Eric Duffy

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Why Personalization Is ‘Hottest’ Trend in Workplace Learning

 “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are making personalized learning easier than ever. But most businesses haven’t taken advantage.

Given all the changes revolutionizing workplace Learning & Development, you might think it’s hard for L&D professionals to choose which trend is front of mind. But when a global survey asked them, they gave a clear answer: personalization.

“For the first time, personalization/adaptive delivery topped the table, pushing collaborative/ social learning into second place,” according to Donald Taylor, chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute. “This is a continuation of a trend that began in 2015.”

With new technologies that can revolutionize how business is done virtually overnight, a company’s most important asset is an agile workforce that can adapt quickly. That means inspiring employees to be constant learners.

“In a fast-changing business environment where technology is continuously evolving, companies in knowledge-intensive industries need mechanisms that support not just one-time training but ongoing self-directed virtual learning,” the McKinsey Global Institute says.

Employees’ ‘new attitude’

Companies are discovering that the more personalized a learning experience is, the more their employees participate.

In seeking a personalized experience, today’s workers “aren’t being rude or arrogant,” educational technology expert Elliott Masie writes at But they do have a “new attitude.”

They want the chance to swipe through learning options. They want to know whether other employees have deemed each offering time well spent. And they want to get ride to “the good stuff” while skipping the “fluff.”

That optimizes use of work hours, Masie says, telling executives: “Your learners are better guardians of your wage time than you.”

Personalization is desired, but not yet in place

Despite the increased attention to personalization, most companies are still failing to provide it.

A 2017 report from Bersin by Deloitte found that it’s the biggest way companies are missing the mark with their learning programs. Only 3 percent are effective at personalization.

A Learning Benchmark report from the group Towards Maturity found that while 97 percent of learning professionals want an increased ability to personalize programs to individuals, only 19 percent  report that’s happening. But among “top deck” organizations — those doing best overall — 42 percent are achieving personalization and reaping the rewards.

The role of technology

The first step toward building this kind of a learning experience is to do a deep dive into the data you have about your workforce and the kinds of skills you’ll need in the coming years, says Neal Hartman, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Next, he tells Pathgather, business leaders must accept a paradigm shift in the way they think about learning. “We’ve moved from traditional one-day or multiple-day training sessions to using technology that targets learning to the individual.” This includes doing more online and on mobile devices.

Personalization is “hotter than ever” most likely because of “the possibilities offered by algorithms and artificial intelligence,” Donald Taylor says.

When the Pew Research Center canvassed experts about the future of workplace learning, some of the responses included:

“AI, voice-response, telepresence VR and gamification techniques will come together to create powerful new learning environments capable of personalizing and accelerating learning across a broad range of fields.”

— Richard Adler, fellow, Institute for the Future

“We’ll see more opportunities for online, personalized learning.”

— Ian O’Byrne, technology professor, College of Charleston

“I expect we’ll see much more adaptive forms of education, especially of the self-made kind.”

— Doc Searls, Director of Project VRM at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

The continuing need for people

As artificial intelligence and machine learning grow, and people increasingly take part in personalized learning on their own time using digital tools rather than in classrooms, what will that mean for practitioners of L&D?

Elaine Biech, the “trainer’s trainer” and author of books on talent development, pointed out this concern during the ATD International Conference and Exposition, asking, “How are you going to respond to a boss that is a computer or a robot?”

Many experts who track these trends believe there will be a continuing need for people.

“The best way to prepare yourself for the accelerating onslaught of AI and machine learning systems is to learn to partner with them,” writes Shelly Palmer, on-air tech expert for Fox 5 New York (WNYW-TV). “We are tool users; these systems are tools. Just as the steam engine amplified the power of our muscles, computers amplify the power of our brains. We can partner with machines to create competitive advantage for ourselves.”

And Brigette McInnis-Day, executive vice president of human resources for software company SAP, says: “ … Technology is not replacing humans — human resources wouldn’t be very useful without people. Instead, technology is driving better, smarter HR processes through automation — creating opportunities to breeze through the mundane tasks and focus on the strategic initiatives.”

“All humans have basic needs that technology cannot provide,” she writes at Human Resource Executive Online. “We need to feel appreciated, valued and a sense of belonging. Face-to-face interaction provides the emotive qualities that we need in order to feel heard, respected and valued.”

So personalization of learning isn’t about removing people from the equation. It’s about using the best of technology and humanity to make it work.

The communications benefit

Personalizing the workplace learning experience brings a long list of benefits, Hartman says.

“One of the driving forces is with millennials coming into the workplace,” he says. “Professional development and continuous learning are very important to them. So from an organizational perspective, it’s critical for recruiting and retaining talent.”

A personalized experience also shows employees that they’re valued and gives them the chance to move into new areas, discovering new talents.

But Hartman tells Pathgather that personalized learning also offers another benefit that fewer people are aware of: It improves workplace communication. Learning experience platforms are open, meaning that anyone can add content or share their own expertise. They encourage learning from one another.

As a result, personalized learning experiences “get people to share information and talk about what each group and each member of the team is doing,” says Hartman, who runs Sloan’s Managerial Communication program. “And they provide a greater sense of understanding and engagement.”

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