Q&A: Pathgather Sees ‘Peer Learning’ as L&D’s Future

Peer Collaboration

We spoke with Eric Duffy, the founder and CEO of New York-based Pathgather, a learning-platform provider that sees organizations becoming “universities of the 21st century.” To Duffy, learning departments face huge challenges when it comes to keeping up with content production, rapidly changing development needs and an ever-expanding list of topics to cover. For many, the answer may be hiding in plain sight.

Historically, learning is one of those functions that organizations cut back on when business gets tight. Given how quickly technology and business change nowadays, that doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach for companies that want to succeed. Do you think corporate leaders understand that, or are at least beginning to?

Pathgather's Eric Duffy
Eric Duffy

Unless you’ve already built a healthy and self-sustaining culture of learning, which most organizations haven’t, it’s almost always a bad idea to cut back on learning, regardless of the high speed of technological and business change we’re experiencing today.

The reason for this is pretty simple. The thing employees keep telling their companies year after year is that among all the benefits they receive, they value training and development the most. That means the worst thing an employer can do during tough times, when people’s antennae are up, is to cut back on that most-prized benefit. Doing so will only feed into negative engagement and feedback loops and potentially start to cause retention issues.

I understand why leaders believe that among bad choices, learning seems to be the most palatable thing to cut, but for the reasons I just mentioned, this is exactly wrong.

Now add to this that today businesses are indeed operating in a time of immense and unprecedented change, and it becomes clear that to cut back on learning is an even more self-defeating action. In times of accelerating change, one of your only reliable sources of competitive advantage is how fast your organization can adapt to those changes, because no organization, not even the most innovative companies in the world, can predict everything. You have to build the capacity to adapt to change when it arrives as quickly as you can, which means developing and growing your organization’s culture of learning is a constant priority. It’s only going to increase in importance as time goes on.

That said, how do you see the learning team’s role evolving over time?

Just because learning is essential to a company’s ability to engage and retain its employees, as well as ensure that their skills remain up-to-date and competitive as the world around us changes, that doesn’t mean many learning organizations today are currently doing the job as effectively as they could. Times are changing, so it’s time for L&D to update the way it works as well.

Historically L&D has been a creator, distributor and tracker of learning activity within the organization. There were tremendous efficiency gains when companies started transitioning from purely in-person learning to computer-based training, for the obvious reasons – it was less expensive, reusable, you didn’t have to fly people to a physical corporate university, you could track and verify completions in a learning management system. All was great.

If L&D doesn’t change the perception that they’re only there to make employees learn something that isn’t valuable to them or their jobs, it’s not going to be valued or taken seriously.

But a couple of problems have arisen with that model today. First is that the training a lot of L&D functions have ended up focusing on, and have become known for within their organizations, is compliance training. Compliance, while very important to handle properly, is not learning, something to which anyone who has had to click through a harassment training module can attest. If L&D doesn’t change the perception that they’re only there to make employees learn something that isn’t valuable to them or their jobs, it’s not going to be valued or taken seriously.

Second, to this day most L&D professionals and leaders see a core part of their function as identifying organizational learning needs and then creating and procuring the right learning content to fit those needs. I can’t speak to whether this model was ever super viable, but I know for a fact that it isn’t today. It’s not uncommon, for example, for the headcount of an L&D function to have a ratio of 1:1,000 with respect to the rest of the company.

That means each L&D professional is expected to be responsible for the learning and development of up to 1,000 people, encompassing a dizzying range of skill sets, including assessing their needs, creating the learning content, delivering that content and assessing the effectiveness of the training once it’s been administered. Needless to say, this is an utterly untenable job description today, if it ever was in the past.

For these reasons, we think that L&D organizations need to evolve the way they work in at least two key ways. One is to separate, if they can, learning from compliance training. While it’s not necessary, we recommend separating your compliance training from your learning and skill development training, as they’re just not the same thing.

