Wouldn’t it be nice if every training program you worked on was starting from a clean slate, with no history, no background? You could do all of the cool things you hear about and not worry about learner and stakeholder expectations. We often focus on the new, but yet, our work is most often on the transition.

A transition implies that letting go of something you were doing to move on or include something new. In my work, what I encounter is most people have been designing training to accomplish learning and now, they want to design learning clusters instead.

Reminder: A learning cluster is a strategically selected set of learning assets, across ways, times, and places tailored to meet the needs of diverse learners, in order to close a specific on-the-job capability gap(Designing for Modern Learning, 2020).
Example learning cluster for addressing Time Management capability

It is about learning creators and leaders:

  • Setting their sightson on-the-job change, not end-of-classroom
  • Customizingand building inclusive learning by designing for meaningful learner personas, not a single target audience
  • Moving outsideof the classroom/vILT, elearning, videos to a set of learning assets across social, formal, and immediate means
  • No longerusing intuition to select these assets, but a consistent methodology and set of principles to make an optimal learning experience

A learning cluster is more than blended learning, which controls the learner’s path through multiple learning assets in a preset, defined sequence, often online before and after a class or other event.

I love what Margaret Wheatley says in her book,Leadership the New Science:

“We cannot hope to make sense using our old maps.
It won’t help to dust them off or reprint them in bold colors.
The more we rely on them, the more disoriented we become.
They cause us to focus on the wrong things and blind us to what’s significant.
Using them, we will journey only to greater chaos.”

You might have a learning design model and a learning strategy already in place. It might be one that everyone on your team is skilled in and familiar with. It’s your well worn map you always use.

But, that map doesn’t help you identify gaps in modern learning design. It helps you do what you’ve always done, go where you’ve always gone.

Which means you will get what you’ve always gotten.

How to Identify Gaps in Learning Strategy using the Learning Cluster Design Model
The Owens-Kadakia Learning Cluster Design model, or LCD model for short, was designed with an entirely new job for learning creators in mind: to deliver more than one thing always for any business initiative. Rather than assuming our job is to deliver a single course to meet a business challenge, our assumption is that we are and will deliver multiple learning assets.

Why is that our assumption? Because that is how modern learners learn. Think about the last time you learned something. Did you use one thing, go to one place? Or did you go to multiple? Did you go at one time? Or did you spread your learning across time? This is the first and biggest gap in our learning strategies. Are we still assuming our goal is to deliver a curriculum given a learning challenge? If so, we have a gap we need to address between what we are delivering and how our learners are learning.

So we set a new goal. Whenever we change our goal, we also need to change our strategy and tactics.

As outlined in the book,Designing for Modern Learning,the LCD model is made up of five Actions, each of which enables a meaningful transition towards the goal of delivering learning clusters that target on-the-job behavior change.

  1. Change On the Job Behavior Action- in this Action, we set the goal for the learning cluster through a set of statements that creates a connection between stakeholders’ business pain and learners’ on-the-job performance.
  2. Learn Learner-to-Learner Differences Action- in this Action, we develop distinct and meaningful learner personas for the initiative at hand
  3. Upgrade Existing Assets Action- in this Action, we assess the content and experience of each of our existing learning assets and determine what to reuse, repurpose, or sunset.
  4. Surround Learners with Meaningful Assets Action- in this Action, based on the data from the earlier Actions, we select the 5-10 learning assets that will make up the learning cluster.
  5. Track Transformation Action- in this Action, we select up to 5 measures that tell the story of the business impact our cluster will have

A picture (or in this case, a video!) is worth a thousand words.
Below, we share a few examples of Learning Clusters in action and what gaps they identified from those who have invested in learning the model at an intermediate or expert level.

Identifying the Right Project to Go After

How many of our projects really seek to address a critical business problem? We might find ourselves pushed into the compliance corner, which, while important work, is the lowest hanging fruit in learning and creates a vicious cycle of proving our worth to our organization. A large part of our work, whether we are leaders or individual contributors, is to pick the right work out of all the work we could possibly do.

Jeff Irwin, L&D leader at Brandt Holdings, uncovered exactly that gap in his organization during his upskilling experience on the LCD model. When working on the Change Action, he switched gears from a run-of-the-mill project with low business impact to one with a potential of $12 million in savings for the organization. Irwin works on training technicians in the field and realized the biggest unmet need is to build capability to make accurate estimates.

How did he become aware of the gap? When working on isolating the business pain during the Change Action, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the project he had in mind wasn’t really the biggest problem the organization was facing. He started ruminating on what the biggest business costs were with lack of capability and even talked to the CFO to get some numbers. The time and cost related to the inefficiencies of inaccurate quotes was much higher than he expected!

Even though his organization didn’t know or didn’t tell him of this need, Irwin was able to uncover it through the Change Action. He learned what questions to ask, what to think about and consider, and ultimately brought what he learned together into a new learning goal. Rather than being an order taker, Irwin flipped it around and told the business what they really need.

