Thinking in terms of "learning at the point of need" can be a useful way of examining personalized, just-in-time learning. The concept is clearly attractive; what may be underappreciated is how it changes the role of the learning and development (L&D) function. If we change how we deliver learning , we also need to change the function that delivers it.
Learning at the point of need means applying it right now
By "learning at the point of need," we typically mean learning something that you will use today. We can debate whether it needs to be "today," but I'd recommend sticking with that tight time limit as a way to keep focused while you are thinking about the topic.
It also helps our focus by considering specific examples of the kind of learning we need to support:
- Trying to download contacts from LinkedIn to Excel this morning
- Needing to convince a top candidate to accept the company's job offer in an upcoming call
- Wanting to do something today that will lead to increased engagement on a community site
For these sorts of issues, we would rarely spend more than 10-20 minutes on the learning content, and we'd want that content to be actionable. That doesn't preclude going back for more learning on the same topic at another time, however, if we are working on something today, we want to get the learning done immediately and that means it needs to fit into a busy schedule.
How learning at the point of need is different
One uncomfortable aspect of learning at the point of need is that it begins to erase the usual distinction between learning and doing. If someone accesses the "Help" function to show them how to download data then we hardly think of that as learning, it's just part of doing the download.
I'd suggest that we don't need to worry if something should be called "learning" or just be called "doing." If work gets done better thanks to learning tools and the environment that we've put in place, then that's a win. It does mean that learning professionals spend more time thinking about "doing" rather than concentrating so much on "learning."
How L&D needs to change to deliver on this model
It's natural for the L&D team to think that its role is to do training needs analysis to discover what kind of "at the point of need" learning is required, and then provide training content to meet that need. However, that's the old way of thinking about the function – L&D will be better off if it rethinks its role along these three lines:
Nurturer of communities of learning
Since asking someone is one of the most common approaches to learning at the point of need, L&D should see enabling this as one of its core functions. To deliver on this, L&D might build online communities to share information, teach managers to be better coaches or build online search so that it's easy to find the right person to ask in the organization.
Noticer of gaps
Employees can access a lot of "at the point of need" learning without any help from L&D. L&D's unique role is noticing gaps in the learning environment. There will be things that employees don't know they need to know. There will be things they know they need to know but can't find the right content. There will be employees who do not have the learning skills to take advantage of learning resources. Those are all gaps L&D should watch for and address.
Creator of a learning culture
It may be that L&D doesn't need to do a whole lot of learning needs analysis or deliver a bunch of workshops. Instead, what they may need to do is to create a culture of learning . It's easy to imagine a future L&D function that spends as much time on culture as anything else.
One aspect of a learning culture that is often overlooked in today's companies is experimentation. An employee could learn best practices for social media from an article, for instance. But it's also important to encourage people to
experiment on their own to see what works. The L&D team might become experts on how to build productive experimentation into the company's culture.
Let's get uncomfortable
Learning has changed. When we examine a concept such as learning at the point of need, we discover that L&D's traditional work of assessing learning needs and delivering content is only a small part of what's needed in this new world.
Learning and development, as a function, needs to revise its own view of the role they play in delivering learning and then relentlessly socialize that view across the organization. Learning is more important than ever, however, if L&D doesn't get people to accept its new mandate then it will be pushed into a less important role. It might be time for us to get a little less comfortable and push for change.