Six Drivers of the Future of Corporate Learning

Though cavepeople wouldn’t recognize much of what goes on in the world today, they would understand our need to learn at work and improve our skills. Without constantly honing their abilities to hunt and gather in collaborative teams, they would have starved, and we wouldn’t be here.

Until recently, much of the training and development offered by corporations would have perplexed early Homo sapiens, with a focus on teaching specific skills for static roles rather than the more human-centered skills that have held us together for eons.

Corporate training departments are now rediscovering their hunter-gatherer roots. For example, the abilities to communicate effectively, empathize, and reframe challenges are coming back to the fore.

For Learning and Development (L&D) pros, the mission is shifting to nurturing talent that does what machines, automation, and AI cannot.

But before you can plan for the future, you need a clear view of the present. Chief human resources officers (CHROs) and chief learning officers need to get a handle on the forces – some visible, some hidden – that exist today, and that will play a large role in shaping the future.

One thing is clear: The future of corporate learning is tightly tied to the future of work. As easily quantifiable, repetitive work is becoming more automated, training and learning are shifting to cover more human-centered abilities that bots can’t easily duplicate.

But humans aren’t ready for the shift. A vast majority of employers say they have a skills gap in their workforces. This is especially true for the skills that can’t be automated, with collaboration, leadership, proactive thinking, and adaptability leading the list, say both employers and employees.

Woman with glasses smiling

This isn’t just about saying goodbye to single-focus careers crowned with a gold watch at retirement. Rather, the offerings from many L&D programs are too focused on skills that are highly perishable under the heat of automation. And they don’t adequately account for the big shifts happening in the way work is done.

A case in point: Increases in remote and gig work have accelerated because of improved network technologies and the threat of COVID-19. Fewer in-person interactions, however, weaken social bonds among employees. That threatens L&D professionals’ ability to teach employees the human-centered skills that are becoming more essential. Further, companies that rely on contractors may feel less motivation to train and develop them because they are not “full employees.”

Some companies are also questioning whether the current entry pass to the corporate job market – the university degree – is necessary, especially as the cost of education rises in many countries. If people choose to forgo higher education because of costs, CHROs and L&D leaders will need to create programs that prepare workers without degrees to succeed in the corporate world. Otherwise, companies will face increasing talent shortages and miss out on valuable hires.

Meanwhile, technology is no longer just an assistant to learning; it’s also the teacher. Advances in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) compress years of real-world experiences into targeted, immersive virtual programs that let employees test their skills without the real-world consequences of failure. AI lets leaders insert learning into live work processes, prompting employees with content at the moment it’s needed rather than in the classroom. L&D leaders will have to balance the right mixture of in-person and virtual learning experiences.

Meanwhile, technology is no longer just an assistant to learning; it’s also the teacher.

Not addressing these issues will worsen longstanding problems for L&D leaders. With ROI difficult to measure, executives often fear that traditional training programs deliver minimal results. At the same time, L&D budgets are shrinking and learners lack time for training – and often, clarity and support from their managers on learning goals.

There are six drivers affecting the future of corporate training and learning – and they’re acting in full force today. We call the first two megadrivers because they’re foundations for the other four:

Six Drivers of the Future of Corporate Learning

Megadriver 1: Explosive growth of information processing and availability

Today we have instant virtual access to nearly all information, which changes how skills are taught. Why memorize when you can Google? We have less need for rote learning of facts or knowing how to multiply big numbers in our heads.

Machines – computers and smartphones, chiefly – extend the reach and portability of unlimited information, enabling us to bring learning into many different situations and contexts. Technology supports pinging employees with learning content that is contextual and timely. It also enhances mobility: Employees can take courses at home, on the bus to work, or on a beach.

Meanwhile, as AI and robots become more capable, they’ll continue to change the work that people do. Our careers will no longer be defined or bound by what we know. Unlimited information bursts from every laptop and smartphone. L&D leaders will need to focus even more on teaching employees how to adapt to the constant expansion of specialized machine intelligence.

Woman working from home

Megadriver 2: The network has become a dominant organizing principle

Tremendous gains in the ability to link computers and people together at ever-decreasing cost have made it easy for employees to create connections with their peers both inside and outside the company. This has increased learning opportunities since the more connections that employees have, the more information they can access and the more they can learn from others.

Improved remote working technologies such as the ubiquitous Zoom have accelerated the shift to virtual networks, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. As remote work becomes normalized, employees will increasingly depend on digital learning content.