Based on this new initiative he created for himself, Irwin executed the rest of the model, building personas, upgrading existing assets, and selecting assets to make up his recommendation for a learning cluster.

You can learn more about Irwin’s project and see each Action from start to finish here:

Identifying Where Your Design Lacks in Meeting Audience Needs
One of the most complex and vital capability-building initiatives of our time is working on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) culture and practices. It is especially difficult to role model inclusivity and equity while designing and launching DEIJ initiatives. More often than not, we end up with generic initiatives designed to be rolled out across the whole organization, when what we really need is customization to meet audience needs.

Karen Bryan-Chambers at the nonprofit, New Leaders, was exactly in this situation. In most learning designs, we design for a general target audience and we hear feedback that the learning doesn’t feel like it was “for me”. We hear how in the digital age, customization and personalization is king. But we struggle designing to meet the seemingly infinite needs. How do we identify what our main gaps are and how to address them?

With the LCD model, we share how to develop learner personas in a very distinct way.
The key is to consider the learner personas and what they struggle most with for this initiative. Not every initiative across the board (creating generic audiences all over again!).

Bryan-Chambers was able to use the Learn Learner-to-Learner Differences Action to break down the complex needs of DEIJ in her organization and tailor towards a unique persona that made up a majority of the leader learners in her community. After setting her goal in the Change Action, she asked who is going to struggle the most with this and why? She found that her old learning design was not addressing the pain points of learners currently, but was based on an assumption of education they already had and no longer needed again.

DEIJ is not alone however. There are many complex initiatives where designs for a general target audience are used and at most, design thinking or technology solutions are used to customize the experience for different learners.

But that’s not enough. That does not address the differences in content and the different places learners are at in their journey with a capability. This is where the LCD model can be of great service. It helps us make sure our one size fits all initiatives move towards including differences.

You can learn more about Bryan-Chambers project here:

Identify Modern Learning Gaps In Your Existing Asset Design
You can have a lot of existing content in a lot of ways already out there. But are they working? Are they worth keeping? What can you reuse and repurpose and how? This is another place where there are gaps to evaluate in a learning strategy – between what you are delivering today and what needs to be updated for tomorrow.

Those are exactly the questions Kim Grawe was asking when she worked on her learning cluster for call center employee engagement.

After having her goal and learner personas clear, Grawe was able to evaluate each of the existing assets using LCD model’s Nine Elements of Modern Learning

The Nine Elements are based on research co-author Lisa MD Owens did to understand “what makes an experience feel modern to learners?”. Combined with the insight around the goal and the learner personas from the Change and Learn Action respectively, Grawe had a powerful way to understand the gaps in existing assets and inspiration to brainstorm upgrades.She went through the Nine Elements for each asset and brainstormed upgrades, moving her modernness scores from 4 and 5s to 7s.She was able to consider and add elements that made assets more social, more “for me”, more chunked.

As we often say, don’t teach what they already know! And, don’t make flashy upgrades just to give an old course a new paint job. Make sure upgrades are intentional and meaningful.

That’s what you want to do when you identify gaps in your design.

You can learn more about Grawe’s project here:

Identifying Gaps in Measurement
One of the vital pieces of an effective learning strategy is measuring success. When you are limited to delivering success on-the-job through one asset, it is very difficult to feel confident that you will make on-the-job change. Instead, when you deliver a cluster, you have more than one way to make a difference – and by the way, those ways are strategically chosen for your learner personas and your change goal. So the first gap in measurement goes back to what it is you’re delivering. If you’re still hoping for one thing to make a change to the business, that’s the first gap to address.

Next, when you look at measures, are you looking at usage and reaction of one asset? Or have you considered measures for the entire cluster as well? Both the Change and Track Actions of the LCD model help you brainstorm and identify the most powerful measures to track and report back. In fact, we have an element of measurement and brainstorming measures in every action of the model because measurement is just that important.

You can see an example from Conor Galvin, learning leader at Electronic Arts, where he arrived at 7 powerful measures that don’t just track the cluster, but are already being measured – making it more easily feasible to get the data. That’s a crucial piece of a strong measurement strategy – not just picking the metrics, but ones you can actually hope to get the data. 

Why You Should Spend Time Identifying and Working on the Gaps

Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

Many times we feel like all we can do is keep the wheels turning. We have to balance our time or our team’s time between maintaining the existing and working on new priorities.

That’s why it’s key to have a model that helps you develop new modern learning or upgrade existing learning and modernize it. Otherwise, you run the risk of having to reinvent your process every time.

And if your team isn’t on the same page, using the same approach, you see inconsistencies. Everyone uses their intuition at the cost of learner impact.

Learn ways that help you transition or build from the ground up – not start from scratch. The Learning Cluster Design model is one such way. When you focus on the transition, you have to take a keen look at what you have. You have to define where you want to go and then, identify and address the gaps. This model elegantly helps you achieve all of these goals and most importantly, helps you make on-the-job changes a reality, not just a hope.

Originally published in the Offbeat Magazine.