Personalising learning – the good old way

dreamstime_xs_51966497Learning personalisation is one of the latest trends to emerge in the L&D industry and increasingly it’s promoted alongside the use of AI and machine learning which is “set to transform learning” according to the marketing blurb.  But the majority of L&D departments are still some way off embracing these technologies.  We are still wrestling with the technology we already have, have no budget or appetite to add even more systems to the mix and are still working on getting the basics right.  While AI and machine learning may well disrupt the industry in time, what pragmatic steps can we take now to offer each learner a personalised learning experience?

So what actually is “personalised learning?  I’ll take a stab with:

Personalised learning is the right learning, at the right time, using the preferred approach, in the right place, on the right device and for the right purpose.

The right learning, at the right time and at the right place goes without saying, but the most personalised of learning experiences should also take into account how that learner likes to learn (i.e. using their preferred approach).  The learning also has to be contextually correct (i.e. for the right purpose).  The former may be difficult to fulfil, even with all the best intentions, but delivering content in the right context is crucially important to today’s learner.

Delivering a personalised learning experience requires effort on the part of L&D, but the investment should be repaid with higher returns.

Role specific content

At times we have to sheep-dip, but we know this approach struggles to deliver consistent results across the training population.  The majority of training needs result from the learner needing to do their current job better, so it makes sense to focus on the specifics of what a learner needs to know to perform their role.

We therefore have to get to know each role in detail, working with each audience segment to understand the tasks they need to perform, the level at which they need to perform and the skills and knowledge required, all prioritised according to the greatest performance gaps to be filled.

It might also be helpful to break the content into material for novices, intermediate, advanced and expert-level practitioners.  This clarity helps with structuring curriculums and organising the content later for quick retrieval by learners.

Competency frameworks

The often much maligned competency frameworks need to be dusted off and can take on a new lease of life if they are used to underpin the selection of content that can be used to deliver personalised learning options.  I’ve personally seen how tagging competency statements to learning resources helps learners see the statements in terms of tangible outcomes.

Integrated knowledge and skills pathways

Learning personalisation should also bring together both the hard and soft topics of learning.  In most cases – for most roles – they should coexist, but are often separated out in traditional learning landscapes.  Mastering knowledge, for example, is usually pointless if some softer skill is not then used to translate that hard subject matter into an actionable outcome.  So it’s important to take the time to align both hard and soft skills training side-by-side for each role.

Career frameworks and pathways

If the majority of training needs arise from a need to do the current job well, the next most-common trigger for learning is to prepare someone for their next role.  But how well do our learners know what is expected of them as they move through the organisation?  Do we even have career frameworks and pathways mapped out?  Getting those in place may well have to happen first, but after that, we can start to map out tailored learning journeys for those looking to move into different roles.

The performance management review

Even an old-style performance review should offer us data on what learning is needed by certain populations. Capturing the performance gaps and therefore learning needs of the organisation at the year-end is one way to devise personalised learning journeys for different roles.

But if we’re able to move to a more progressive approach of capturing the outcomes from frequent check-ins throughout the year, then we should be able to respond more speedily and flexibly to our learners’ ever-changing requirements.

Modularising the curriculum

Micro-learning – for that’s what tends to result here – still needs to be fully defined as a method, but – for now – we can deliver a more personalised learning experience if we can break down our legacy offering, so that learners can cherry-pick what’s of most value to them at that point in time.  Longer courses need to be broken up, as how often does someone always have to complete everything?

New content should be created as a series of step-by-step modules and even for skills training, shorter bursts of content should focus instead on the micro-level skills.

User-generated content

Another of today’s trends is the use of user-generated content (UGC) and once this really takes off, it should prove to be a good source of personalised content – content created by users for users, stripping out all the “excess” that is never used, focused instead on what the user actually needs to know and do.

