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Designing learning journeys that deliver business value

Leads diagnosis, design, and development of learning solutions to drive sustained behavior change.

Advises organizations on developing learning strategies to drive reskilling and capability-led transformations

Imagine you work for a company that has a busy season—the annual crunch time for achieving results. Everyone works at full stretch for six weeks, and then there’s a lull before the next cycle gets under way. If you’re designing a learning program, when should you schedule it? Most designers would probably say after the rush, when people can spare time out of their everyday routine. But is that the right answer?

We don’t think so. With this timing, the next busy season could be eight or nine months away—long enough for new skills to lapse before they have even been applied. But what if you plan a learning journey the other way around: not to happen during downtime, but to help participants perform better just when they need it most? By designing the journey backwards, you can start from the point that offers the biggest opportunity for business impact.

Timing is only one aspect of a learning journey that must be tailored to workplace realities. Design teams will naturally want to develop a clear understanding of target outcomes, learning objectives, and existing skill levels, along with a sense of the budget, resources, and technology at their disposal. But they often miss a step we think is critical: gaining insight into how people behave in the moments that really move the needle on business results, whether it’s critical client interactions or internal continuous improvement activities. After all, learning can enhance people’s performance only if it makes a meaningful difference to individual actions in particular contexts.

So what does this mean in practical terms? First, focus the design of learning journeys on the moments and deliverables that have a disproportionate impact on business results: quarterly reports, performance review cycles, fiscal-year target deadlines, monthly coaching calls, weekly sprint reviews, daily team huddles. Take your cue from the flow of work you observe so that the timing of the learning journey harmonizes with the rhythms of execution. Then determine how to measure individual activities and the overall learning journey, based on their impact on performance.

We don’t mean to suggest that a learning journey should consist only of fieldwork and performance support. Formal learning is also needed to provide opportunities for practice and to foster mindset shifts, social learning, networking, and good old knowledge transfer. High-profile events, workshops, offsites, and showcase projects will still have their place. But they will be designed and sequenced to support the work calendar, not the other way around.

In supporting organizations as they design learning journeys, we’ve developed a recommended sequence of activities that has proven effective at one company after another:

  1. Identify key milestones and moments
    • What are the key organizational, role, and individual milestones and moments for our company?
    • How can we use job deliverables to frame the journey?
    • What skills do people need to deliver successful moments?
    • What tools and techniques can we use to measure progress and impact?
  2. Create components for fieldwork and on-the-job learning
    • What fieldwork activities and touchpoints can we include to help participants perform well in key milestones and moments?
    • What tactics and feedback elements can we use as threads to connect the journey (e.g., coaching, communities, nudges)?
    • How can we use all these activities to reinforce and sustain skill development?
  3. Orchestrate formal learning activities
    • How can we sequence formal learning activities to ensure learning, practice, feedback, reflection, and application?
    • Where should these activities fit in the timeline leading up to milestones and moments?
    • How can we use the activities to challenge and develop participants in a meaningful way?
    • Which activities should be required, recommended, or optional?
  4. Review the learning journey
    • Does the journey follow effective design principles?
    • Will it sustain emotional engagement, interest, and momentum?
    • Does it provide enough opportunities for practice, feedback, and reinforcement?

An advanced industrial company seeking to tackle challenges and boost growth followed this approach to strengthen its capabilities in strategic thinking, business planning, sales, pricing, product development, and product launch. The learning design team observed and analyzed day-to-day project work before leading participants through a 16-week program geared to generating project deliverables and meeting weekly milestones. A constellation of interventions—in-person, digital, and virtual—provided just-in-time development of skills that could be immediately put to use. To support performance, on-demand resources, expert feedback, and peer coaching check-ins were also available. At the end of the program, 95 percent of participants said they would recommend it to colleagues. Business prospects brightened too: initiatives supported by the program were on track to yield an extra 2 to 3 percent in annual growth.

Extensive research—as well as our own experience—bears out the value of learning in the field. Motivation increases when what people are learning is closely connected to their day-to-day work. Conversely, learning that isn’t used or reinforced on the job will be quickly forgotten. By rethinking the timing and structure of learning journeys, designers can help elevate performance when and where it matters most and ensure that capability building delivers real business outcomes.

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