TD Magazine - January 2018 Cover

Why is personalized learning so popular all of the sudden?

In Personalization by JD Dillon

Did you see the cover of the January issue of TD Magazine (above)?

How about the January/February cover of Training Industry Magazine?

Training Industry Magazine - February 2018 Cover

Training Industry Magazine – February 2018

Personalized learning is the new trending topic in L&D. And it seemingly came out of nowhere. The thing about personalized learning is that it fits in with any industry. For example, schools and districts around the country aim to deliver personalized learning to meet the needs of every student.

I mean, we haven’t finished talking about microlearning yet, and it looks like we already have our NEXT BIG THING. Even for an industry that is notorious for it’s shiny object syndrome, personalization has rapidly accelerated to the top of the list, including this list from Donald Taylor.

But why this topic? And why so fast?

First, there’s the marketing angle. Corporate learning is dominated by marketing spin. Why else would we spend so much money on content and tech that never works? If you browse the learning tech world a bit, you’ll notice the terms “personalized” and “adaptive” popping up on every website. No, most of the products haven’t changed. They are just suddenly personalized and adaptive … because that’s what people are interested in this year. Just like with so many other topics (mobile, social, gamification, brain science, microlearning), L&D is again at risk of falling for a sales pitch without REALLY grasping the fundamentals that started the conversation.

That’s the second part of the equation – the fundamentals. You see, many past L&D trends were just that – trends. But this one is different. This one has teeth. This one has a basis in reality. After all, the consumer experience has been shifting towards personalization for years now. The workplace is just starting to catch up.

I’ve been playing in the personalized space formally for about 6 years. I could tell this were starting to shift when my conference proposals on adaptive learning, which had been rejected for years, started to get accepted. The audiences started to increase. The questions started to sound more informed. The community was making a shift and recognizing the potential in this concept – before the vendors tried to sell it. There was something there … because we’ve been working towards this for years … we just didn’t know it.

A Historical Challenge

Personalized or scalable? That has ALWAYS been the question for corporate learning teams. Do we provide something for everyone? Or do we provide something special for just a few people? More often than not, scale wins out. I once worked for an organization that published the number of training hours per staff member in their annual report. How can you not lean towards the generic when that’s how you’re held accountable?

We’ve been quietly looking for a way to balance these factors, especially given the growing size and complexity of the modern workplace. When you work for a global company with 300,000 employees but only have a training team of 48 and a limited budget, how can you possibly meet everyone’s personal needs?

The Autonomous Learner

I despise the word “learner,” but I’ll use it here to make a point. For most of our existence, L&D has taken full control of the learning experience. We scheduled it. We published it. We tracked it. Without us, there was no learning (snicker). But then, the internet happened. People became capable of solving insanely complex problems on their own. No longer did we have to wonder about the real name of the guy who played BJ Hunnicutt on MASH. This reality bled into the workplace under the term “self-directed learning.” We have become more and more comfortable with the idea of autonomy in learning. Why should people have to wait for us to tell them what to learn when they can just go out and find it for themselves? An employee can just use what they want and leave the rest behind.

Targeted Solutions for Specific Problems

For years, we’ve been failing to get people to show up for/complete bloated, lengthy courses. Even when they did the training, they couldn’t remember or apply anything back on the job. So, we pulled together a set of established learning principles – things like brain science, context, instructional design, needs analysis, etc. – and called it microlearning. This conversation is still filled with noise and confusion, but the positive outcome is a desire to focus. Rather than try to solve every problem at once, we’re starting to drill down to the problems that really matter within the business. After all, it’s much easier to address back injuries than it is to tackle an organization’s entire safety culture.

So Much Data

During a conference session a few years ago, I said “if we knew half as much about our employees as we know about our fantasy football teams, we could do amazing things.” Well … we’re getting there. The xAPI conversation is expanding L&D pros’ creativity when it comes to designing for data and applying analytics, but it’s even bigger than that. Regardless of industry, successful companies are data companies. The more employees interface with technology, the better we can understand factors that influence their performance. L&D is in position to ride this wave and combine what is traditional referred to as “learning data” to build a true multi-dimensional support profile for an individual – at scale. We’re no longer limited to scores and completions – even if our LMS still hasn’t caught up to the times.

Data. Focus. Autonomy. Balance. These factors are driving a rapid shift in the way we think about learning in the workplace. And it’s not just L&D. In my work with adaptive learning, I have seen how quickly business professionals respond to the value proposition. After all, they are personally managing teams of hundreds of thousands of people and feel that same disconnect. However, to make sure we don’t allow personalization to become another marketing-dominated trend, L&D pros must make the effort to grasp these fundamentals. Once you recognize how the trend was created, you can ask better questions and make better decisions that will serve the interests of your employees and your businesses.

Have you noticed the rapid growth of personalized learning? Has it become a topic of discussion within your team? How have the concepts I mentioned impacted your work already?