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people working and learning together
April 27, 2021

Josh Bersin on Adding Value to Workplace Learning

people working and learning together

Josh Bersin, an industry analyst and pioneer in HR technology and leadership, exemplifies the cross-section of two unique sectors—analysis and training. Bersin takes a data-driven approach to the very human-oriented industry of workplace learning and development.

“One of the things I always appreciated was that it doesn’t matter how good your product or your service is,” Bersin explained. “If people don’t buy it, you’re not going to have a company.”

Bersin sat down with me on the Adapter’s Advantage podcast to talk about his experience and expertise as it relates to:

  • Integrating learning modules into the flow of work
  • Curating information that has an impact for your training programs
  • Creating content that works for the people being trained
  • Using workplace learning as an engagement tool

#1 Integrating Learning Modules into the Flow of Work

“You have to reach [sales people] with just enough content when they need it and where they need it. And then there’s a huge amount of need for what I call learning in the flow of work, which is, ‘I’m in the middle of this particular issue or cycle in a sales process. I need help on this problem, this topic, this piece of information. Where do I find it now?’”

Bersin puts it quite bluntly but astutely: “Salespeople, unlike engineers who sit at their computers all day, don’t have a lot of time. They’re going to use their phones. They’re not going to sit down for an eight-hour course online, maybe ever.”

Instead of trying to break these habits, Bersin recommends tailoring the workplace learning to meet the people where they are.

This idea of “learning in the flow of work” is central to Bersin’s core philosophy, related to two other valuable tactics. These are:

  • Learning in the moment of need – This is something intuitive that we all do, like searching for a YouTube video when you need to learn something. “You don’t go watch a video on how to fix your garbage disposal when your garbage disposal is working just fine,” he half-jokes.
  • Immersive learning experiences – The other component is “another stream of learning that requires a level of formality, a level of sequencing. There’s certain things that you need to learn—addition before you learn division.”

For Bersin, these moments of total immersion are the most profound, where you take the time to stop, step outside your little bubble, and become fully engrossed in the experience. “But,” Bersin qualifies, “you have to be able to do that in the right experience so that it doesn’t feel like a big interruption.”

#2 Curating Information that Makes an Impact

“I think there’s a little bit of an over-rotation toward self-directed do-whatever-you-want, and ‘if you like it, you’re going to learn something.’ That actually is not how it works.”

In fact, according to Bersin, meaningful workplace learning requires you to really work at something outside of your comfort zone. His insights have been carefully curated, based on ample research, to help organizations drive meaningful engagement in four core learning areas:

  • Technical content – “How do you do this? Correct. Incorrect. If you do it wrong, you’re going to break something or blow something up.”
  • Soft skills – “Some of which are simple, some of which are highly complex, so you’re not going to teach somebody how to be a leader in a one-hour course, but there may be a whole bunch of small pieces that you need to know.”
  • Compliance training – “… where you really need to verify that somebody finished something for legal reasons.”
  • Engaging opportunities for advancement – “Education and training that inspires and motivates and brings people to another level of their career that may not have anything to do with the job they’re in now, but might be aspirational towards where they want to go or where the company believes they should go next.”

Churning out content may drive clicks and brief moments of attention, Bersin argues, but it won’t necessarily initiate long-term understanding.

For that, Bersin presents several potential solutions.

#3 Creating Training Content that Works

“The difficult part is that despite the proliferation of content, I think companies need to think about learning in the form of what I call a Capability Academy. And sales is a perfect example of this.”

The Capability Academy, a facet of the Josh Bersin Academy, is a new model of self-directed learning that focuses on synthesized business capabilities—how to become the whole package.

This approach is much more tailored to the “real world,” providing not just isolated skills and silos of information, but how to integrate each component of the entire complex operation.

I think this is similar to the role of a director, rather than an actor, in a movie. As a workplace learning and development professional, your job is to identify the best player for each job—expert speakers on specialized topics who carry credibility and authority, leaders in the field who can make the most impact—and “pull out the performance from these different people.”

“But the problem is two things, Bersin claims. “One is selecting and integrating all the pieces, but the second is, how do you know what to turn on when?”

#4 Using Learning for More than Skill Development

“Learning is an engagement tool. The good learning experience not only makes you better at your job, and makes you better educated, but gives you kind of an excitement, and thrill, and an engaged feeling about the company and the job and the role.”

So often, companies use training and development as skill-acquiring sessions, teaching only the information necessary to complete the job. But especially during a period of stress and instability, “learning something new actually gets you out of that mode of thinking.”

Bersin argues that companies are finding unique success during this time because of the aspirational nature of learning—looking towards future possibilities, gaining forward momentum rather than stagnating.

Adapting to New Circumstances—Good And Bad

“Sometimes you have a bad fit with your manager. You have a bad fit with your company. You have to go through a layoff, you have to go through a downturn, you get fired for some reason. And it feels like the end of the world. You have just entered an enormous learning opportunity.”

As Bersin and Magnacca both agree, the lessons you learn in moments of serious devastation or failure become the most ingrained in your mind. These moments of adaptation require the most out of us, but they tend to give us the most in return.

Learn More

To enjoy the complete conversation and discover more about workplace learning, check out The Adapter’s Advantage: Learning in the Flow of Work.

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