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4 Ways to Focus Employee Learning

July 29, 2021 Learning and Development
Heather Gilmartin Adams
By Heather Gilmartin Adams

There has been rapid growth in the amount, types and sources of learning content available to employees. This growth started decades ago, but it’s recently turned from a trickle to a flood.

Whereas learning content used to be largely owned by corporate learning and development functions, employees now have direct access to not only content created by L&D, but also content from subject matter experts and vendors, YouTube and social media, podcasts and outside content libraries. That's not to mention the entirety of the Internet.

There are more types of content in more places, created by a wider variety of authors, than ever before. Is it any wonder that employees are overwhelmed and exhausted by the sheer volume and variety of all that's available?

Embrace the Learning Chaos

The incredible volume, variety and breadth of learning content that’s available — much of it beyond the control of corporate learning functions — feels like chaos. This complicates things for companies trying to help employees find the content that will help them develop the skills they need to meet business goals.

In research conducted this year by our firm, RedThread Research, we found that learning leaders who’ve given this thought don’t try to control the chaos. Instead, they embrace it. Or at least they try to work with the reality that learning content is already complicated, and it’s only going to get bigger and more complex over time.

These learning leaders think about how to create systems, processes and policies that help organizations and employees navigate the chaos, rather than trying to tame the chaos itself. The stark reality is that taming the chaos is not going to happen.

A New Model for Learning Content

So, what does it mean to embrace the chaos? Forward-thinking learning leaders take very different approaches to learning content based on two factors, or dimensions, of the learning content they’re working with:

  • Specificity: the uniqueness of the learning content to their organization. Does the learning content apply specifically to their company or can it apply across organizations?
  • Durability: the shelf life of the learning content. Does the learning content need to be updated rarely, or is it continually changing and regularly in jeopardy of being out of date?

If we plot learning content against these two dimensions, then the content generally falls within one of the following categories (Figure 1):

  1. Specific and Durable: Learning content that is specific to one organization and has a long shelf life.
  2. Specific and Perishable: Content specific to one organization that changes often.
  3. Generic and Perishable: Learning content that applies to many organizations and changes often.
  4. Generic and Durable: Content that applies to many organizations and has a long shelf life. 

Learning Content Model from RedThread Research, 2021
Fig. 1: Learning Content Model. (Source: RedThread Research, 2021)

How to Focus Employee Learning Efforts

Forward-thinking organizations think about learning’s role and related goals differently depending on the category of learning content at hand. As the nature of the learning content and its associated challenges change, so does the way the organization thinks about where the organization and its learning function should spend the most effort.

Let’s look at the key characteristics of the four learning content categories and how each shapes L&D’s focus:

Specific and Durable Learning Content

Specific and durable learning content generally applies only to one organization and has a relatively long shelf life. Its purpose is often to shape organizational culture, helping employees understand “this is who we are” and “this is how we act.” That’s why this content category is often associated with organizational initiatives such as organizational culture or change efforts; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; and strategic pivots, such as adapting to industry upheaval.

L&D functions should focus on driving organizational initiatives with this type of learning content. Specifically, they should think about how specific and durable learning content can help move the needle in areas that are business priorities.

Specific and Perishable Learning Content

Specific and perishable learning content is unique to the organization and needs updating relatively often. A defining characteristic is that the sources of this content exist all over the organization, such as in policy and process documents, product release notes, and wikis. This reality combined with the fact that the content changes often, means it is exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for L&D functions to create and update all specific and perishable learning content needed by the organization.

In contrast to organizations that try to control learning content, companies that deputize employees and focus on enabling the creation of learning content, no matter who does the creating, have more success ensuring that updated learning content is available when needed.

Generic and Perishable Learning Content

Generic and perishable learning content can apply to many organizations but has a short shelf life. The defining characteristic of this category is sheer volume: There’s so much of it, everywhere. Much generic and perishable content is available for free online, although Google and YouTube are not the only ways to find it. Other sources are, for example:

  • Learning content libraries like PluralSight and LinkedIn Learning.
  • Professional or trade publications and websites.
  • Tech vendors offering learning content on how to use their software.

Generic and perishable learning content also changes frequently, meaning the great video someone found last year might be three releases out of date this year.

The nature of generic and perishable learning content means the focus should be on helping employees filter. It would be incredibly difficult to provide just the right information to each employee when they need it. Rather, the job is to create the conditions that enable employees to cut through the noise and find what they need.

Generic and Durable Learning Content

Generic and durable learning content changes relatively infrequently and applies to many organizations. Because content in this category can apply broadly and likely isn’t changing at a breakneck pace, quite a few learning content vendors play in this space. These vendors offer high quality learning content on specialty topics that an in-house L&D team may not have the expertise or bandwidth to create.

The focus for generic and durable learning content should be facilitating consistency and quality — setting standards for what quality learning content looks like across the organization. Because so many vendors offer learning content at varying levels of quality, companies should focus their efforts on helping define standards that outline, for example:

  • The go-to vendors to work with on cross-functional topics like leadership, industry context or wellbeing.
  • Criteria for selecting vendors not on the go-to list.
  • What high quality learning content looks like and where it’s coming from.
  • Ways to measure and understand what learning content is working and what’s not.

With these standards in place, companies are in a better position to provide a consistent, organization-wide point of view on cross-cutting topics, like “the way we lead,” “the way we think about safety,” and so on.

So What’s Next?

There’s so much content out there, and all companies have limits to the resources they can dedicate to creating, curating, managing, updating and directing people to learning content. Companies have to be strategic about priorities, and about what their L&D function should do itself vs. what it can enable others to do.

Consider using the above model to clarify the focus and roles of L&D and other stakeholders. Here are a few questions to ask as you think about your learning content:

  • What type of content do we work with most, and what therefore should be L&D’s focus?
  • Who else, inside and outside the organization, can we enable to create, curate and manage content? What supports, guidance and systems do we need to put in place to enable them effectively?
  • How can we best use technology to curate, organize and deliver content, particularly perishable content?


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