Coordinated Specialization: ​How Advances in Learning Technology are Changing Company Learning Departments​

Steven Hunt
Star Participant

Accelerating changes in business markets, technology, and socio-economic conditions are forcing companies to adapt to new circumstances on a near constant basis. This frequently requires employees to learn to do things that are much different from what they did in the past. This has led to a massive increase in the development of learning technology. This article explores innovations in learning technology and discusses implications this has for the design of learning departments within companies. 


This article is a result of a conversation I had with Andy Shean, an expert on learning technology about the value of different learning technologies. We were discussing how some of the most widely talked about learning solutions are not necessarily the most valuable. And that some of the most transformation innovations in learning technology are associated with things that people may not think of as learning technology. The source of these disconnects is due in part to learning departments not being structured in a way that maximizes the value of the technology available to them.


Defining learning technology

Learning technology focuses on providing employees with learning resources in the form of information, courses, simulations and other training content that support acquisition and demonstration of specific skills and knowledge. The primary purpose of learning technology is to help employees develop knowledge and skills to achieve their job objectives. Learning technology can also support attracting, motivating and retaining employees since development is a primary factor in employee engagement. 


Providing learning resources is not the only way companies support employee development. Other methods include providing job assignments that support learning through experience or creating social connections that support development. These other methods are usually done using staffing, goal setting, collaboration and team building technology. Learning technology is often used in coordination with these other methods. But the primary focus of learning technology is providing employees with access to specific learning content and exercises.


The three categories of learning technology

One challenge to making sense of learning technology, or all HR technology for that matter, is vendors often refer to solutions using labels that sound inspirational but that lack any clear meaning. Despite their use of fancy names, all learning technology can be broken into three basic categories. Solutions that 1) help employees access the learning resources available in the company, 2) assign employees with resources based on developmental goals and job requirements, and 3) provide employees with specific learning resources.


Accessing: Learning Platforms. This technology helps employees access learning content relevant to their job needs and career goals. The most widely used technology for accessing learning content are online internet search engines (e.g., Google). The problem with online search engines is companies lack control over the learning content employees may choose to access. For this reason, many companies have internal learning sites employees use to access learning relevant to their roles. These sites can be quite sophisticated and are sometimes referred to as Learning Experience Platforms (LXPs). 


Assigning: Skills Management & Certification. This technology determines, assigns and tracks learning activities that are relevant to employees based on their job assignments, qualifications and current skill levels. These tools are often referred to as skills management systems or learning management systems (LMS). These solutions can be relatively simple or incredibly complicated ranging from manually managed certification spreadsheets to machine learning enabled skills matching systems.


Providing: Content Creation & Delivery. This technology is used to create and deliver learning content to employees. It could be as simple as an online repository of training manuals or as complex as a set of solutions used to create and deliver virtual reality training simulations. This technology also includes social learning solutions that allow employee to create learning communities and share ideas and content developed by employees without formal instructional design.


In practice these three categories tend to be mixed together. For example, technology designed to deliver learning videos might include simple tools for employees to access these videos or to find videos based on employee’s career interests. This is another reason why learning technology can be confusing. Every vendor is likely to say their solution supports accessing, assigning and providing content. And to some degree this is probably true. But there are huge differences in the sophistication of different solutions. The methods used can become extremely complicated for companies that need high degrees of functionality in different areas. Examples include keeping detailed records of training certifications to ensure employees are qualified to perform different roles or coordinating delivery of learning content across thousands of employees in hundreds of different types of jobs. The following sections take a look at each of these categories calling out areas of recent innovation.



