybe your organization has a license to Smartsheet. The latter is a project management tool, but you can use it to create a webform for people to enter their name, email address, and select a training from the drop-down menu. As the administrator, you can then grab this list and add them to a meeting invite.

Determine your communication channels: Once you know how staff consumes information and have identified your internal partners, determine what you want to communicate and when. Make sure to diversify your communication strategy and not rely solely on emails. For example, you can create a PowerPoint “meeting in a box” and ask your training committee members to use it to present your next training initiative at their team meeting. Again, be creative: consider what is available to you and what currently works well and what does not? Then build on it and introduce new ideas to test them out!

Plan your evaluation strategy: No learning strategy would be complete without establishing a strategy to evaluate your learning interventions. I believe in measuring learning effectiveness and application on the job. I build all of my evaluation strategies by identifying indicators that will provide data on these two points. A cohesive evaluation strategy will allow you to compare trainings across topics, report out to your internal partners and organizational leaders, and most importantly, make decisions using evidence and data to adapt and enhance your learning strategy.

No one organization is the same. We each need to dive into the culture, embrace it, and grow with it. Map your learning landscape elements, understand how they intertwine and be creative about how you approach and engage with the organization in building a sustainable learning strategy. After all, all learning strategies need to be organic and evolve with the organization.

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