Learning pathways: If you’ve been in learning and development (L&D) for a while, there’s a chance you may have heard of them. So, what exactly are learning pathways? How are they different from a content playlist? What can learning pathways be used for?

In short, a learning pathway is a curated collection of customized content. But wait — isn’t that a playlist? Yes! Wait — no. While technically playlists and learning pathways can be very similar, customization does a lot of heavy lifting in the definition of a learning path. Learning pathways should by adaptive, dynamic and customizable, whereas playlists are often static and difficult to scale.

A learning pathway should be purposefully tied to a larger goal, such as a certification or career advancement. A 2022 McKinsey survey found that 41% of employees left their previous jobs due to lack of opportunities for career development and advancement. Learning pathways can be used to close skills gaps and provide opportunities for career mobility, improving employee retention.

Learning pathways can also be utilized as a powerful tool to provide typically underrepresented groups with equal access to information that will further develop their career. Many American employees in minority groups report that they do not see a path for advancing their career in their current position and that skills development is a barrier for them. 43% of Asian Americans and 40% of Latinx employees reported feeling this way. Meanwhile, 47% of Gen Z employees and 43% of employees who make less than $50,000 a year reported that they do not have access to opportunities to develop their skills and advance in their careers. Learning pathways can provide the opportunity that many underrepresented groups desire in order to get ahead in their careers and create a better life for themselves and their families.

For the employer, learning paths can create a structure to learning that enables the achievement of long-term and short-term workforce goals. Effective learning pathways can actively work to close skill gaps and leave you with a more skilled workforce – without the associated costs of recruiting and retaining new raw talent. Investing in the workforce you currently have and making the effort to reskill and upskill them through learning pathways is more likely to improve employee retention.

The University of Phoenix’s Annual Career Optimism Index 2023 found that 68% of workers reported that they would stay with their employer throughout their entire career if the employer had made an effort to upskill them. 70% report that they would stay for their entire career if an effort had been made to reinforce their current skills or provide an opportunity for a lateral move through reskilling. Despite that, 40% of employees reported that they do not see a clear path between their current position and where they would like to be — and many are not sure where to begin.

Investing in learning pathways can send a clear signal to employees that employers care about their future with the company — boosting employee engagement and internal promotions. Learning pathways also provide opportunities for employee recognition — which is an important indicator of productivity and profitability. One study found that employers who recognize and appreciate their employees had an average return on equity more than three times higher than those who didn’t. Additionally, 74% of employees who quit their job cited a lack of recognition as a motivating factor.

Learning pathways have a lot of benefits for employees as well. It can give them a sense of control over their career mobility and professional goals. Employees who receive recognition for their learning and even earn new positions as a result are also likely to have an improved sense of value and self-confidence. Learning empowers employees to achieve their goal: Learning journeys provide a clear path to do just that.

How can you begin to implement learning pathways? While the intricacies of setting up a customized learning path will ultimately depend on your available software and technology resources, there are a few things to keep in mind for every learning journey.

  1. There should be a clear beginning and a clear end.

Learning pathways should provide an obvious trajectory for point A to point B. As an example, let’s say that a sales development representative desires to become an account executive. This would require them to obtain skills that they may not currently have or to strengthen their present abilities. A learning pathway could be constructed for the purpose of building skills between a sales development representative and account executive role. At the end of the learning journey, the learner could receive a certification in their new skills and knowledge. This certificate acknowledges the effort they’ve put in and can be used as a signal to their manager that they are ready to advance into a new role.

  1. Different learners will have different needs and skills.

This is where personalization and customization must come into play. Learning paths are good – but customized learning paths are better. In order to reduce lift from training professionals and administrators, utilizing a tool that uses AI to generate learning paths customized to individual learners is recommended. However, if that’s not possible, try introducing mixed modalities into the learning pathways such as articles, videos, podcasts or infographics to accommodate different learning preferences.

  1. Content is king – still!

The content that you use in your learning pathway is going to make a huge impact on its effectiveness. The content should be relevant to the learners, appropriate for their skill levels, engaging and up to date. Harvard Business Review also recommends including an element of social proof, such as content endorsed by a subject matter expert or leader in the industry.

Setting up learning pathways can feel a little intimidating — especially to a human resources (HR) or L&D professional who doesn’t have a lot of time on their hands. However, selecting the right learning partner and tools for the job can make a huge difference. Not to mention — investing in learning pathways can provide a huge return on investment for the employer and literally be life-changing for the learner.