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Learning Technology's Growth and What It Means

June 10, 2021 Learning and Development
By Dom Nicastro

More. That is the theme from a RedThread Research report on the corporate learning technology market released earlier this year. More what, exactly? The learning tech market since 2018 has seen increases in coaching, enablement, mobility, analytics and skills technologies.

“That was our big learning for the whole report: it’s insane how much the learning vendor landscape has grown just in the last two years,” said Heather Gilmartin Adams, senior analyst at RedThread Research. “If you look at the number of functionalities that are on offer, the number of vendors that are in the marketplace, the number of clients that they have, and the number of users that they have, just all of that has grown so much.”

Tie Learning Tech to Strategy

What does this mean for chief learning officers (CLOs) and other champions of learning technology in the workplace? More choices, naturally. And more thoughtful consideration of the learning technology stack.

“We're seeing the expansion of functionalities with the platforms,” Gilmartin Adams said. “And then at the same time, we're also seeing more and more point solution vendors offering the same functionalities that then integrate in with the central platform."

That means CLOs need to determine if a best-in-class point solution is strategically important enough to partner with a dedicated vendor they know is top shelf, according to Gilmartin Adams. Or is a central, main vendor that builds off the central functionality adequate? "Because a lot of times, it's a marketing play on behalf of the large vendors," she said. "They're seeing that these are the types of functionalities that people want. And so they're starting to build them. But always the marketing and sales promises are ahead of the actual functionality.”

It all ties back to business strategy, which becomes more important as more solutions come into the marketplace. “Everybody now out there is saying, ‘skills, skills, skills,’” Gilmartin Adams said. “And, yes, your organization can probably benefit from skills, but just rolling out a skills platform is not going to be helpful. You need to be thinking about what is the skills platform going to help me do? And do I have the right systems and processes and culture in place to ensure that we can leverage it as best as possible?”

Related Article: Top Skills and Traits of a Chief Learning Officer

What Is Learning Technology?

The learning tech market was big and is only getting bigger. Among the key market findings from RedThread:

  • The number of customers adopting learning tech grew 48% year over year.
  • The number of vendors is at a peak of about 250.
  • Total revenue from vendors grew to $599 million from $354 million last year.
  • About 120 vendors now have up to five point solutions that integrate with existing platforms, more than double that number from 2018.

But what exactly is learning technology? Learning technology is software that includes functionality such as:

  • Skills tracking
  • Microlearning
  • Gamification
  • Mentoring/coaching
  • Collaborative learning
  • Performance tracking
  • Enablement
  • Coaching
  • Learning analytics

According to RedThread's market analysis, analytics and measurement, microlearning, learning experience platforms (LXPs), internal mobility, enablement and coaching saw the biggest gains from 2018 to 2020 in terms of the number of solutions that offer those specific functionalities.

Internal Mobility: Employee Empowerment

Organizations are increasingly using learning technology to boost internal mobility and support efforts like talent retention and upskilling to respond in an agile fashion to their environment and develop their people, according to RedThread researchers.

But it's important to put learning technology and internal mobility in the bigger context. Learning leaders can achieve maximum value by not viewing internal mobility challenges and opportunities through just an L&D lens, but as an opportunity for a more holistic redesign of all the factors that influence the workplace experience, according to Lars Hyland, chief learning officer for Totara, a provider of enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology.

“Why can’t your talent be empowered to perform effectively, productively and free from the typical frictions that get in the way of doing a good job?” Hyland said. “Usually because the environment they work in is fragmented, siloed and brittle in the face of change.”

That fractured approach to employee development and the overall employee experience is part of the reason for the surge in internal mobility solutions. But companies benefit from internal mobility solutions in talent planning. They need to know how many people in their organization can do “X” and at what skill level. To what extent will they need these skills in the future? How will they close those gaps? Are they going to move people across the organization? Are they going to implement a learning program to upskill?

Ryan Laverty, co-founder and president at Arist, which offers software to create learning courses via text messaging, said L&D is becoming more mobile and agile as well. As skill requirements shift drastically, the urgency for many trainings increases while the time to actually build those trainings decreases.

“Learning leaders are now focused heavily on how long it will take to build effective content and deploy it to a critical mass of their workforce in order to have learning that happens as quickly as things are changing,” Laverty said. “This has also caused a reckoning for internal tools and processes that were seen as lethargic or unnecessary.”

Related Article: Learning Experience Platforms Chart Alternative Path to Skill Development

Coaching and Mentoring: Empowering Managers

Coaching, long the realm of executives and high potential employees, is being democratized, according to RedThread researchers. Gilmartin Adams cited advancements in solutions that, for instance, monitor managers’ emails and send feedback on how they communicate with direct reports.

“You tend to schedule meetings with this person after hours, but you don't do that with the rest of your team. Why is that? You want to change it?” Gilmartin Adams said, citing an example of a coaching tech function. “You tend to send emails to these couple of people late at night. Is that really what you want to be doing? Your tone with this person was different from your tone with this person. How might you want to reconcile that? It does get a little Big Brother-ish, actually, and kind of freaky.”

Ultimately, the technologies in coaching are exciting, she said, because it’s automated coaching and enablement “that can give you real time feedback on performance.”

Hyland sees coaching and mentoring growing significantly, but in close alignment with modern performance management practices such as continuous feedback, as well as more open, transparent ways to communicate and collaborate cross-functionally. “This is how people can find the right mentors, and also be identified as valuable mentors within the business as talent, experience and knowledge is more freely shared and the true value of individual contributions are recognized,” he said.

Learning leaders are more focused on how to create training processes for managers that mirror the mentorship and coaching that used to happen serendipitously in an in-person environment, according to Laverty. Manager training on how to have career conversations with employees and get them thinking about their long-term goals have increased. Meanwhile, learning departments are training managers to set up an internal cadence for checking in with their employees and build their skills, make introductions to office peers and advise on advancement opportunities.

Enablement: Dramatic Shifts

Enablement tech — tech that helps employees get better at their job while on the job — has improved dramatically, going from six solutions in 2018 to 37, according to the RedThread Research report.

Enablement ins just-in-time and on-demand learning such as onscreen help, step-by-step directions when performing a new task, QR codes built into learning, and the like, according to RedThread researchers. Advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing have led to the growth in enablement solutions, Gilmartin Adams said. Oftentimes, coaching and enablement overlap, she added.

“That underlying ability of software to understand human language has driven that explosion,” Gilmartin Adams said. “It doesn't work unless you have the right amount of data.”

Too often training is delivered to the wrong people, by the wrong people, at the wrong time in the wrong way, according to Hyland.

“We are finally recognizing that ‘less learning, more often’ is a better fundamental design model than abstract 'sheep-dip training,’” he said. “Learning is part of the job every day, not something that purely prepares you for the job.”

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