Stack the learning deck

Embrace new skills and roles to build a “full-stack” L&D function

Embrace new skills and roles to build a “full-stack” L&D function

Posted by Mary Slaughter on July 21, 2016.

So much has changed in organizational learning and development (L&D) over the last 15+ years that it barely resembles the function of old. Today corporate learning is less about developing and conveying content and more about enabling people to adapt, contribute, and excel throughout their careers. This shift has created the need for a much broader definition of what it means to be a learning professional.

Putting L&D in context
L&D’s core mandate hasn’t changed: it’s still expected to equip employees with the tools, knowledge, and skills to excel on the job and ultimately execute business strategy. But the way L&D carries out that mandate has had to change, given the environment it now operates in and the realities of how people live and work.

On the learner side…

  • Learners have high expectations: Thanks to technology advancements, we now have the world literally at our fingertips. Information flows freely and continuously, from the organization out, the outside in, and within the “four walls” (which aren’t really walls at all). People expect information to be mobile and accessible on demand wherever they are.
  • They’re used to learning from others and sharing what they know: People routinely share their knowledge and opinions about products, services, and information in general, and seek out the knowledge, opinions, and ratings of others to inform their own decisions.
  • They’re often overwhelmed: Employees’ lives are busy and demanding and the lines between work and personal time are fuzzy at best. Learning that is cumbersome or time-consuming without adding value can quickly become just another box to tick (or not).
  • They view work differently: Millennials may be the generation most closely associated with new attitudes and expectations about work, but other generations are also in the mix. The desire for meaningful work and wanting to belong to a purpose-driven organization or work for an entity that cares about the environment, sustainability, and social responsibility is becoming more universal. So is the desire for a faster and clearer career path, which may not be a linear, upward progression, but a series of positions and experiences that provide enrichment and valuable skills.

On the learning science side…Neuroscience has evolved: We now have a much better understanding of how information is encoded in our brains, retained, and recalled for use. We’ve also gotten better at documenting routine thinking behaviors and limitations—for example, the tendency to naturally refresh our brains every 20 minutes or so by going off-task for a time and then returning. This knowledge is being applied to the design of learning content to not only make it more relevant, but also easier for our brains to process and apply.

On the organization side…The employee experience is taking center stage. Culture and engagement are Top 10 human capital trends, seen as crucial to talent retention and key factors in overall organizational performance. As a result, organizations are paying attention to improving the overall employee experience, taking their cue from disciplines like user-centered design, marketing, and customer service to apply design thinking to processes that touch employees, including learning and development.

On the business side…Same as it ever was (constantly shifting). Despite many changes affecting L&D, one big thing hasn’t changed: L&D still has the fundamental mandate to support the business and further the execution of business strategy. Whether that strategy involves growth in size or scope, geographic expansion, consolidation, innovation—whatever it might be (and whenever it changes), L&D still needs to align itself and its offerings accordingly. It needs to equip learners to contribute today, and be agile enough to adapt and evolve along with the business in the future.

What does this mean for L&D?
The short answer is that L&D is fighting fire with fire: embracing the changes in society, technology, science, culture, demographics, and attitudes and cultivating a full stack of capabilities to address them.

This new full-stack L&D function includes a range of professionals, not only those with “classic” degrees in teaching or instructional design but also people with knowledge of data science, neuroscience, marketing, user interface and user experience design, application development, information design, and content development.

It includes people who can think holistically about what the business needs and what learners need to support the current and future business.

It thinks about how to curate and host content that already exists (references, courses, conferences, sites, professional associations) along with content created in-house and content that’s user-generated from within the organization via knowledge-sharing platforms, crowdsourcing, internal social networks, and the like.

It works out delivery mechanisms, so employees have access to the most relevant content for their need, when they need it, in a form they can readily comprehend, recall, and apply.

It establishes a governance framework along with policies and processes for reviewing and assuring the quality of the content, no matter where it originates.

All of these capabilities are in play for L&D today. It’s not a revolt against traditional L&D approaches, models, and content, or a rejection of instructor-led or classroom-based learning—these will likely always have their place. Rather, this new full stack of L&D capabilities is a reflection of the modern world of work, and the needs and desires of the workers who drive it today and are expected to sustain it tomorrow.


Mary Slaughter is a managing director in the Human Capital practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP, working with C-suite executives to help them define and solve their organizational transformation, talent management, and talent development challenges.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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