Rather than rely on employees to find that content themselves, L&D leaders are taking on the role of learning emcee to match employees with the resources that best fit their needs. The challenge will be keeping on top of everything out there, because good learning content can be anywhere now – LinkedIn seminars, DIY videos on YouTube, and online learning platforms such as Coursera.

The two megadrivers form a shared foundation for the four drivers that will play a direct role in the future of corporate learning.

Driver 1: Work is becoming more human-centered, less repetitive

Automation has already eliminated entire classes of jobs. The doomsday scenario is of an entirely machine-driven economy with humans left out. But humans are already proving their resilience. Work is shifting to tasks that require human-centered skills, including collaboration, complex reasoning, empathy, resilience, and creativity.

Not all skills that make us human are innate, and even those that are need further development. Nurturing those skills isn’t the same as teaching people technical skills. By creating workspaces that encourage experimentation and interaction, organizations can shore up the human capabilities that are crucial for innovation – and that companies need to keep thriving.

The future of work is happening concurrently

Experts identify four effects that automation and AI could have on the future of work. However, these effects are not mutually exclusive. Rather than a zero-sum game in which one outcome becomes dominant, each is developing concurrently (see Figure 1).

  • Large-scale job losses
    One predicted outcome is major job loss from automation and advancing use of AI. This would result in an overall erosion of work – whether it’s complete job loss or simply a decrease in human participation, control, and discretion. Workers’ fear of being replaced by machines is already widespread and, in some roles, justified. The World Economic Forum, for one, has sounded the alarm that more than 1 billion people will need reskilling by 2030 due to job replacement.
  • Augmented work
    Another school of thought says jobs will be augmented or supported by AI rather than replaced outright. While automation will expand in every job, full automation will be low because AI will not be able to replicate all job skills. However, people will still need frequent training to work with these new augmentation and support tools.
  • Large-scale job gains
    There are also those who see the advances in technology creating far more jobs than those lost to automation. However, employees won’t be able to simply hop right into these new jobs; they’ll need new skills. Some companies are trying to get ahead of these changes; Amazon is creating a program to upskill 100,000 U.S. employees for in-demand technical and non-technical jobs by 2025. Meanwhile, many workers understand the imperative to acquire new skills but often don’t know where to begin, especially if employers don’t clarify what skills they want.
  • Business as usual
    Finally, there are some who think the potential of AI and automation as job destroyers is overblown. They question the impact on jobs overall, especially on those that require complex interactions both internally and with customers.

How the four effects are playing out

Today we’re seeing evidence of all four effects at work. Automation continues, and it’s displacing workers in jobs that require rote, repetitive tasks. At the same time, however, the type and volume of work that is being augmented rather than replaced outright is also growing.

For example, call center employees are seeing more of their rote tasks, such as initial customer contact, taken over by machines. But the core skills required for the role, such as empathy and complex problem-solving, are not being replaced. Rather, they are being augmented, with software to help employees find information and prompt them with suggestions for action and learning. Meanwhile, although many jobs in manufacturing have been lost to machines, others have endured and have been augmented by them.

Automation is also replacing some desk-based jobs while creating new ones that require both technical and human skills. However, there is often significant overlap between these new roles and what used to be called entry-level or lower-skilled roles. This trend calls into question the conventional wisdom that a university degree should be the minimum bar of entry to a corporate career (see Driver 2).

There is a subtle shift even in roles that still seem like business as usual, such as middle and executive management. Machine augmentation and technology virtualization employed at the lower levels of the organization are changing how employees are supervised. There’s less need for direct monitoring – often, technology can do that – and more need for coaching and mentoring. Increasingly, the most respected and successful managers and executives are those who practice human-centered skills and coach their employees to develop them.

In both desk-based and deskless jobs, there is increasing demand for employees who excel at uniquely human skills. This means that however work evolves, L&D leaders will be adding a heavy emphasis on new primary skills for employees, including emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, empathy, and inclusivity.

Increasingly, the most respected and successful managers and executives are those who practice human-centered skills and coach their employees to develop them.

Woman listening to music on bus

Driver 2: Corporate learning is reaching an expanded pool of people

In the industrial economy, the overriding mindset was to improve efficiency and increase the pace and scale of production. Jobs were highly structured so that people could be swapped in and out with minimal cost and disruption. That approach viewed education and training – including university degrees – as systems for filling specific roles that changed little over time.

As work becomes more human-centered, that industrial-age view of education is getting flipped. Not only does the evolving nature of work require people to continually acquire new knowledge and skills, there’s evidence that the skills used in many jobs that require a university degree overlap heavily with jobs that don’t. In other words, there’s a paper barrier between lower- and higher-paying jobs that shouldn’t be there and that shuts out talented workers who didn’t go to university. In the United States, the higher education filter is “self-harm for the economy, racially and ethically,” says Byron Auguste, chief executive of Opportunity@Work.

