One of the core failings of business training is that it has for too long ignored the lessons of adult learning theory. Many of those involved in business training have got carried away with the latest fashion, a quick theory or a book they’ve read, and don’t look beneath the surface. Is the consumerization of learning a similar trend or is there more substance to it? 

The Latest Learning Trends: Fact or Fiction?

Therefore, we all went down the road of learning styles – since shown to be largely mistaken (e.g.: Riener and Willingham, The Magazine of Higher Learning). Even the 70-20-10 model has never actually been tested by peer-reviewed studies. This is a very important point as we step into the next big thing in adult learning – the consumerization of learning.

Before we spend time, money and energy rebuilding learning initiatives for a potential new fad, we should investigate more thoroughly what consumerization means. 21st-century employees are wary of re-branding or re-packaging without real, positive change, so it is important that any changes we propose are grounded and proven.

What is Learning?

First, we need to establish what learning is. Educational psychologist, Crow and Crow stated that training, “enables the individual to make both personal and social adjustments” to the way they behave and think (1963). Knowledge is learning at a macro level; skills are learning at a micro level. In a business context, learning is “knowledge, skills and competencies necessary to perform a job or set of jobs…” (Cedefop, 2009:8)

With the company at the center of the learning experience, there is no motivation to learn. As we divide up our time and energy each day, we only assign time to learning if there is a direct benefit to us as a learner.

This sets the context for learning, and shows the value of getting employees to learn – it helps them do their job. But this model is flawed – with the company at the center of the learning experience, there is no motivation to learn. As we divide up our time and energy each day, we only assign time to learning if there is a direct benefit to us as a learner. Organizations, trainers and learners know that learning must be learner-centric.

The Perfect Learner

This approach has been common since the 1970s (e.g.: Richterich and Chancerel, 1977) and led to a widely accepted view of what a learner is. In the view of Merriam (2001) a learner:

  • Is able to direct their own learning
  • Has a resource of life experiences
  • Can relate learning to a changing social or professional role
  • Can see the immediate application of learning to a current problem
  • Is motivated by internal, rather than external, factors

Demystifying the Modern Learner

How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

These five qualities of a successful learner should change our approach to how we present training to adults in a business situation. Traditional learning for soft skills takes a conveyer belt approach. The learner sits in place while learning is thrown at him or her. Some of it sticks, but mostly, it is gone by the time the learner leaves the classroom. This approach ignores the fact that adults can make informed choices and decisions – and want to be involved in how those choices are presented.

Off the Virtual Shelf

This is the situation in which we need to talk about consumerization of learning. The phrase itself is not very helpful – consumerism implies fussy, picky, overly demanding. In fact, it means that the learner is at the center of the learning and is empowered to “direct their own learning.” Off the shelf, one-day training is no longer the norm – although there is still a place for that.

It is not just that modern learners and Millennials expect to access learning in digital, bite-sized portions – they do, but that is not the point. This approach works. By allowing the learner to access the methods to enhance their skills when they want, how they want and where they want, not only is their learning self-motivated, it is more effective and efficient for the organisations.

A Multitasking, Multi-screening Learner

Why is it so common for people of all ages to watch TV and a tablet or phone at the same time? We want to access information from different sources in different ways at different times (one of the main oversights of the learning styles theories was they assumed there was a predominant or main style for each person). By offering learners the opportunity to read short articles, engage in an online reflective activity, complete a self-assessment, watch a video, or any other self-directed activity, they are already engaged and informed when they come to a live session.

This gives huge improvements to the learning experience. Learners start their journey by themselves and are forced to reflect on why they are learning. As they do so, they already begin to focus on how the new skill will be applied to solving business-related challenges. The practical application benefits appeal to the lazy part of our nature that wants life to be easier and quicker.

Learners start their journey by themselves, and are forced to reflect on why they are learning.

Freeing Learning from the Training Room

The context of learning changes from a formal training room to wherever the learner happens to be when they access the content – the biggest challenge of training is breaking through the classroom door and spilling into everyday behaviours; digital starts outside the classroom, and the learner brings the content into the classroom willingly, motivated to find out more. The learner is no longer “just another brick in the wall”, but has crossed the wall into the real world.

How to Modernize Workplace Learning

Once in the training room, or with a coach, the learner can apply skills and knowledge immediately. The trainer is no longer the author of all wisdom, but a facilitator who draws out the learning from the combined experiences of all the learners and his or her own.

The Consumerization of Learning: A Challenge to Trainers

This form of training is much harder for the trainer and the content author. It requires them to step back and view the bigger picture before diving into the specific details of the learner’s world.

The consumerization of learning is a challenge for L&D professionals. Selecting the most appropriate method is now much less important than ensuring the correct learning package is put in place. 

It is no longer possible for trainers to make wide, general, unsupported statements; neither can they rely on one model or book or theory, but must have a much wider grasp of theories. As the learners are better prepared and rely on more sources of information, the role of trainer loses some of its mysticism – the trainer becomes the instrument that hammers abstract into concrete.

It also changes the role of the instructional designer. It may well be that the concept of a formal training program will fade away. Rather there will be a framework, where the objectives at an organizational and individual level dictate the direction of learning, with a panel of experts and consultants to coach application of learning in practice.

The consumerization of learning is a challenge here for L&D professionals. Selecting the most appropriate method is now much less important than ensuring the correct learning package is put in place. Getting the balance right is the important part, and for that L&D must have a fuller understanding of the learning topics to ensure that the tools suit the learners’ needs.