Lessons from the Anthropology of Learning

A recent study  “The Future of Jobs”  from The World Economic Forum (WEF), reveals that over half the global workforce will require significant up-skilling and re-skilling by 2024 

 This is unsurprising, given the rapid rate of technological and business change. Yet, viewing these findings alongside Harvard Business Publishing’s “2018 State of Leadership Development” report – which found that 80% of both L&D and business leaders believe organisations need more innovation in their approach to talent development – indicates a need for new perspectives on corporate L&D, if only to inspire and inform the transformation that seems to be needed. 

 SoDegreed  the San Francisco-based corporate learning platform provider  has collaborated with Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning Unit on research into the anthropology of learning. The research focuses on the collective behaviours, habits and values that shape how frontline employees, line managers, business and functional leaders, as well as C-suite executives, build the skills they, and their organisations, need. 

 This perspective  on what people do and don’t do, and how they make those decisions  is often missing from L&D,” commented Todd Tauber, Degreed’s Vice-President of Product Marketing. “Indeed, when we asked L&D professionals from some of Europe’s biggest and most innovative businesses which disciplines strongly influenced their strategies, anthropology was last on their list – behind psychology, neuroscience, economics, and data science. 

anthropology of learning

Learning outside the scope of L&D

Tauber believes it’s vital to understand and apply the anthropology of learning because, increasingly, L&D activities are happening away from instructor-led classes and online-delivered courses.  He said, “According to our data, only some 44% of people took any classes or courses last year – and those who did only took one every three or four months at most. Yet, despite all the talk of design thinking’, ‘curating and marketingmost L&D processes, systems, tools – and even jobs  are still optimised for creating and delivering classes and courses. 

“The point is that L&D professionals can’t impact people’s performance, business results, employee experience, or even learning culture, if they only reach four out of every ten people – and only connect with those people a few times a year. 

learning strategy for L&D

Shared beliefs, values and habits

“After all, ‘culture means a shared set of beliefs, values and habits,” Tauber added. “Our research, and other datashows that many L&D teams aren’t sharing these cultural elements with the workforce.  

This becomes an issue because a key performance indicator for the L&D department is how it ensures that learning strategy improves business performance. 

Tauber said, “Chief learning officers say their learning strategy flows from their business strategies and priorities. But these strategies don’t necessarily share the same goals. L&D teams rarely measure their progress towards, or impact on, operational metrics, for example. Instead, they talk about impact and obsess over ROI, which has nothing to do with business performance. It’s a financial metric that tells you how you did – not where you’re going. 

Our research with Harvard Business Publishing shows that, in the last year, fewer than 37% of people consulted their company’s learning systems for guidance on what skills to develop – or how to develop those skills 

“Some 80% say they know what skills they need to build. So, instead, they go direct to specific sources. They search Google, their intranet or their LMS. Or they ask their professional networks and teams – but not L&D professionals. 

Fewer than 20% agreed on a learning plan with their managers last year. And, while 63% received an annual performance review, only 39% had regular feedback on their performance or skills – and only 31% said their manager had created opportunities to practice and grow their skills. 

learning strategy for L&D

L&D strategy success

The conclusion to draw from these findings, believes Tauber, is that the success of L&D strategies is rarely measured against progress towards business goals or metrics. Meanwhile, managers aren’t giving their people guidance or feedback on their performance – or outlining the skills on which their team members should be working. Instead, individuals are learning what’s most important to them – which may, or may not, align with their organisation’s needs.  

Moreover, they’re doing it mainly without the resources provided by their L&D teams. Consequently, L&D teams have limited impact as well as little organisational visibility. 

Tauber’s advice for those who want to ensure that their learning strategy improves business performance is to focus on:  

  • Building the skills that matter  
  • Getting managers more involved 
  • Finding relevant – and consistent ways – to connect the workforce to L&D activities 

He also advocates putting learning into the workflow.  

“Currentlya lot of thought is going into how to insert learning content into the software people use to do their jobs,” said TauberAround one-third of the people Degreed surveyed said they’d find it extremely useful to access learning content inside productivity applications such as Word, Excel or PowerPoint.  

“However, more than a quarter said that this would be useless to them. The numbers were even less encouraging when we asked about job-specific apps, like Salesforce or the IT tool, Jira; messaging or collaboration tools like Slack or Yammer and, especially, HR systems like ServiceNow.  

lessons from the anthropology of learning

Overloaded and distracted

People are already overloaded and distracted. They want to use their work tools to get work done. Meanwhile, L&D teams seem determined to provide learning everywhere – whether it’s wanted or not.  

“Maybe, as artificial intelligence (AI) developsits recommendations and nudges for users will become more relevant and useful. Yet, despite what many learning technology vendors are saying, that’s not today’s reality. 

What’s exciting, though, is that there’s increasing recognition that most learning doesn’t happen on a screen, even if the work does. L&D leaders are remembering that meaningful learning happens across multiple platforms, in interactions between people, through onthejob experimentation, practice, trial and error and, ultimately, inside people’s heads. 

“So,” said Tauber, “the big breakthroughs in learningand learning technology, this year should be in thoughtfullydesigned learning experiences; in coaching; feedback, and in reflection. 

About the Author:

For over 20 years, Bob Little has specialized in writing about and commentating on, corporate learning – especially e-learning – and technology-related subjects. His work has been published in the UK, Continental Europe, the USA, South America and Australia. You can contact Bob via bob.little@boblittlepr.com or visit his blog.