Brad Zomick

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10 min read

Why the Future of L&D is a Self-Planning Workforce — And 5 Steps to Get There


The era of executives being the sole arbiters of what their workforce looks like in the future is coming to an end. To stay competitive, business leaders need a radical departure from how things have traditionally been done. It’s time to embrace a new model: a self-planning workforce.

As Pathgather explained in our breakdown of L&D buzzwords, in a self-planning workforce, employees are empowered to make choices about the direction of their careers within their organizations.

There continues to be a role for traditional top-down decision making as well, but not in a bubble. Now, these two forces work together and complement each other.

Here are the five steps to make that happen — and why they’re so important.

1. The control shift

Traditionally, Learning & Development leaders have been the gatekeepers of what training opportunities are and are not made available to employees.

That no longer works. Now, thanks to the digital transformation, new tools and technologies are popping up constantly. L&D leaders alone cannot hope to stay on top of them all, and employees are often the first to spot them. If they spend time learning and developing expertise, they can offer ways to help their businesses take advantage of these new opportunities.

Startups embracing innovation are disrupting old ways of operating, supplanting businesses virtually overnight. A company’s best shot at fending off this kind of competition is to encourage its employees to always be on the lookout for ways to disrupt, and improve, processes internally. That means loosening the reins to let them make choices about learning.

A company’s most important strength is an agile workforce — employees who keep learning and adapting. PwC reports that when businesses have development programs that increase agility, 86 percent respond rapidly to changes in the business environment. Without these kinds of programs, only about half do.

Read: Mastering Talent Agility

So L&D leaders must give workers flexibility to decide what to learn. But that doesn’t mean being entirely hands-off. Leadership must also be keeping an eye out for new things to learn, and encouraging employees to take part in courses that the company knows will be a part of its future direction. All these decisions must be made together, with people at all ranks listening to and learning from each other.

2. An open platform

The most important tool for making this happen is a learning experience platform, an open digital network that offers two crucial advantages: First, it communicates with the rest of a company’s talent stack — from the LMS (Learning Management System) to Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS) to Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and more. And second, it allows anyone at the company to add any content they wish.

The old-fashioned LMS is designed to be a closed system. It doesn’t share information with the rest of the stack, and allows only top brass to input information and courses for employee learning.

Read: Why Businesses Must Not Wait for Their Learning Management Systems to Evolve

By sharing information across the entire enterprise, open platforms create a functioning talent ecosystem. Executives can see what their employees are learning and promote content that they want employees to engage with.  Employees can learn from each other, curate content, and upvote the best options to help others find it. Employees can also create their own content and upload it as well, becoming recognized SMEs (subject matter experts).

All of this increases engagement, which is essential for attracting and retaining employees.

3. Move at the speed of business

The traditional LMS slows down learning — sometimes even to a halt.

By the time executives learn about a new technology and go through the arduous process of building a course that receives official approval, it can be too late. At that point a new technology has already surfaced, replacing the previous one.

With the pace of change faster than ever before, businesses can no longer afford these long cycle times.  When employees are discovering, sharing and curating content as part of their daily work, the old cycle is gone. Learning is taking place at the speed of business.

In its Workplace Learning Report, LinkedIn summarized the importance of all three of these first steps:

“The shortened shelf-life of skills has disrupted traditional corporate learning environments. Learning approaches have broadened, putting learners in the driver seat. And the need for modern learners to constantly evolve skill sets has pushed L&D professionals to curate and facilitate modern learning experiences — not just one-off learning programs.”

4. Focus on careers

Making all this work requires a fundamental shift in perspective, particularly for L&D leaders. Instead of focusing on what skills to train employees in, focus on how to help them build the careers they want.

An L&D team needs to show an entire company where opportunities exist for growth and what skills will be needed for people to move into those roles. The team needs to constantly update this based on what it’s discovering — from changes in the industry, decisions made by executives, and the information employees themselves are bringing to the team’s attention.

When L&D leaders show a genuine commitment to helping employees build the careers they want, the entire experience of learning becomes much more collaborative and engaging.  Learning efforts speak to the workers’ motivations. Employees don’t just click through courses or attend classroom sessions because they have to. They do so, even outside of their standard work hours, because they aspire to succeed.

It’s a more holistic take on workforce development. It means thinking about the employees as an asset to develop, grow and invest in. And it means showing employees that the organization is committed to helping them get where they want to go, rather than just using them to get where it wants to go. In short, it’s a win-win approach for management and employees.

5. Align to business goals

One of the biggest problems that has long faced workplace learning initiatives involves a simple financial question: What’s the ROI?

Traditionally, businesses have judged L&D efforts by focusing on learning metrics, such as how many people took part in and finished a course. When those figures are reported up the ranks, a lot of executives don’t know what to make of them. A typical response: “OK, I can imagine that this correlates with something, but these figures themselves just aren’t important to me.”

To build a new learning ecosystem that develops a self-planning workforce, L&D leaders need to show their organizations the relevant business metrics: particularly employee retention and internal mobility. Both these factors are proven to get a big boost from workplace learning.

When talent needs arise, companies too often look for outside candidates rather than investing in training their own existing employees. This costs them a great deal. Research has found that “external hires get paid more and perform worse, than internal staff.” And Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report calls on L&D professionals to deliver “learning solutions that inspire people to reinvent themselves, develop deep skills, and contribute to the learning of others.The goal is a learning environment adapted to a world of increased employee mobility.”

The same applies to retention. As LinkedIn reports, “a key part of recruiting and retaining great people is providing real learning opportunities to them, which facilitates their career growth.” In fact, “the most common reason a person leaves an organization is the same as the most common reason someone joins an organization: career development, or lack thereof.” Eighty-seven percent of employees are less likely to leave an organization when they feel engaged, a study by the Corporate Leadership Council found.

Read: It’s Not Them, It’s You: Why Your Company Is Losing Great Talent

With these changes in place, you’ll be best positioned to compete for both customers and talent. Employees will see opportunities for growth within the company. And as they build their futures, they’ll also be building the future of your business.

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