Learning Platforms: Accessing Resources 

Learning platforms help employees access learning resources that support their job requirements and career development goals. These platforms can be thought of as “where employees go when they want to get training”. Learning platforms started out as simple web pages with links to different learning resources. Now they include a range of features including:

  • Accessibility interfaces. Tools that enable employees to access learning content through different mediums such as computers or mobile phones. This may also include use of specialized interfaces supporting people with visual or auditory disabilities.  
  • Search engines. Tools employees can use to find relevant learning content across a range of sources offered by the company.
  • Recommendations. Tools that suggest learning content to employees based on things such as job type, skill levels, past course completions, career plans, search history, course reviews, or course completion by people with similar roles or career paths.
  • Profiles. Tools that allow employees to create online profiles that list their skills, interests, and certifications. These profiles may be used to demonstrate employee qualifications for different roles, establish connections between employees with similar learning interests, or promote talent movement by being linked to internal job postings.
  • Curriculums. Tools that guide employees through pre-set learning plans and courses based on their job role or learning goals. This can include onboarding curriculums that help employees transitioning into new roles or organizations.
  • Communities. Tools that allow employees to create or join online groups so individuals with similar learning interests can share ideas and learning content with one another.
  • Employee Listening. Tools used to understand the experience employees are having related to their learning and development. 


The primary purpose of learning platforms is to increase adoption, efficiency and impact of learning resources. They do this by making it easy for employees to find and access relevant learning materials, track and demonstrate their development progress in a way that supports their career interests, and foster a sense of community among employees with similar learning interests. Much of the effectiveness of learning platforms depends on the other two categories of learning technology. For example, the value of learning recommendations in a learning platform will depend on the quality of a company’s skills management data and the nature of its available learning content.


Skills Management & Certification: Assigning Resources

Skills management & certification systems are used for three different but inter-related functions. First, recommending learning content to employees based on their job requirements, existing skill levels, and career interests. Second, ensuring employees have the knowledge and skills needed to perform their roles. This often includes tracking training certifications that may be required by law to perform different tasks. Third, providing the organization with an overall picture of the skill levels and gaps within the workforce. Some of the first skills management systems were spreadsheets that listed the names of employees along with data on what training programs they had completed and their expertise relative to different types of job skills. Modern systems that now includes things such as:

  • Program Management. Tools that allow administrators to group skills and learning resources together to create learning programs and curriculums for different jobs or development programs.
  • Certification Management. Tools that use job codes, time stamps, and skills assessment data to track employee certifications for different roles and trigger learning activities based on skill requirements. Some of these tools are linked to staffing and security access systems to ensure that employees are qualified before being assigned to certain roles or visiting restricted job sites. 
  • Skills Assessment. Tools that use employee evaluations or that scan different sources of online data using machine learning algorithms to determine employees’ skill levels and capabilities. This data can then be used to provide learning and career development recommendations to the employee.
  • Skills Audits. Tools that analyze employee profiles, job descriptions, training certifications, job postings, and other forms of data to develop ontologies that can be used to assess the current skill levels of the workforce, identify emerging skill areas, and call out potential skill shortages. Many of these solutions can also be used to look at skill levels and trends found in the external labor market.
  • Talent Search. Tools that allow companies to find employees with specific skills. These solutions are typically used more for recruiting than development, but have applications for development related to identifying potential mentors, coaches and training subject matter experts.


The value of skills management technology is often overlooked because it largely works “behind the scenes”. Yet skills management addresses one of the biggest challenges facing organizations: understanding the gap between the skills currently found in the workforce and skills the company needs to address future business challenges. For this reason, modern skills management systems represent one of the most sophisticated and potentially transformational areas of learning technology. 


Content: Providing Resources

Over the last decade there has been an explosion of learning content available through the internet. For example, an internet search on the term “how to write an e-mail” delivered over 4.5 million results. The following are more recent technological innovations that are proving particularly useful in helping learning professionals get the right learning resources to the right employees in the right format.

  • Content Curation. Tools that scan data across different types of learning content available online or through internal learning libraries and categorize them based on relevance to different job types, skill requirements, or career interests.
  • Content Authoring Solutions. Tools that allow people to quickly create new learning materials by mixing together existing content with new content.
  • Content Libraries. Tools that allow organizations to store, categorize, maintain, search, and deliver learning content drawn from a variety of different sources. These typically include functionality to assess and certify that employees have mastered the content.
  • Micro-learning. Tools designed to deliver small amounts of learning content to employees while they are on the job. For example, mobile applications with short videos employees can access while on the job site to learn how to perform specific tasks.
  • Immersive Learning. Tools that use virtual reality technology and other forms of simulations to create highly realistic training experiences to develop skills requiring significant emotional control and/or spatial awareness (cite).
  • Social Learning. Tools that allow employees to create and share learning content based on their own job experiences and insights using online social communities. 