In other words, there’s a paper barrier between lower- and higher-paying jobs that shouldn’t be there and that shuts out talented workers who didn’t go to university.

University degrees may not be required

Continuing to make university degrees the bar for corporate employment all but assures future talent shortages. Instead, focus is shifting to direct training for people in the skills they need to do their jobs. European governments and companies have long provided robust technical education in lieu of requiring university degrees. These programs have usually focused on trades such as plumbing or mechanical repair, but their scope is changing. Tech companies, for example, are creating courses designed for non-university-bound people to fill IT roles. Former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty coined a term for these employees: “new collar.”

Free learning models created by the tech giants do good for the community while giving people who otherwise would not get through the door an entrée to a promising career. For instance, Google’s new Career Certificates let job seekers find employment quickly after completing a six-month course. Microsoft has an initiative to help people worldwide acquire digital skills and low-cost certifications. And if, after taking its courses, you don’t get a job within six months, Lambda School will refund your tuition. As the new collar trend picks up steam, companies around the world could look to apprenticeships, certifications, and two-year degrees to find more employees.

Connecting with a new pool of workers

As higher education requirements loosen, companies will gain access to a vast pool of potential employees who they previously would have overlooked. Some organizations, especially larger ones with more discretionary L&D budget, have programs for new and entry-level hires that also target underserved communities. In organizations where money is scarcer, L&D executives nevertheless are facing pressure to create similar programs that stay within budget constraints.

The good news is that unlimited information and ubiquitous networks make this work easier. As the new collar concept takes hold, for example, online certification programs can be created at low cost. At the same time, these programs have the potential to reach anyone with a computer connection.

Man talking on phone, working on laptop in cafe

Driver 3: Ubiquitous contextual and experiential learning is feasible

The reach of computer networks continues to expand, and the costs to produce and integrate experiential learning continue to plummet. Together, these trends make powerful new models for learning possible. Technologies such as AI-supported AR, VR, and high-fidelity simulation are already pushing this type of learning forward.

More specifically, the confluence of several trends is making ubiquitous contextual and experiential learning feasible.

Learning is becoming more contextual

Most skills or behaviors learned in a classroom are forgotten soon after unless they are reinforced. To address this issue, learning is increasingly happening when it’s most needed. By embedding learning into the specific context of a work process, such as giving call center operators real-time advice during difficult conversations with customers, the learning sticks more easily and can be reinforced over time.

AI will play an important role in targeting these sorts of helpful interruptions. The technology can learn when and how best to connect employees with content, minimizing the likelihood that people will forget what they’ve learned by the time they need to apply it.

But timing isn’t everything. The environment where learning happens also matters a lot. Classrooms take learning out of the work environment; immersive experiences put it back in. In a growing number of cases, VR and AR simulations deliver convincing alternatives to real-world situations.

Classic examples are airline pilot and military training, in which elaborate immersive environments are realistic enough to the brain and body to elicit the same reactions that would occur in the real world. However, due to the enormous cost and complexity of these environments, they have only been justified in areas where they help avoid costly or even disastrous real-world mistakes.

Employees prefer the metaverse to the whiteboard

With the exponential drop in network and information costs, technologies such as VR, AR, and gaming software are now becoming vital tools for immersive experiential learning at scale. For example, Walmart uses a VR-based platform at nearly all of its 4,700 store locations to simulate important experiences for new store employees, including the most stressful day of the year: Black Friday. Employees who take the VR training say they prefer it to classroom learning, and their retention of training concepts is higher. It also helps Walmart save money by compressing into short sessions what would otherwise take weeks or even years of real-world experience in stores to duplicate.

Meanwhile, gamification of learning through the development of “serious” games is rapidly expanding, drawing on the broader entertainment-based gaming industry. For example, PepsiCo uses the virtual world of Minecraft, a video game platform, for Lean Six Sigma training. Black Belt PepsiCo trainer Marco Rodriguez Tapia worked with his then 11-year-old son Alexander to create a world in Minecraft that simulates a PepsiCo plant. Trainees could practice problem-solving and complete productivity challenges while building simulated pallets using virtual blocks. As at Walmart, PepsiCo found training in a virtual environment to be more engaging for learners than a traditional classroom.

However, not all learning can happen virtually, for an obvious reason: Not every work experience can be duplicated convincingly – yet. But the twin drivers of dirt-cheap processing and exponential increases in computing power will keep the sophistication of virtual contextual learning growing at a brisk clip, with ubiquitous demand for better gaming experiences turbocharging development and adoption.

