The website is also available in

The 4 tectonic shifts in L&D: major trends

There are a lot of exciting developments trending in the world of L&D. Question is: which ones should you be looking out for?

Kasper Spiro
Trends in learning and development

In this three-part series on the tectonic shifts within workplace learning, we’ll dive a little deeper into those shifts that are likely to have a lasting impact on the way learning and development are organized.

In part one of this series, we’ll look at some of the major trends in L&D. Part two will focus on how those trends are influencing the systems and platforms used to deliver learning, while part three will consider the changes you can expect when it comes to the creation of content itself.

Which trends matter, and which ones don’t?

Learning eXperience Platforms, xAPI, curation, CMI5, microlearning – you’ve probably come across a fair few of these popular buzzwords lately.

In this article, we want to move beyond the buzzwords and talk about the main transitions that Learning and Development is going through. We believe there are four main trends:

  1. From formal learning towards informal learning
  2. From a top-down approach towards a bottom-up approach
  3. From a learning approach towards performance support
  4. From a knowledge focus towards a skills focus

1. From formal learning towards informal learning

Most professionals are pretty familiar with formal learning. It’s usually delivered face-to-face or through online training, with L&D departments setting goals and objectives on behalf of their employees and creating courses and classroom training for them.

Informal learning is the opposite. It is not planned, it is not organized from the top-down, it just happens whenever it’s needed.

Since the early days of e-learning, the focus of Learning and Development has been mainly on formal learning, with Learning Management Systems (LMS) acting as a tool to push content to the learners that took up a significant share of the L&D budget.

The late e-learning pioneer Jay Cross, best known for his workplace learning approach, did a lot to promote the idea that there’s more to L&D than formal methods. His view was that learning is not about the transfer of knowledge, but should be about performing and working better.

Nowadays, employees have the whole of the internet available to find the information they require. They are used to satisfying their own learning needs.

Now, many L&D departments are moving their focus away from formal learning. Thanks to the work of Jay Cross and others, organizations are shifting their attention and budgets to informal learning instead.

2. From a top-down approach to a bottom-up approach

Until recently, most learning was pushed down by L&D departments, who expected employees to follow their lead. But this traditional, top-down approach is shifting rapidly towards an employee-driven approach.

Companies now encourage workers to be accountable for their own learning. This bottom-up approach has a huge impact on the role of L&D, which is moving to a moderator and facilitator, rather than a controller and a planner.

The top-down approach will remain for specific learning areas such as security and compliance, as well as some of the leadership development programs. But the overall trend is undoubtedly a bottom-up one with employees much more in the driving seat.

3. From a learning approach to performance support

Performance support relates to a suite of tools designed to solve an employee’s problem as quickly as possible – while they’re on the job.

These tools usually call for nothing more than a short interruption from the task they’re working on. Unlike formal training, they don’t require employees to stop working. Performance support is all about accessing the right information or resources in the moment of need while working.

Bob Mosher and Conrad Gottfredson’s have done ground-breaking work in this area with their five moments of learning needs, which they believe drive all learning. These include:

Learning for the first time (New)
This involves mostly top-down formal learning, including courses, webinars, and instructor-led training.
Learning more about a particular topic (More)
Although still leaning heavily on formal learning, this is less top-down than when learning for the first time. Content may include videos, short e-learning courses, FAQs, etc.
When things change (Change)
The need to keep your training up to date sits between formal and informal learning. It involves courses and instructor-led training, as well as peer-to-peer learning, meetings, newsletters, etc.
Applying what you’ve learned (Apply)
This need mostly involves learning on the job and by doing – often supported by peers, videos, how-tos, and other forms of informal support.
When things go wrong (Solve)
Problem-solving requires knowledge to be found easily. This need is heavily focused on informal learning through FAQs, peer support, videos, etc.

The “New” and “More” moments are usually addressed by a formal to semi-formal learning solution is an option. While, the “Change”, “Apply” and “Solve” moments are addressed by performance support solutions that are short and unstructured.

4. From a knowledge focus towards a skills focus

There’s a major difference between having the skills to do something and having the knowledge to do it. A big trend in L&D is now to prioritize skills over knowledge. It is not only about knowing, but it’s also about the ability to apply something, to show different behavior.

One of the champions of this skills-based approach is Cathy Moore. As part of her action mapping method, she argues that “learning is not about what you know, but what you are able to do.”

Learners don’t need knowledge, they can search for that. They need action. Instead of focusing on what knowledge your worker needs, L&D departments are focusing now identifying which business goals need to be achieved and what employees need to be able to do (skills) in order to meet those goals.
What happens if you combine these four shifts?

Below we’ve provided a visual overview of all four axes of change:

The axes of the L&D landscape

These axes form four quadrants. Each quadrant covers one of the four areas of interest for L&D (talent development, formal learning, knowledge sharing, and performance support):

4 quadrants of training and development shifts

So, what’s happening?

Talent development is booming. This is based on a growing understanding worldwide that it doesn’t matter what you know, but what you are able to do. In North America, there is a huge focus on Leadership Development.

Formal learning is on the decline. L&D departments are shifting funding away from formal, top-down learning towards informal, bottom-up learning.

Knowledge sharing. The market for Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs) will at least double in 2020. LXPs are learning tools with a Netflix-type interface that plays into workers’ desire for engaging learning. However, companies need to have a vast body of content for these platforms to be useful – often in the form of bite-sized courses. More and more organizations are also starting to use LXPs as a way to tap directly into the experience of their workforce by allowing employees to publish their own content (knowledge sharing).

Performance support is increasing, although at a much slower pace than talent development and knowledge sharing. This isn’t because L&D departments believe it’s less critical, but simply because performance support is harder to deliver. Sourcing the right content can be difficult and delivering just-in-time and in-context learning can be even more complicated. This will become easier over time, as more attention and larger budgets are shifted towards it.

In part two, we’ll dive into how these shifts will impact the tools, systems, and platforms we use.

Ready to start creating courses?

Start my free trial Book a demo

Kasper Spiro is the Co-founder and Chief learning strategist of Easygenerator and a recognized thought leader in the world of e-learning. With over 30 years of experience, he is a frequently asked keynote speaker and well-renowned blogger within the e-learning community.