Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • From the classroom to virtual learning: Changing trends in learning and development


When we think about what makes a good leader, former NFL player and coach Vince Lombardi said it best:

“Leaders are made,” he intoned, having coached the beleaguered Green Bay Packers to five victories in seven years. “They aren’t born.”

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Opening up the debate once more on the matter of nature versus nurture, the football star hinted that leadership was a journey governed by hard work, rather than something that came naturally in our DNA.

However, in today’s workplace, it’s precisely this business of making leaders that has become more challenging. Part of that is down to the rise of technology – and how we adapt our skills.

We find ourselves in an era in which technology has rapidly changed the way we live, think and work. For decades, we’ve prioritised hard, technical skills at work that focus on our knowledge and expertise.

Yet our unstoppable quest for technological enlightenment has redefined the way we do business and completely altered the technical skills that our roles require. As artificial intelligence and machine learning have become more advanced, computers are able to take over some aspects of our workload – and they’re often quicker and better than us.

We’re beginning to learn a hard truth in that respect: We need to tap into our soft, more human, skills – like creativity, intuition and communication – if we’re going to successfully adapt to the challenges of a technological future.

In the modern workplace, leaders need both sets of skills to survive. However, we’ve let our creative, communicative muscle wither in the pursuit of knowledge and we’ve ended up with a leadership skills gap on our hands.

While technology has reshaped the hard skills we require, it has also become a vital tool to nurture soft skill development. Instead of leaving the office to attend a seminar, leaders can plug in to learning wherever and whenever they need to, whether that’s a micro-course on their mobile or a remote workshop on their computer.

This trend is known as contextual learning, and it allows for instant, relevant and continuous knowledge development that goes far beyond the reaches of the episodic training typical of traditional workplace learning.

In this guide, we will explain how organisational learning is moving towards a contextual approach, and what this shift might mean for training in your company. We’ll outline why championing contextual learning among your leaders is important, and how you can empower them to direct their own growth.

From the classroom to virtual learning: Changing trends in learning and development

When we think about corporate learning, we typically envision it taking place within a classroom context led by an instructor – much like when we were at school. This didactic approach has been the backbone of most organisational learning for well over a century.

However, it’s only since the 1980s that we’ve seen a series of shifts occur in workplace-related learning, largely due to the rise of new technology and its resulting impact on the pace of business.

As the world wide web hit the consumer market in the late-1990s, businesses began to tap into its potential to foster employee growth. Blended learning tools fused traditional academic approaches with new tech upgrades like CD-ROM and internet resources, and shifted the balance away from face-to-face instruction.

Meanwhile, the development of Learning Management Systems, such as FirstClass, used by the UK’s Open University programme, tracked learning progress for the first time online, monitoring certification and delivering training.

This set the stage for new ways of learning to develop over the next couple of decades, with digital repositories like Wikipedia and Youtube. These changed the speed and frequency of how we learned, giving us access to training resources at the click of a button.

As workforces become more diverse and multi-generational, modern learning solutions need to cater for everyone, by delivering information at the right time and in the right format. That’s where technology can be our biggest asset.

Technology: The new wave of workplace learning

As technology has continued to transform our lives over the past decade, many of us have become digital natives. When we want to communicate, we turn to social media, when we need entertainment, we have Netflix and when we need a question answered, we instinctively ask Google.

This last concept of self-guided learning on demand is one that has gained traction in the business world as a result of our digital working environment.

In a recent survey, around 70% of employees reported that they actively fill in the gaps in their working knowledge using search engines at the point of need, while between 50 and 60% take an online course. Mobile-based learning has grown 5% in the past year.

In short, we can see how technology is shaping learning to become more agile, dynamic and mobile than ever before.

Talent developers have already recognised the need to back this trend. Between 2016 and 2017, e-learning for managerial skills increased by 23%, and since 2017, almost 60% of talent developers have increased their spend on online learning.

However, this transformation has by no means taken place overnight – in fact, it’s largely still in process. In a 2018 report compiled by Deloitte in collaboration with research journal MIT Sloan Management Review, almost 70% of companies surveyed reported that they considered themselves either at the beginning or developing phases of digital maturity. That leaves just 30% of businesses that consider themselves ready for the next wave of digital innovation.

