Three barriers to digital learning implementation

Budgets, competencies, and indifferent stakeholders are holding organisations back from truly upskilling and engaging staff, George Aveling warns.
By: | March 14, 2019


“Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam. And admit that the waters around you have grown. And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin’ – then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin’.”

Many years ago, the legendary Bob Dylan wrote a song that became a call to action for a generation of young people. The song was The Times They Are A Changin’. I believe that this call to action, in a world of even greater change, is still highly applicable to learning practitioners today.

The waters around learning and development are certainly changing. This is being driven by the rise of technology in learning. One of the key insights from our Digital Learning in Asia 2018 research was that practitioners need to make changes in their thinking and skill sets.

The awareness paradox

The Elementrix Digital Learning in Asia Survey 2018 uncovered a major paradox.

It found overwhelming agreement on the importance of digital in learning and development. More specifically, 84% of respondents said that incorporating digital into learning and development was critical to organisational success.

However, in learning and development these are matched by underwhelming budget actions – in terms of low of use of digital and low budget allocation to digital:

  • In the order of 50% of respondents said that the percentage of their learning and development budget allocated to digital was less than 10%.
  • Only 24% of respondents said that their companies incorporated digital into learning to a large extent.

So, here is the paradox. Most companies say that incorporating digital into learning and development is critical to success – but relative few are taking major steps to get there. How can this be happening?

The report identified three major barriers to the implementation of digital into learning and development: stakeholder buy-in, competency gaps, and budgetary issues.

Let’s understand each of these issues, and then focus on how to address them.

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Barrier #1: Stakeholder buy-in

“Stakeholders” in this context refers to senior leadership support, IT, other departments within the organisations, and learners themselves.

I have previously written an article on senior leadership buy-in so I won’t cover this stakeholder group here. There is one important statistic, however: The data indicates that lack of senior leadership buy-in is more significant in Malaysia compared to Singapore: 49% of respondents from Malaysia indicated that senior leadership buy-in was a barrier, compared to 31% from Singapore.

Other stakeholders that learning and development will need buy-in from include IT, other departments, and learners themselves. In fact, the research indicated that the most resistance comes from learners. In the order of 60% of respondents agreed that learner buy-in was a barrier to the implementation of digital learning.

So, how does L&D overcome these barriers?

The short answer is that, in this time of rising tides of change in the learning landscape,learning and development teams need to learn how to manage change specifically. A senior learning leader whose company is relatively advanced in the world of digital learning, said at a conference in Europe, that a significant amount of his time was spent being a “digital change agent”.

We are no longer in a “steady-state” environment where it’s business as usual. Learning and Development practitioners needs to become these digital change agents, to influence key stakeholders to play their respective roles.

Perhaps related, in the order of 60% of respondents to the Digital Learning in Asia 2018 survey indicated that change management was a barrier to the implementation of digital learning.

The matter warrants an article of its own and I will write in more detail on this in a subsequent piece for

Barrier #2: Learning and development competence

The survey results were, again overwhelming when it came to general learning and development skills: 62% of respondents in Singapore and 69% from Malaysia agreed that learning and development competence was a key barrier to the implementation of digital learning.

We also tested for competence in the application of specific digital tools. The results showed that over 50% of respondents felt that there were competency gaps in learning experience design, design thinking, micro-learning, gamification – and virtually all digital learning tools that were tested for.

There is a clear call to action for learning and development departments: in the new digital learning landscape – you need to develop new mindsets and capabilities.

The three new competencies, in brief are:

  1. Learning experience design. In a world where learners have the choice of engaging in mobile learning, it is important that learning and development departments develop learning solutions and journeys that put the learner in the middle, to an extent as never done before. A key skill in this world is human-centred design, and a key message in the world of digital technology is, “the more technological we become, the more human we have to be”.
  2. Learning technology architects: The traditional world of learning is off-line i.e. primarily face to face. L&D practitioners in this world had to be experts in this off-line world. In contrast, digital learning takes L&D practitioners into an on-line world. They need become familiar with, and design learning with digital learning tools. From my experience, this is an uncomfortable journey for many L&D professionals. My own L&D team has changed in the last 2 years.  Experienced L&D team members are moving up a steep learning curve as they develop new design and technical competencies. And, there are new members on the team who have been hired because they feel comfortable with technology.
  3. Learning experience marketers: The traditional world of learning was based on compliance. Learners had to attend classes. In the choice-driven world of digital, learning leaders have two challenges. The first is to create engaging and useful learning solutions that keep the learner learning. The second is, like Steven Spielberg, to market the learning so that learners become aware and interested to commence and build on their learning journeys. The two most successful digital learning projects that I have and have witnessed and been involved in have used such a marketing-led approach.

Barrier #3: Budgets

There is no easy way around it: money is needed to get started on the digital learning journey.

I believe that this issue is a function of the competency gaps of learning and development professionals in digital learning. The impact is that business cases for increasing or even maintaining budgets for digital learning are not strong.

Once learning and development competence in digital increases, these teams will be able to make stronger, business-focused cases for corporate investment in digital learning. With this competence, learning and HR leaders will present, with confidence, credible business cases to senior leadership, for budget allocations.

The good news is that digital can actually save learning and development costs. This is not a fantasy. It’s a fact.

So, back to Bob Dylan. The times in learning and development are certainly changing – fast. Success means that learning professionals will swim – and make the required changes to their strokes – to succeed in this rising tide of change.

From my personal experience, learning how to swim in the rising tide of digital is confusing, even intimidating. But as you learn and become more confident, an exciting world of impact through learning opens up to you.

I’m looking forward to sharing more with you in future articles here.

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