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Disruption Debate with Peter Yarrow: Simplify and diversify

Welcome to the next instalment in our Disruption Debate series, where Lars Hyland speaks to some of L&D’s key thought leaders and influencers to find out what’s changing in the industry today. This time, Lars spoke to Peter Yarrow, Global Head of Personal and Professional Growth at Standard Life. Peter has spent 17 years working in and leading L&D teams, and recently joined Standard Life after spending the majority of his career with Lloyds Banking Group. His passion is all about creating a valuable learning experience and contributing to the growth of learners and their organisation.


“What I’ve seen over the last few years is that organisations are thinking about simplifying their L&D offering. They’re recognising the importance of identifying what employees need to access regularly, presenting them with the most relevant topics at each specific point in time, and changing the content based on where they are in the business cycle, whether it’s department planning, job performance or something as significant as a merger.”

Peter recognises that times are changing fast, and nobody is feeling the impact more than businesses who need to keep up. Whether it’s new business processes, fluctuating political horizons or an increase in major business decisions (2015 was a record year for mergers and acquisitions), organisations need to prepare themselves now for the changes likely to happen in the near future. This presents us with a need to make accessing relevant learning as easy as possible, which usually means simplifying our programmes to boost efficiency.

“How much do people really need to have access to?”, said Peter. “In a lot of learning management systems, you can run a search on a topic and end up with heaps and heaps of content. We need to condense this down into the most important things people need to find quickly and easily, with the option to do a further deep dive into material if they need it. This is a matter of content curation - L&D teams need to help the business source the right materials.”

... and diversify

Despite our need to simplify, that doesn’t mean producing more of the same content. “Historically, L&D has been about face-to-face learning, then e-learning. What I’m seeing is a need for more diversification - articles, online courses, videos, takeaway resources…” said Peter. “Over the last couple of years, this mixed media approach has been very successful. Offering three, four or five different ways to access learning helps learners absorb content. Ultimately, I want to make it as easy as possible for employees to find and access learning.”

“Technology has enabled us to approach learning differently, but the technology itself doesn’t create learner satisfaction”

Diversifying our learning offering also means taking some risks. Throughout the Disruption Debate series, the idea of experimenting with what we offer our learners has been a consistent theme, and Peter agrees that this is an area in which most organisations could improve. “On the whole, L&D is a safe space to experiment in, unless you’re dealing with a crucial topic like financial regulations. If we think about what it really is we’re trying to achieve with the learning we provide, we can start to try new things, see what works, and apply these findings to what we offer.”

Managing expectations

“There is a much higher level of expectation around what we should get at work because we’re all so plugged into technology at home. It’s important to take a consumer-led approach, not a traditional L&D approach, because what we have now hasn’t been designed for what we’re trying to achieve. We’re often working with tools two or three years behind the devices we use at home, leaving us feeling like we can’t deliver to the same standards with work technology as our personal technology.”

Peter acknowledges that organisations often struggle with the tight restrictions around the use of technology and data. This creates some frustrations around what can be implemented, particularly when it comes to personalisation. Many systems require more data than organisations are allowed to collect around individuals, making it a balancing act between expectations and risk. As Peter said, people are willing to share their entire lives on Facebook, but you often can’t even use your real name on work systems, making it difficult to manage expectations when the boundaries between work and home life are becoming more blurred.

“We have almost a utopian view of one fantastic learning system doing everything in an integrated way - you look at one piece of learning and the system recommends you something else. There’s a lot more criticism of what L&D can produce now than there was in the past because people are more aware of the wide range of possibilities available to us. When you attend industry conferences, you tend to see the best of the best companies doing amazing things with their learning technologies, but we need to remember that they’re in a tiny minority, and most organisations are still getting to grips with the basics.”

Flexible, futureproof software

“Whatever you’re using today won’t be cutting edge in a few months’ time. This isn’t about having the latest technology - it’s about how you package what you have now into something easy to use and keeping it alive over time. L&D can learn from the marketing team on this front - motivating people to learn, making the content attractive and triggering people to come back on a regular basis.”

So, in the absence of the shiniest new technology and most advanced solutions, what can we do? Peter recommends that we ensure we opt for flexible software to enable our learning strategies to grow over time without the limitations of outdated programs. This also means being thoughtful when signing up to lengthy contracts, as a vendor that offers the service you need today may not be suitable at the end of your three years. And as well as the technology, we should be more flexible in the way we offer learning.

“People like to network and learn from others. They don’t just want to be interacting with technology, so face-to-face learning will never go away. The smartest companies see this as an enhancement, not a threat. Offering social learning opportunities will help people collaborate and work smarter over time. If you can demonstrate the value of learning through peer collaboration, you’re onto a winner. It feels like our role is evolving to become one in which we need to help people realise the potential benefits of the things they do every day.”

If you enjoyed Peter’s take on disruption in L&D today, be sure to check out the rest of the series using #DisruptionDebate on Twitter. You can also follow Peter on Twitter at @PeterYarrow and on LinkedIn.


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