On-demand courses help employees learn on their own schedules

At Human Capital Media’s Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Miami, 400 human ressources professionals shared ideas on creating innovative skill-building tools and translating those into compelling experiences for employees.
At Human Capital Media’s Chief Learning Officer Symposium in Miami, 400 human ressources professionals shared ideas on creating innovative skill-building tools and translating those into compelling experiences for employees. Handout

When you’re a manager who needs to know how to deal with a disrespectful team member or a technician who wants to figure out a better repair method, where do you go to find an answer? Most likely you turn to Google.

It may seem unfathomable, but Google has become one of the top sources used by workers to find solutions or learn skills for their jobs, according to a workforce survey by With more of us looking for information how we want it, when we want it, the traditional training model of an all-day workshop has gone by the wayside, replaced by a new trend called Bring Your Own Learning.

As employees struggle with work/life balance, they are asking — and being asked — to take responsibility for continuously developing their skills and controlling their own career paths. In some cases, workers are going beyond company offerings, taking courses on their own time — while exercising or commuting — and then seeking additional compensation or recognition for the new value they bring.

It’s no wonder that time-pressed workers want learning in small bursts or in-the-moment solutions. Increasingly, they are searching for how-to videos and online courses like they would a new pair of shoes. “Employees are empowered with choices today,” said Chris McCarthy, COO of, which helps organizations track and recognize employee learning. “When the learning opportunities inside are inadequate, they will borrow from their personal lives and get what they need on demand, on any device, in real time.”

To meet the need for continual learning in a rapidly changing business environment, companies are creating apps, games, simulations and podcasts in an effort to give employees the learning they want or need in formats that fit their schedules. Other firms are tapping into the explosion of educational technology and online courses and aggregating options through portals they are pushing out to employees.

“There isn’t a company out there that doesn’t worry their learning culture isn’t what it should be,” says Allison Rossett, emeritus Professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State University. A good learning culture empowers employees to continuously become better at their jobs. Increasingly, that learning is “on demand, personalized and mobile,” she says.

For a business, the challenge is figuring out how and where its employees want to learn and what to make available. At Royal Caribbean Cruises, Sonia Diaz-Del Oro, associate vice president of global learning, discovered her employees, both on ships and shore, have a sweet spot for the amount of time they want to spend on learning: 90 to 120 minutes. “If I suggested a two-day training class, they would throw me overboard,” she says.

Knowing this, Diaz-Del Oro says the cruise line now makes podcasts available for its workers on various operations topics. Like a marketer, she says she must sell the cruise line’s time-strapped workers on the connection between what they will learn by accessing a podcast, and how it will help them better do their jobs. “It has to be self-paced and make a difference for them.”

At large companies, the challenge lies in how to deliver learning across functions. At Comcast, that means tailoring education to more than 100,000 executives, sales people, technicians and call-center staff. About 18 months ago, the telecommunications giant began piloting new options, says Martha Soehren, Comcast’s chief talent development officer.

For one option, Comcast turned to a concept popular on the education scene: Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, in which employees access course materials online and work on projects virtually with fellow students. So far, 180 employees have tapped into a Comcast MOOC taught by corporate trainers and Comcast executives. “It was a good experience for learners who didn’t want to show up to a classroom with a lecturer,” Soehren says.

For its field workers, Comcast piloted a MyLearning App, where workers can find information on specific topics. “That’s important for us because our business leaders are giving iOS devices to our frontline workers. We think they are going to use this in a big way.” The telecommunications giant also brought innovation to its call centers, where turnover is high and workers need to quickly get up to speed. At its training center in Harrisburg, Comcast experimented with self-directed learning, shifting from instructor-led training to an e-course for new hires that can be done at one’s own pace.

Soehren says that two years from now, as much as 50 percent of Comcast’s learning content likely will be accessed via virtual classroom where employees can choose topics and interact in real time with others, regardless of their location. “This is not a PowerPoint or a webinar. This is a platform used for engaging in a two-way learning experience.”

The learning revolution cuts across industries. Traditional employee training represents a $130 billion global market, and according to, many businesses aren’t even clear whether their investments deliver results.

Last week, about 400 corporate learning professionals gathered in Miami for Human Capital Media’s Chief Learning Officer Symposium to share ideas on creating innovative skill-building tools and translating those into compelling experiences for employees.

One company at the forefront of the learning revolution is San Diego-based Qualcomm, which develops technology that powers mobile devices. Two years ago, Tamar Elkeles, chief learning officer at Qualcomm, launched a mobile learning app store for her company where Qualcomm’s 31,000 global workers can download courses on topics such as increasing productivity, leadership, effective performance reviews and mentoring.

As employees complete courses and master new skills, they add badges to their online corporate profiles. “That becomes helpful for making talent decisions,” Elkeles explains. So far, a staff of 12 developers have created 90 apps. “We have less than 4 percent turnover, and we think it’s because our employees feel they can continue to grow.”

In addition to the app store, Qualcomm has its own version of Twitter, called community, displayed prominently on screens throughout its offices and individual computers. When workers need solutions or insight on how to respond to a customer concern, they send out a query as they would a tweet. “A lot of knowledge on how to get things done better comes from connecting from others,” Elkeles says. “Our employees are not going to get that in a book or a classroom.”

Business journalist Cindy Krischer Goodman writes regularly on workplace and work life topics. Connect with her at or visit