Last reviewed 25 March 2020

Is connected learning yet another L&D buzz term, or is there something far more substantial underpinning it, that provides not only great opportunities for learning but also for organisational performance? In this article, Judith Christian-Carter, independent learning consultant, explores what connected learning means and the opportunities it provides to individuals, work teams and organisations.

Digital learning has evolved immeasurably over the last decade to provide people with connected tools and processes through which both relevant and engaging learning content can be delivered to learners when they need it. While some people refer to these tools and processes as learning ecosystems, the most significant outcome of them all is that, once again, learners are now in the centre of such provision, whereby their relationships with one another are at the fore.

The other important outcome of the evolution of digitally-enabled learning is connecting two, largely independent entities (in both a strategic and delivery context), which are learners and organisations. By connecting people, it is recognised that this is how people really learn, ie they learn socially. People learn by sharing knowledge, making sense of things together, supporting one another and collaborating in creative and decision-making tasks. Instead of having unconnected systems, tools, content and processes all working independently, these are now integrated and networked. Data are collected and shared making measuring learning across the organisation both faster and easier.

What has changed?

Quite simply, technological improvements are largely responsible for connected learning. When digital learning, in the form of eLearning, arrived, it did solve some problems for organisations, such as global distribution, consistent content and some excellent learning solutions. However, overall and when used on its own it had some major limitations, such as a one-size-fits-all provision, solitary learning, a limited range of data collected for its own sake, and far too many “page-turning”, boring and limited interactive designs.

While there was some innovative thinking, such as the use of storytelling and scenarios, it wasn’t until the technology advanced that it became possible to connect easily with other people using various online tools and delivery channels. Thus began a move to social learning, gradual at first and then gaining momentum as learning and development (L&D) professionals realised that not only did people learn in this way but they actively sought to do so.

Currently, the position on the connected learning journey is one where people’s connected lives out of work are now accepted and expected in the workplace, by sharing, supporting and asking for support from others. Interacting with one another on various digital platforms, largely due to the use of social media, has become a way of life for many people. In turn, L&D professionals can now utilise the power of relationships between learners and other learners, learners and managers, and learners and the organisation when designing change and development programmes, which are both effective and collaborative.

Connected learners

For those L&D professionals who wish to utilise social learning strategies into learning programmes, the following opportunities should be taken up wherever possible.

  • Building a support network: to enable people to learn in small groups or teams in order to sustain the learning well beyond the initial task. This means providing people with the opportunities to share experiences and knowledge, to ask questions and to obtain feedback so they know they are on the right track.

  • Driving creativity and innovation by making sense of things with others: this is another example of using a support network, by sharing ideas and problems, and solving the latter together.

  • Application of learning: most learning at work requires people to put into practice what they have learned, so the application of learning needs to be an essential component of most learning programmes.

  • Context of practice and localisation: across a global network cultural differences, business practices, rules and regulations will vary. Social learning provides the ideal means by which learners’ own experiences can be shared and put into a local context.

  • Ownership and engagement: both these can be achieved by encouraging people to shape and create their own content, and then ― the most important step ― to share it with others.

All the above can be put in place by using the tools available already and by designing learners’ journeys so that they are encouraged to connect with one another on a gradual basis. Not only do organisations need to build a coaching culture, using the power of social learning, but also to use a learning platform which has been designed specifically around connecting learners. Finally, to ensure that the mantra “Learning = Work and Work = Learning” becomes a reality, by blurring the boundaries between work and learning, so that connected social learning actually happens.

Connected organisations

Connected organisations are those which have a joined-up network of systems that enable connected learning for learners and data transfer and measurement for use by the organisation. Some people refer to these as learning ecosystems, each one of which is unique to individual organisations depending on how the systems are networked.

A learning ecosystem not only allows an organisation to provide learners with the content, tools and experiences they require at the point of need, but also data about the impact that learning has had on the organisation’s performance.

Connecting an organisation

Some of the ways in which an organisation can become connected are by:

  • creating a blended learning experience

  • connecting learning and work

  • measuring the impact of learning

  • enabling continuous improvement

  • building a foundation for the future.

For L&D professionals the key enablers for connecting an organisation are already well-recognised. These are by:

  • supporting business strategy, which has always been an essential requirement for all L&D functions

  • involving learners from the beginning, by getting them to participate and to provide essential feedback

  • getting the technology right, by choosing flexible and interoperable systems that are able to connect to each other easily

  • making measurement a part of any learning strategy, as this is no longer a “nice to have” but an essential for all L&D functions, particularly with the learning technology and systems currently available there is no excuse not to measure learning

  • starting small, iterating and supporting, by focusing on one area of a connected learning programme that can be measured, changes made to it and then measured again to assess the impact of the changes made.

Connected learners and organisations

Outside work, a high proportion of people are very well connected via the use of technology. People use social media, various messaging, telephone and video apps, and some even control appliances in their homes via the Internet (of Things). Yet, for many, work provides the same people with a completely different and opposite set of experiences! It is, therefore, about time that all organisations and their L&D functions ensured that the connectivity people enjoy away from work is integrated into the workplace, and this also includes their learning.

A stage has been reached where no longer should people be treated as isolated learners because systems that work are no longer isolated. The world of work now requires collaborative systems and collaborative learners. People, systems, processes and tools all need to be connected to form flexible organisations that are required both now and in the future.