The other is to empower employees to skill up one another. The simple fact is that this is the only way to sustainably approach the problem I just described–of L&D being overwhelmed by the scope and scale of its training responsibilities. As it happens, there is a universe of free, high-quality learning content that employees are benefitting from constantly, every day, but most L&D functions don’t provide their employees with a way or reason to share what they’re learning with their peers. This is a tremendous missed opportunity.

For a moment, let’s put aside how organizations are educating their workforce and consider what they’re teaching. Understanding that every company is different, do you think employers are generally focused on providing the right training to their employees? If not, how should they correct course?

I suspect that apart from the more stable and foundational skill sets like communication, collaboration, management and leadership, which are incredibly important skills for any and every employee to develop, most organizations have quite a poor idea of what skills their workforce currently has, or needs to develop. The reason for this is that very little data is currently being leveraged to form opinions on the matter.

To be a bit flippant, the de facto approach today is not so dissimilar from sticking your finger in the wind or waiting for the squeaky wheel to come and tell you what they need, which may or may not be representative of what the overall organization needs.

Those that take a more in-depth, structured approach end up employing the help of consulting groups, which then go on to spend years surveying employees and interviewing managers to figure out what their capabilities and needs are, and then dump the findings at the feet of L&D to do something with. Unfortunately, given how fast things are changing today, many of the skills that are called out in that longitudinal, expensive study are outdated by the time it’s completed.

Our strong belief is that L&D has no choice but to become much more data-driven.

Our strong belief is that L&D has no choice but to become much more data-driven. The good news is that the data actually exists within and is spread across the tangle of HR systems and tools. The challenge is that this data needs to be connected, analyzed and then leveraged to start developing an accurate understanding of your organization’s present-day capabilities and needs. Only then will you be able to develop and facilitate learning initiatives that are up-to-date and responsive to organizational needs, even as those needs themselves evolve over time.

Pathgather believes employees can learn more effectively through a consumer-like platform. Once a company has bought into the idea, what obstacles is the learning team most likely to encounter as they put the platform and programs in place? In particular, I’m thinking about behaviors on the ground. For example, do line managers resist the notion of allowing their employees to curate content on work time? Do employees object to the idea of using their personal mobile bandwidth for company purposes?

To be honest, based on our experience one of the greatest obstacles some learning teams are going to encounter in rolling out this model is themselves. It’s not hard to see why–it represents a major disruption of L&D’s normal way of doing business, and change is always hard. Some of the objections from more traditional organizations that we hear are that they’re concerned about employees being able to share learning resources with one another. These same organizations already have Yammer, not to mention email, in which employees can already do just that, but the objection still arises in part because it affects how L&D operates.

Many other organizations, however, readily recognize the need for change, and have no problem with evolving. In those cases it’s still important for L&D to put significant effort into internal marketing and branding the initiative.

Finally: Although everyone wants metrics today, data in many organizations remains siloed. Do you think learning departments have access to the data they need–from throughout the company–to accurately measure their performance? Do you see that changing, and how?

Yes. As I mentioned earlier this is one of the greatest areas of needed improvement for learning departments, not to mention HR more broadly. In the past some talent suite vendors have positioned themselves as an all-in-one solution that handles employee growth, management and development from hiring to retiring, but the promise of these systems hasn’t been borne out. The main reason is simply that it’s incredibly hard to do just one thing very well–to do one or two dozen things well is almost impossible.

Add to that the fact that many of these all-in-one systems were stitched together over time via mergers and acquisitions, and that the foundational technology can be more than a decade old, and it’s not hard to see why HR has been disappointed to learn that reality hasn’t lived up to the promise.

But it remains essential for HR to break its data out of its silos. The approach we advocate is not to replace your multiple talent systems (HRIS, LMS, external learning, ATS, surveys, feedback, assessments and the like) with a single solution, but to leverage APIs to extract data from them all into a single data warehouse where insights may then be gleaned.

Editor’s notes: Learn more about Pathgather by checking out its web site. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, Mark Feffer worked as a consulting editor for Pathgather during 2017.

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