Learning as you work

Traditionally, learning was often a separate activity from working, whether that meant heading off to the training room or training centre, or stopping what you were doing to log into the learning management system (LMS).  Today’s learners expect to be able to learn alongside working and delivering a personalised learning experience needs to recognise this.

Learning as you work might therefore rely less on taking time out to take a course (what we might now term macro-learning), but instead see a shift towards more shorter bursts of learning (micro-learning) – closely reflecting the day job; having access to elements of performance support – aligned to the task at hand; and collaborative learning – letting learners easily access more knowledgeable peers.

Learning as you work may also mean placing links to content within other applications or spaces on the corporate intranet, so that the learner does not have to go off to find it.

Learning on the go

Personalising learning also means delivering that learning wherever and whenever the learner needs it and – by implication – on whatever device is most convenient for them.

Today’s learner might therefore have higher expectations for learning that can be consumed on mobile devices and perhaps with untethered access.  Learners may work out of the range of Wi-Fi signals or not be prepared to use up unlimited amounts of their own bandwidth.  Mobile content can also be perfect for performance support type resources as well.  Indeed, mobile is often better suited to this, rather than as just another platform on which to deliver traditional e-learning content.

Learning diagnostics

Most learners ask these questions:  what do I need to know to do my job well and how well am I doing; where are my gaps and how can I close them?  A personalised learning experience needs to answer these questions too and the answers should provide an individual diagnosis for what the learner needs to study.  In the future, the hope is that AI and machine learning might be able to magically perform this analysis in the background, but that’s not within the scope of our discussion today.

More pragmatic approaches might be to author self-assessment surveys that will suggest learning gaps that need to be filled, ideally then mapped to a list of recommended learning interventions; or to produce discussion guides for managers and employees to use during review meetings; or to add to the feedback notes after a successful recruitment interview.  You might even want to create a short checklist of the types of learning you offer, to enable the learner to start to think about how they might want to learn; and to enable them to filter search results accordingly.

Social learning connections

It’s worth mentioning social learning in its own right.  We cannot underestimate the importance and value that social learning brings to an organisation.  Even without L&D’s intervention, it’s been happening since the dawn of time, but sometimes learners would benefit from being better connected internally. It’s L&D’s role to help make those connections and by getting closer to our people ourselves, finding out who the experts are and supporting them in transferring that they know to others, we can increase the value of the available internal knowledge.  Peer-to-peer learning can deliver a highly personalised learning experience.

Content curation

Delivering a personalised learning experience need not imply we need to be feverishly creating all manner of ad hoc learning assets to meet every individual learning need.  The more we get closer to our business areas and the experts within them, the more we can learn about their external sources of high quality information, so that we can step into the role of content curator, delivering ad hoc resources to individuals in a timely manner.  We can also be creative with what we already have too, finding new ways to use that to meet newly surfaced learning requirements.

It might also be worth co-opting your network of internal subject matter experts to also share and curate the content that they are finding on a day-to-day basis.

LMS configuration

Finally, our ability to deliver a personalised learning experience will also rely on learners being able to access the content they need quickly.  The idea is that AI and machine learning will automatically put this within fingertip reach of each learner, but for now, we will need to work within the confines of our existing LMS.

Are you able to bundle together role-specific content into role-specific catalogues?  Are you then able to place those catalogues at the start of each individual learner’s LMS journey path?  Does your LMS let learners see which are the most popular courses?  Is there are way to filter those ratings by peer group?  And although we hate doing this, how thorough can you be with tagging your content with the terms that learners would use when searching or filtering in the LMS?  Can you smartly tag content with roles, attainment levels (e.g. novice), for example?


In time – unless things go off in another direction – technology will step in to allow each individual learner in our organisation to create their own tailored learning experiences.  But for now, with some effort on the part of L&D, we don’t need to wait till then to start to realise the benefits from providing learners with as personalised a learning experience as is possible.

From better understanding our learners, modernising how we define content, being more innovative in how its created, organised and distributed, it is possible to deliver this now.


Personalising learning – the good old way

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