During a recent conversation, a long-term client shared how she and her family entertained themselves during the darkest days of the pandemic — by assembling jigsaw puzzles. Each evening they’d come together and find the pieces that would fill in the image they were trying to complete.

Did you know there’s a name for people who enjoy completing jigsaw puzzles? It’s “dissectologist” (based upon a time when the puzzles were referred to as “dissected maps”).

While I’m not one to work on jigsaw puzzles in my spare time, the conversation and the label itself did get me thinking about parallels to learning and development and its changing role. Over the past several years, building skills and competencies within an organization has become more puzzling than ever before as a result of trends like: downward pressure on seat time, increasingly distributed workforces, the need to become more efficient, and the shift toward more learner control.

Today’s L&D professionals must be more intentional, creative and flexible than ever before to meet organizational challenges and take advantage of innovations and newly available development options. Rather than delivering a “completed picture” or the comprehensive training events of the past, they must parse learning out differently, more incrementally, as interconnected pieces that learners put together for their individual benefit. As a result, highly effective learning professionals are increasingly leaning into their dissectologist role.

The challenge, however, is that traditional frameworks may not be nimble or discrete enough to inform new approaches to learning. We might need to organize the available puzzle pieces (or the vast number of learning options and objects) differently to be able to deploy them more flexibly toward today’s development challenges.

For me, it’s been helpful to sort the learning puzzle pieces into a simple two-by-two matrix based upon two factors:

  1. Are learners consuming or constructing the content? For instance, when it comes to learning a simple new process, an instructional video or job aid may be all that’s required because consuming this information is sufficient to build awareness or skills. On the other hand, highly sophisticated competencies require more engagement, learning by doing, trial and error and coming to one’s own conclusions about how to be most effective. That involves constructing insights and understanding.
  2. Is the activity solitary or social in nature? Given the nearly universal pressure to reduce seat-time to its realistic but bare minimum, this second distinction is key. There are plenty of activities that learners can do on their own to enhance knowledge or skills. As L&D professionals, we need to take advantage of these opportunities — and when we do, it preserves that precious face-to-face time for the activities that demand and produce value through social exchange.

This table, with suggestions for beginning to build out my schema, offers one way of sorting the individual jigsaw pieces. But, as a learning dissectologist, this is your puzzle. And the most important question is: How will you organize the pieces so they can be assembled in fresh configurations that create a clear and complete picture of individual and organizational success?