Create Learning Pathways to Close Your Organization’s Skills Gap
How can you guide your workforce to the skills and competencies both you and they need? The answer, for most firms, is the learning pathway: a designated sequence of activities, often from different sources and in different formats, devised to develop the skills and behaviors of colleagues. At their best, learning pathways stitch together disparate educational resources into rich, diverse, cohesive and enlightening learning journeys which can have a transformative impact on both our professional and personal lives. Curation is part art, part science. This article offers a checklist for how to choose, curate, and motivate people to embark upon eye-opening, horizon-broadening, career-enhancing learning pathways.
With all the recent changes in the labor market that have been accelerated by Covid, the skills gap has ballooned; last year, the World Economic Forum calculated that addressing the gap could result in a GDP uplift of $6.5 trillion by 2030. At the same time, the world is bursting with learning content. What, then, is the best way to ensure that people can find and engage with the right content in order to develop the skills needed to close this gap and achieve much-needed business outcomes in your organization?
The answer, for most firms, is a learning pathway: a designated sequence of activities, often from different sources and in different formats, devised to develop the skills and behaviors of colleagues. Corporate learning systems — Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs) and Learning Management Systems (LMSs) — make learning pathways a centerpiece of the user experience: learn this and you’ll be able to do that. Indeed, every time content is shared by one employee with another — be it over email, Slack, Microsoft Teams or LinkedIn — an informal learning pathway has been laid out. Content curation is increasingly replacing the previous trend of content creation. We don’t just see this in the corporate world; the explosion of reaction videos on YouTube and TikTok are examples of immensely popular mainstream curation and value-add.
At their best, learning pathways stitch together disparate educational resources into rich, diverse, cohesive and enlightening learning journeys which can have a transformative impact on both our professional and personal lives. At their worst — and this is far more common — they add detritus to an already saturated sea of corporate content, and end up confusing and disillusioning learners.
Curation is part art, part science. Below we provide a checklist for how to choose, curate, and motivate people to embark upon eye-opening, horizon-broadening, career-enhancing learning pathways.
Which Learning Pathways?
So, which learning pathways should you build? A number of pertinent data sources from inside your corporate walls will offer some clues here, including search queries, business priorities, research on trending and future skills, and job descriptions. Overlay this data with conversations with your target audience about their learning desires and pains and keep asking until you’ve reached root cause(s). For example, consider a colleague who says, “I’m not good at presenting.” Instead of jumping to a solution of a pathway on presentation design or storytelling, dig deeper to understand their underlying concerns by asking questions like: “How do you prepare for presentations?” “What expectations do you have about your presentations?” Or, “How do you feel before and during a presentation?” You may discover that low confidence and a fixed mindset are the root causes which could shape your subsequent pathway to help the learner achieve their goals. You might then also prioritize some of the candidate needs and pathways by time and utility to achieve the biggest learning bang for your buck as quickly as possible.
At the same time, try not to be confined by traditional corporate thinking. Human beings are a lot richer and more diverse than their corporate analogues, such as job titles, roles, and job descriptions. If we look for clues on how to inspire someone to learn by analyzing her job description, our success will be limited. Instead, take a liberated approach to capture the imagination of colleagues. Consider that the name of your pathway is important, too. “Difficult Conversations,” “Resilience,” and “Collaborating with Colleagues” are examples of sensible pathways you might need to build. But “Crisis Negotiation,” “Controlling Your Amygdala,” or “Perspective-Shifting” are pathways that could intrigue and excite people.
Once you better understand learner needs and interests, it’s time to begin building pathways to support them. Good pathway design comprises thoughtful structuring and sourcing.
A useful pathway needs an appropriate structure. Are you clear on the purpose of the pathway? Who is it for? Is it to instruct or inform or inspire or something else? Is there an ordering that is logical and tells a story that the learner can follow? Is there the right mix of enticing content to reel the learner in at the start, as well as more advanced material to deepen their flourishing understanding? Do the items complement each other or is there unnecessary duplication? Is the overall duration of the pathway appropriate for your audience and the intended benefit?
Then, you need to furnish the structure of your pathway with content. Note that having a structure at all will speed up the curation considerably as the search becomes much more intentional and specific. Here’s a checklist to help you find the right content for your pathway.
- Mixed modalities. Offering a variety of format types (articles, videos, podcasts, infographics etc.) will keep learners engaged longer, increase recall of concepts, and cater to a wider range of learning preferences.
- Recency. Recent content is critical in rapidly-changing domains, such as machine learning. Evergreen classics (like this 1973 piece about thinking and writing) can endure for many decades in domains such as writing, which evolve more slowly.
- Providers. Include a mix of providers within your pathway for variety, as well as diversity of views and authors, to mitigate against subtle biases.
- Length. Short-form content can be great for getting a learner’s attention and introducing and summarizing concepts. This can be usefully supplemented with longer-form content to build proficiency.
Constructing pathways tends to be an iterative, non-linear process. The choice to include a particular item will shape the rest of the pathway, ruling in or out possibilities down the way. You may think you’ve found the perfect article only to later exclude it in favor of alternative videos or courses in order to ensure that the pathway has diversity, serendipity, novelty, and coverage (often-cited qualities in recommendation systems). You may find you need to revisit the research and definition steps to clarify learner needs as you discover more about the content available.
Here’s an example structure for a pathway for visualizing data:
- Appetizer — Edward Tufte: Beautiful Evidence (Highlights), Intelligence Squared (YouTube), Video
- Simple, accessible explainer — The 5 Most Important Principles of Data Visualization, Towards Data Science (Medium), Article
- Methodology 1 — Data Analysis and Presentation Skills: the PwC Approach Specialization, Coursera, Course
- Methodology 2 — Data Visualisation: Data Visualisation with Tableau Fundamentals, Future Learn, Course
- Methodology 3 — Introduction to Data Visualization in Python, Towards Data Science (Medium), Article
- Example of skill application 1 — Visualizing Data, Harvard Business Review Insight Center, Report
- Example of skill application 2 — Mistakes, we’ve drawn a few, The Economist (Medium), Article
- Further reading — Financial Times Visual Vocabulary, Financial Times (GitHub), Infographic
If you build it, will they come? Increase the likelihood that they do by explaining and communicating your pathway well.
Learners are more motivated to invest their time when they understand why a pathway will be useful to them. Whether the benefits are task achievement, personal development, or simply learning joy, spell them out so that the learner has a chance to weigh those up against the inevitable costs (their scarce time and attention). Consider the following ways to convey the value of your pathways:
- Pathway-level description of what the pathway will help the learner achieve. Customize for your organization or industry if possible, e.g. for a company-wide initiative, provide different explanations to each department/team on how the pathway can help them specifically.
- Content-level explanations, such as the reason for its inclusion or some subsection that is especially pertinent. These are not only helpful and efficient, but also reassure the learner that the pathway creator has properly reviewed the content herself (not always the case!).
- Social proof. If the pathway is curated or endorsed by a subject matter expert or influential business leader, learners are more likely to follow it.
You also need to communicate these explanations and benefits to your intended audience if the pathway is going to enjoy the footfall it deserves. Link it to an event or a key initiative and have your pathway enjoy the associated exposure. Amplify the message with a dedicated campaign on your company’s preferred communications channel. Convince senior and influential stakeholders to promote it meaningfully.
Anyone in your organization can become a curator of brilliant learning pathways. These pathways will play an important part in your organization’s upskilling journey, and can have a transformative impact for the individual learner. Educate and encourage your workforce to become subject matter experts and to share their expertise by creating high-quality, sought-after learning pathways. Guide your workforce to the skills and competencies you and they need.