What this progress does signal, though, is that organisations are opening up to the idea of harnessing technology to diversify learning.

Closing the soft skills gap in the age of technology

The rise of technology may have brought us a plethora of new ways to learn and upskill technically, but it’s also meant that we’ve let our soft skills lag behind.

As artificial intelligence and machine learning have become more sophisticated, computers have become more adept at performing some technical functions than their human counterparts. Data can now be analysed at the click of a button, and we can get customer service from an automated chatbot, all without the need for human intervention.

While there will always be a demand for the technical aspects of any job, talent developers are now placing more emphasis on the skills that differentiate us from computers – or the attributes that make us human – in the business world.

Hard facts back up the need for soft skills. By 2022, the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report estimates that no less than 54% of all employees globally will require significant re- and upskilling if we’re going to be able to adjust to this new market shaped by technology.

This means that the focus of learning at work has changed. Rather than training for solely for technical skills, organisational learning has now become more holistic, and attributes such as innovation, analytical thinking and developing active learning strategies as well as ‘human’ skills such as creativity, emotional intelligence and initiative, are in high demand for future managers.

When we consider that over 50% of senior leaders feel that talent development does not adequately build the skills needed for future managers, we can see that now, more than ever, continuous, relevant learning has become essential to help managers on their path for growth.

This is why developing a contextual learning culture to help mitigate this shift and build soft skills among your leaders – present and future – is critical for all levels of any organisation.

The science of knowledge: Kolb’s theory of learning by doing

Contextual learning might sound like a buzzword, but it’s definitely nothing new – and you’ve almost certainly been practising it without realising since you were a child.

Originally defined as an educational theory, it’s a learner-centric method of instruction where students are able to construct meaning based on their own understanding from their life, social and cultural backgrounds.

This focus on each individual’s approach to learning means that knowledge is developed through problem-solving and collaboration, and that it’s more immediately relevant to each student.

Educational theorist David A. Kolb built on this idea when he developed his Experiential Learning Theory in 1984. Drawing on earlier research by German social psychologist Kurt Lewin and American educational reformer John Dewey, Kolb identified four stages to the experiential learning cycle that demonstrate how  we experience, develop and retain knowledge throughout our lifetime.

We can see how this theory works when we apply it to something many of us did as kids – riding a bike:

  • Experience: You’ve decided to try riding a bike. You get on and pedal, but you fall off – making you realise that you don’t know how to ride it after all
  • Reflection: After falling off, you think about your experience and why you fell. What went wrong?
  • Interpretation: Whether the saddle wasn’t quite right or you need to master the steering, this stage is about understanding what the problem is and how you can overcome it to complete your goal
  • Application: This is the active phase – it’s time to get back in the saddle and test out your theories in practice

Riding a bike might seem like a simple metaphor, but when we break it down using Kolb’s model, it defines the process of how we learn by doing.

So what makes it the most effective method for learning? To cite Albert Einstein: “The only source of knowledge is experience.”

Learning by doing is in our biology. Our brains are hard-wired to remember emotions, and when we connect learning to experiences, we’re more likely to retain the information in our long-term memory. This provides us with instant feedback on what we need to keep doing, what we need to change and what we need to repeat.

The benefits for the business world are tangible. Fostering a culture of contextual learning in your organisation is the difference between sending your managers out of the office for a three-day leadership workshop, and asking them to take a three-minute subject specific micro-course.

The former provides learning at a macro level, and the latter puts the minutiae of one topic under the microscope. Both contribute to overall professional growth, but continuous contextual learning connects this knowledge to their day-to-day job, meaning that employees learn more effectively and efficiently, driving further engagement in their work.

But it’s not just theory; current research builds a strong case for Kolb’s approach. A 2017 report from Bersin by Deloitte revealed that around 80% of workplace learning happens as a result of interactions and collaboration with peers. LinkedIn’s 2019 Workplace Learning and Development report notes that 74% of surveyed employees want to learn in their spare time at work.

Learning by doing is the critical link between academic theory and knowledge development that drives more impactful, relevant learning through experience, trial and error.

Kilde Peakon