A better way forward: Learner-centric leadership development

A better way forward: Learner-centric leadership development
Posted by Noah Rabinowitz on January 6, 2017.

As we’ve discussed in parts one and two of our four-part series, leadership development is about giving people the knowledge, tools, and experiences they need to be effective leaders at your organization. That means developing them in the context of your business strategies and the issues you face in executing those strategies and reaching goals. Delivering that type of contextual leadership development starts with thinking differently about how you approach leadership learning. To be truly effective, your learners—not the content or the delivery mode or the underlying technology—should be at the center of your approach.

Many organizations are wrestling with their learning organizations as nearly everything about corporate learning is being disrupted—from philosophy to content to access to delivery to measurement. This disruption is being driven by a number of factors, most prominent being the changes in how, where, and the pace at which we work; the commoditization of information, available 24/7 at our fingertips; and the rise of various technologies (SMAC—social, mobile, analytics, cloud; gaming; virtual reality).

Learning that was once conducted in a traditional classroom setting can now be presented in a variety of ways. At first we saw the transition to computer-based e-learning facilitated by a learning management system (LMS). This provides learners flexibility in where and when to engage, but for the most part is simply a virtual version of in-class training. It’s good for relaying facts or technical information, but not as applicable for the complicated challenges leaders grapple with.

Now we’re seeing a lot of interest in more advanced technologies. I am often asked questions like: “How much content should I develop?” “How do I curate content?” “Do I need a learning platform that delivers more personalization than an LMS can?” “Can I use virtual or augmented reality in my learning programs?”

The inclination to grab the latest shiny new tool from the toolbox is strong, but it’s not the way we should be thinking about learning. Where we used to construct learning much like a chef prepares a meal—pulling together ingredients to create dishes and presenting them to learners via a menu of choices—learning today is more of a buffet. Learners should be able to build their own meal from a carefully curated assortment, choosing the components and sharing their favorite and most successful recipes with others for a truly elevated experience.

The driver shouldn’t be “what’s new in the toolbox.” It should be the transformational learning objective you’ve set for the learning, which in turn should be driven by the context of your organization and its business needs. The right questions are: What is the purpose of the learning? What will it achieve for the learner and for the business? And of course, what are the characteristics and needs of the learners themselves?

Design thinking about the learner experience
Bersin by Deloitte gives us a picture of the modern learner: someone who’s untethered from a traditional workplace, accesses information and answers on demand, learns from others and shares knowledge in a collaborative way, and is empowered to seek out his or her own learning when employers aren’t providing what’s needed.

These general characteristics should be confirmed for your own learners and augmented with more specifics. My colleague wrote about crafting a compelling learner experience in this recent post, including the process of developing learner personas and using design-thinking techniques.

The learning approach and modality mix should take their cue from the learner experience you want to create, bearing in mind that learning delivery is a process of combining learner needs, content, and channels in a way best-suited to develop capabilities and sustain them over time.

Modality fit for purpose
Digital learning delivery is a technology-enabled strategy that encompasses all learning modalities, including in-classroom live sessions, virtual instructor-led training, and collaborative chat threads. The defining characteristic of a digital learning experience is that it is driven by the learner via enabling technology. A digital learning approach takes the complexity out of learning programs by streamlining the tools and platforms learners are already using, including the traditional LMS along with mobile, social, games, and on-demand learning to enhance the learning experience.

For example, choosing bite-sized microlearning videos can quickly and efficiently launch content and allow time-pressured learners to get knowledge and insights on demand and on the go. Or use systems aggregator software to leverage peer-to-peer concepts and the YouTube learning culture by automatically collecting and organizing learner-generated content. More mature learning technologies, such as simulations, immersive learning environments, gamification, and virtual reality, create engaging learning experiences that can be used to build technical skills or even create emotional empathy in learners, who aren’t “taught” but rather experience the concepts firsthand.

Contemporary learning platforms that enable digital learning allow for the delivery of learning as well as creation of community, a key component to learning sustainment. They also provide the tools that create learning experiences, such as those highlighted below.

Source: Deloitte Consulting LLP

How to provide effective learning for leadership development is part of the broader, ongoing discussion of how to amp up the effectiveness of organizational L&D overall. What I don’t think is up for discussion, though, is the notion that leadership-oriented learning should be as varied and true-to-life as the challenges leaders face every day. This means adopting a continuous learning approach, built around the organization’s business needs and the individual learner’s development needs, that uses a variety of learning modalities, engages learners in “logged-on learning” while solving problems in real time, and includes opportunities for networking and peer-to-peer collaboration.

It may seem like a tall order, but so are the expectations organizations put on their leaders. If we expect agile, versatile, multifaceted leaders, we have to be willing to invest in a learning environment that can cultivate them.


Noah Rabinowitz is a managing director in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Leadership practice, helping clients solve their most important challenges through people development, learning, and leadership.

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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