Just outside the walls of the ivory tower, a transformation is underway in the world of corporate learning, and those of us at colleges and universities should pay attention.
Corporate learning and development, often referred to as L&D, is radically different than just a few years ago. Meanwhile, the education dialogue has shifted to a focus on employment-related themes such as competencies and skills.
“Businesses today have to be more agile and have to be able to pivot—access to content needs to be very rapid,” says Lori Bradley, executive vice president for global talent management at PVH Corp, a publicly- traded fashion and apparel company with 35,000 employees. “Priorities and jobs are changing more quickly, so we need an agile learning environment that anticipates what learning needs will be, and where we can quickly access them.”
The typical employee has one percent of their time available for learning, according to research by Bersin by Deloitte.
When there’s a need for information or new skills, employees today are increasingly turning to instantly accessible sources such as search engines and online course libraries available on their mobile devices. “Before, our only options were to send people to a training, sit in a course, and learn the material–whether from a university or a week-long certification,” says Shelly Holt, vice president of global learning for SAP, a leading enterprise-software company. “Information today is pushed so quickly at people that the landscape has fundamentally changed.”
According to the Association for Talent Development, U.S. employers spent nearly $71 billion on training in 2016—a figure that was flat compared to 2015. Additionally, the share of these expenditures that went to external products and services (such as off-the-shelf content and outsourced training) has recently declined. Similarly, the share of employers that support their employees in pursuing college and university programs through traditional tuition assistance or reimbursement programs has declined modestly over the last few years. So despite talk by corporate leaders about a “war for talent,” and complaints about a lack of skilled workers and the challenge of retaining top talent, employers are actually spending less, on average, on learning and development for their employees.
One major reason is the explosion of relatively high-quality, free or low-cost professional learning options in recent years. Well-funded MOOC providers Coursera, Udacity and EdX have evolved their business models to focus squarely on corporate learning and serving professionals seeking credentials. Pluralsight—an online IT training provider—has scaled to become an edtech “unicorn,” with a valuation over $1 billion. Similarly, LinkedIn’s $1.5 billion acquisition of Lynda.com in 2015—and LinkedIn’s subsequent acquisition by Microsoft in 2016 for $26 billion—are connected to the new business models in the provision of corporate learning.
In a world where content is more commoditized, today’s corporate L&D market is increasingly driven by the curation of external content and learning—rather than investment in formal training programs and traditional course libraries. As Lori Bradley, of PVH, describes, “for our people moving at the speed of business, they need to access the content when they need it. We’re moving toward microlearning—90 minute or shorter sessions.”
This movement toward microlearning and curation is being facilitated by what Deloitte’s Bersin terms “learning experience platforms”—such as Degreed and EdCast. Corporations are now able to draw on learning material from an ecosystem rich with options, in much the same way that Netflix or Amazon aggregate movies and television shows and present them on-demand in a unified portal. “Rather than only buying huge catalogs of materials off-the-shelf, we’re moving toward a more-searchable ecosystem,” says Bradley. “Our team is constantly vetting material, and we have a ‘dean’ of each academy.”
Similarly, SAP’s Shelly Holt describes the movement toward a curation model: “In the learning functions I support, we have taken the mindset that 90 percent of what we present to our learners can be found in the SAP ecosystem around us,” she says. “There’s a shift from formal to more informal learning—bite-sized training and the application of experience. You get an introduction to a topic, apply it, do a short video or course, then apply that. That ‘microlearning’ trend is really where things are going—short snippets of formal learning followed by application.”
The curation approach and microlearning philosophy also provides a level of personalization that individuals have come to expect. At PVH, each associate has an individualized learning plan, which according to Bradley takes into consideration the “success profile” for each position in the company, and the “competencies, capabilities, knowledge, and experiences are necessary.”
Preparing to Adapt
These shifts in corporate learning have a number of important implications for colleges and universities—some of which are clearly already having an impact in the marketplace, and some of which are longer-term but potentially of existential importance.
First, it appears that the rise of free or low-cost online learning and professional education content is reducing the demand for some continuing-education courses offered by universities. In some cases, it may be reducing demand for executive education offerings, and even for degree programs like the traditional MBA. While individual workers remain interested in credentials—which are portable from job-to-job—companies often prefer to invest in targeted learning opportunities that relate directly to their business needs and has a clear business return on investment. “My people already have degrees, they need something more specific,” says Bradley. “Academic credit is not always the selling point that universities think it is.”
Second, in this changing landscape, colleges and universities that seek to meet corporate needs must move beyond monolithic programs and think in terms of competencies, unbundling curriculum, modularizing and “microlearning.” Many institutions are already pioneering efforts in this direction, from the certificate- and badge-oriented University of Learning Store (led by the Universities of Wisconsin, California, Washington and others) to Harvard Business School’s HBX, and the new “iCert” that we developed at Northeastern University. These types of shorter-form, competency-oriented programs can better fit corporate demands for targeted and applied learning.
Finally, as industry-based professional-learning increasingly converges with the world of formal, accredited higher-education programs—seen everywhere from university partnerships with coding bootcamps, to new types of degree programs built by Coursera and EdX—colleges and universities need to remember that they are not just providers of courses and programs, but they are communities of learning experts. In other words, we’re leaders in understanding and structuring curriculum, pedagogy, outcomes, competencies and the science of learning.
In this way, higher-education institutions have a major opportunity to play a role in the new corporate L&D landscape beyond simply course delivery, assessment and credentialing.
Sean Gallagher is founder and executive director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.