Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were already grappling with successive waves of disruption in the workplace and workforce. In a 2019 survey by PwC, 79% of chief executive officers worldwide said that “a lack of essential skills” threatened their organization’s growth.
For learning professionals in many organizations, as 2020 forced entire employee populations online, a new set of skills, requirements and business challenges emerged. How might a global enterprise onboard, develop and retain employees without ever stepping inside a local company building? How might they do so without perpetuating “Zoom fatigue” from the CEO down? And how might CEOs see the direct impact of any new investments in learning amid the deluge of employee data and information available?
The answer is not more technology, more content or more modalities. It’s architecture.
No one would dispute that you need an architecture to build a house and that, once built, any changes require consulting the architecture so that knocking down a wall doesn’t accidentally cut power or collapse the floor above. In short, having an architected view of a complex structure ensures that you build what you intended and that later changes maintain the integrity of the overall structure.
It’s strikingly similar when it comes to building relevant, scalable learning programs. Learning architecture has become an indispensable mechanism to drive agreement on what to build: its scope, flexible points and joints, and even how to measure the impact of what is built. A durable learning architecture can scale over time and flex as the business changes without full tear-downs and rebuilds.
Learning Architecture, Defined
In the field of learning and development (L&D), a learning architecture presents a holistic view of the elements of a learning experience for a specific role over time. An architecture organizes the business outcomes, learning themes, content topics, learning duration and modalities into a single visual flow. Having this single visual enables anyone involved — a sponsor, designer or stakeholder — to quickly see how the training can bring the learner from point A to points B, C and beyond. And like its counterpart, the house blueprint, a learning architecture must also contain the details:
The best role-specific outcomes are concise and measurable. For example, you might design a six-month onboarding program for new account managers with an outcome of being able to close a deal of any size. Reaching this level of specificity with stakeholders can take time, especially if they come from different parts of the organization. The best architectures aim for three or fewer outcomes.
Working backward from the outcome, what must those new account managers know or do to meet it? Must they master the entire product catalog of the company or just enough of it to close a deal of any size? The outcome drives which content you include and which content you exclude.
As the essential content to include becomes clearer, themes often emerge that can help you group the overall experience into steps of a journey.
Once you’ve defined the themes, you can determine a more precise flow and timing. Will the experience require 40 hours over one week or one hour per week for 40 weeks? Timing is often linked to the next component: modality.
The best way to determine duration and modality is to combine adult learning theory with data about your audience. For example, a series of hour-long eLearning videos might be difficult for call center managers to consume, because they typically sit in open cubicles (or busy homes) wearing headsets that only cover one ear. Breaking that content into shorter segments, interspersed with on-the-job activities they can practice, might make the learning more consumable and impactful.
The experience map brings all of these components together. It shows what you need to build, the expected dimensions in minutes or pages, the flow from step to step, and the incremental achievements or objectives at each step that accrue to the expected outcome.
In addition to these components, the timing of architecture work is important. It’s critical to develop the architecture before giving any thought to design. In complex organizations with requirements and deadlines flying in from all directions, it can be difficult for learning teams to resist the urge to jump into the usual rhythm of design, build, deploy. However, if you can create the architecture as a key deliverable in the requirements-gathering phase, it adds significant value in two ways: It drives alignment among stakeholders of the outcomes they are investing in, and it gives the design team a clear specification of what to build.
This process requires additional skills beyond traditional instructional design. In fact, “learning architect” is an emerging role best fulfilled by people who can:
- Engage with business leaders to understand the factors required to grow the business.
- Learn quickly and translate business needs into measurable learning outcomes.
- Find patterns and themes in complex information.
- Navigate complex stakeholder relationships and cross-organization dynamics.
- Consult with stakeholders, especially across organizational boundaries, to help them reconcile any misalignments in expected outcomes.
- Imagine, with empathy, the kinds of experiences most relevant to and consumable by the learners.
The Impact of a Learning Architecture
Once you have an architecture, it enables several key shifts:
It Helps You Measure the Business Results of the Learning, Not Just Consumption
Learning and development professionals often struggle to measure impact, or they focus on factors that are disconnected from the business (e.g., how many people complete a course or answered 100% of the answers correctly in an online quiz).
An architecture specifies progress through incremental objectives toward an outcome, and measurement occurs along the way. A 10-minute activity to “update your manager on three things you’ve learned so far” can act as proof of execution and offer managers a moment to coach as needed.
Learners Can See Their Own Path
By using the learning experience map as a guide for the overall experience, individuals can see the journey ahead in their role, the help they will receive along the way and the clear outcomes they need to achieve to succeed (e.g., “Close a deal of any size by month 6”).
It Reduces Confusion and Noise About Where Learners Should Spend Their Time
By including the content most relevant to the outcome and excluding the rest, you avoid the pain of making individuals consume too much of what they do not need and too little of what they do need.
It Sharpens the Scale of Time From Proficiency Through Mastery
Rather than an event-driven view of one day or one week, an architecture can provide a view over time for a role from onboarding to ongoing development to mastery — and onward to career progression.
Learning architectures help an organization wrangle the complexities of information and scale by creating a flexible structure that truly delivers learning experiences with measurable impact to your people.