The speed at which learning content is being created and the ease of accessing this content via the internet has changed the focus of learning organizations. A big part of learning organizations used to involve designing, creating and delivering training content. Now it is more about figuring out what existing content can be used or modified to meet the company’s ever-changing training needs.


Creating an integrated learning strategy: coordinated specialization

Maximizing the value of learning technology requires leveraging and aligning a range of solutions that support accessing, assigning and providing learning resources. Each area has its own array of specialized technologies.


The technology examples provided in this article just scratch the surface of what is available. And new learning technology solutions are being released very month. The challenge facing learning organizations is how to maximize the value of technology supporting each of these areas while still delivering a well-coordinated learning strategy. This includes recognizing that the effectiveness of each area is constrained in part by the technologies and solutions being used in the other two areas.


It is impossible for one person to maintain cutting-edge expertise in all three areas of learning technology. The level of complexity and pace of innovation is simply too great. Particularly when the person must balance time spent on staying abreast of innovations with time spent on applying solutions to address organizational needs. To effectively apply learning technology, learning departments must embrace the concept of “coordinated specialization”. Having individuals who specialize in different areas, but who actively meet to coordinate strategies and identify mutually supportive technology solutions. This structure is somewhat analogous to how casting directors, stage managers, and theater managers work together to create a production: 


Learning content professionals. Somewhat like a casting director, they are responsible for keeping abreast of external resources and finding the right ones to stage a production. They address questions associated with determining the best methods teach particular skills and find resources and innovative technologies need to build high impact development programs. 


Skills management professionals. Somewhat like a show director, they are responsible for determining what resources are needed and where to apply them to deliver the production. They address questions related to the current skill and qualification levels in the organization, potential skill gaps that could impact business performance, and how the nature of skills needed by the company are changing over time.


Learning experience professionals. Somewhat like a theater manager, they oversee the broader environment to ensure the audience is able to fully engage and enjoy the production. They address questions related to providing employees with a positive development experience and the overall effectiveness of the companies learning and development efforts.


While it is possible for one person to perform multiple roles, the more complex the production the more critical it is to treat each role as its own area of expertise. And ensure that people in each role collaborate to deliver a high-quality end experience.


One last point about integration. It was noted that providing learning resources is one of the ways companies can support development. The others are providing job assignments that support learning from experience and establishing personal relationships that support development. Learning technology does not typically include tools for staffing and team building. But in an ideal scenario, these three methods will be aligned. For example, coordinating the use of learning resources with internal staffing decisions. Or creating coaching relationships to support skills development training. Achieving this sort of integration requires collaboration between learning organizations and business leaders who oversee talent management and workforce staffing.


As learning technology advances traditional learning structures fall further behind

It has been said that the world has never moved this fast before and it will never move this slowly again. Change requires adaptation, and adaptation involves learning. Innovations in learning technology are enabling companies to create highly adaptable workforces. But effectively using this technology requires learning organizations to rethink how they are structured.


Learning in the digital age requires mastering and coordinating three related by distinct areas of technology: learning platform technology so employees can access learning resources in a way that creates a positive learning experience, skills management technology to ensure employees are being matched to the right learning resources, and content technology to provide employees with the most effective learning resources. Learning departments must build out capabilities in each of these areas while managing how the three areas interact with each other, other human resource functions and the broader organization. Just as we must often “learn how to learn”, so must we also learn how to use learning technology with a clear understanding that many methods and structures that worked in the past will not work in the future.  

1 Comment
Lukas Meller
Senior Contributor
Peer Advisor
(SFX Accredited)

@Steven Hunt Thank you for this insight in the theory of Learning and engagement. I would be interested to see where SAP's product porfolio fits inside these three categories and what are yu doing to determine which areas ti improve in existing products such as the LMS.