Man on phone

Driver 4: Different aspects of life are blending under one “digital roof”

The walls separating family life, play, work, and learning are breaking down. No longer separated into distinct physical spaces, these activities are blending together under a single digital roof.

Network-based changes to the work environment, including the rise of remote and gig work, are driving a shift from top-down to network-oriented and peer-based learning models.

The near ubiquity of low- or no-cost platforms such as LinkedIn, YouTube, and TikTok under the digital roof is creating explosive growth in user-generated learning content. A bottom-up, collaborative learning approach, in which everyone at a company can play a role in course creation, provides a decentralized and democratized way to develop and distribute learning content. The digital roof gives us the Netflix of learning – personalized, entertaining, on-demand.

The challenge for L&D executives is tracking what employees are doing and ensuring that the content is relevant and correct. One way to reduce the noise is proactively identifying content that serves both the needs of employees and the learning goals of the organization.

Coworkers working together

Bonding with external workers

The digital roof enables the gig economy, increases in contract work, and the shift to remote work. But as we live more of our lives under that digital roof, the personal bonds between us become weaker.

The explosion in temporary contingent workers who do not receive corporate benefits raises questions about how businesses will train and develop these workers. Organizations have been split as to whether to include contractors in internal training and development initiatives. This leaves external workers, at times, without access to the same opportunities to develop their skills. And the absence of common learning experiences can widen the cultural divide between external workers and the employees they work with daily.

However, the distinctions between external workers and internal employees are beginning to fall away, given that increases in decentralized employment will likely continue. Providing experiences that gig workers value – everything from learning experiences to better communications – will encourage successful external workers to come back for multiple gigs or perhaps pursue full-time employment.

Coaching for everyone

In a decentralized employment future, both internal and external workers will increasingly be expected to take ownership of their development. New tools are appearing under the digital roof to help.

For example, coaching and leadership development have usually been available only at the upper echelons of an organization, due to the time- and labor-intensive nature of this type of training. Now apps like BetterUp can help democratize those opportunities by matching individuals with mentors or coaches in a highly personalized and contextually relevant way.

Of course, much still depends on the quality of the human coach. But the digital roof opens the possibility of broadening leadership development to cover all levels of the organization and all job categories. People with leadership potential can be spotted earlier in their careers and developed at a lower cost. For L&D departments, this means better ROI on program investments.


Learning for now and the future

The drivers of the future of corporate learning reveal an ironic and challenging shift: Even as machines replace employees or augment their roles, the most important element of change is in what humans can do. L&D professionals help employees maximize the skills they need to prepare for future evolutions of their jobs.

But merely offering courses on collaboration or conflict resolution won’t cut it. Improving employees’ skills requires a more subtle approach. By putting learning cues into the right context, people will learn to maximize their unique abilities more quickly and retain the knowledge they need to do their jobs more effectively.

Not all employees are ready for these changes. Our education systems are still set up to prepare students for lifetime careers in a particular specialty. With the rise of remote and gig work and with skills going out of date faster than ever, careers have become moving targets.

As work becomes more decentralized, L&D professionals have an opportunity to zig where others zag. Many companies are struggling with how (and whether) to develop an increasingly dispersed and contract-based workforce. There is no doubt that as the work-from-home and gig economies expand, more companies will leave training and development to individuals. Companies that integrate training for external workers with their in-house people will see better ROI and attract more and better employees.

Meanwhile, technology isn’t simply erasing jobs. AI and machine learning are creating new roles and helping employees improve their productivity through augmentation. And as the primacy of the university degree as a hiring qualification continues to erode, a wider pool of candidates is coming into focus, potentially expanding access to desk-based jobs for people at the bottom of the economic ladder while helping companies address emerging talent shortages.

The challenges that L&D professionals have always faced are not going away. Executives will be skeptical about new forms of learning if ROI is difficult to measure. Learning and development budgets are likely to continue shrinking, leaving L&D functions with even more limited resources. And learners aren’t likely to have more time.

But taken together, the drivers we’ve discussed are changing the mission of L&D professionals and making their work more essential. Now more than ever, L&D can be the thread that ties dispersed workforces together and preserves a sense of shared experience and community in companies. L&D leaders have an opportunity to change the negative perception of L&D that may exist in the executive suite while helping those on the front lines who are feeling disconnected and those in the community who are locked out entirely.

We’re in the midst of a once-in-generation change in the ways people work. L&D has the opportunity to help make it a change for the better.