Throw out your learning strategy
There is a revolution in learning at work. Why we do it, how we do it, and when we do it is
evolving rapidly in response to this era of emergent change.
Savvy learning leaders have always created strategic plans to map the horizon line, create stakeholder commitment, and ensure the appropriate allocation of resources.
However, to facilitate the type of decision making and investment in learning today’s employees require, yesterday’s learning strategy is no longer adequate.
Replace presentations with Stories
We’ve been experiencing this first hand with our clients. We recently partnered with Kate Shaw, Director of Learning at Airbnb, to create a new learning strategy for the organization.
We collaboratively explored how learning empowers their business, what and how their employees need to learn to thrive, and the resource investment required to design and deliver the right types of experiences. We channelled all this good thinking into slides (of course) and spent countless hours tweaking the visuals to get it just right.
But then, Kate had a bright idea.
The strategy deck “looked” great but it was missing something essential: heart. The logic was there. The data was there. But the day to day reality and perspective of their people was noticeably lacking. So we pivoted. Dramatically.
We scrapped the deck and adopted a storytelling framework Airbnb business leaders were already using. We shifted from a presentation to a narrative that described what the future of learning might look, sound, and feel like for employees across the organization. The presentation provided the hard outline of ideas but the narrative transformed those ideas into a multi-dimensional experience infused with vision, context, scenarios, and voices.
Kate’s stakeholders took notice. The narrative brought the future into focus, it created a shared appreciation for what was possible, and it made that future seem achievable. Together they read, reflected, debated and added their own perspectives and priorities to improve the storyline. By engaging their hearts, we were more effective at engaging their heads to make decisions that will have long-term benefits for Airbnb learners.
tell stories that drive decisions
Since our experience with Airbnb, the future-state narrative has become an essential tool in our learning strategy practice.
Confession: it did not come easily at first. It’s one thing to describe what learning might look like for a team or organization at some point in the future. It’s another to write a narrative that strikes the right balance of aspiration and realism while providing the details needed to drive effective decision-making.
Here are six lessons we’ve learned in the process.
Tune Into the Conversation. Educate yourself about the future-of-work conversations going on in other parts of the business. We listen deeply to what the executive team and other business functions are saying to understand their perspectives and priorities on where the business is heading. The learning strategy ought to be in service of these functions.
Set a Date. Select a point of time in the future to anchor the narrative. We find that somewhere between 3 and 5 years is a useful horizon line. It’s far enough out from today that we know things will be different but not too far out that we’re straying into the land of fictional storytelling.
Consider the Full Experience. Map your strategy to all the touch points along an employee’s lifecycle. Today, perhaps your programming primarily focuses on onboarding or leadership development. Tomorrow, technology and evolving ways of working will make it more imperative--and more possible--to support employees’ learning at all stages of their lifecycle.
Adopt a Framework. Select a structure for organizing your learning strategy narrative that makes sense for you. This will help you set some useful parameters in creating a compelling and believable story of the future of learning. One structure we particularly like is to tell the story in three sections: 1) The Future of Learning describes the vision for how employees experience learning at work at the future point in time you’ve selected, 2) Making It Real explains what it will take to bring that vision to life, and 3) Seeing Around Corners anticipates what might get in the way of success.
Write, Don’t Bullet. Dust off your writing skills and commit to telling this story in prose. The process of describing your future vision in writing will deepen your thinking. And the act of reading what you’ve written will literally change the way your stakeholders engage with that vision. This takes more time but we believe creating the future is worth the investment.
Use the Present Tense. Although you’re narrating a future state, write as though it’s already a reality. This subtle technique makes it easier for your stakeholders to see employees and the organization living in that future. And the more they can see it the better able they are to make decisions that empower its creation.
We’ll leave you with a snippet from a recent learning strategy narrative we worked on with another innovative learning leader. This is how we kicked things off.
It’s 2025, and we are the destination for lifelong learners. We are immersed in a workplace where learning is the work. We conscientiously dedicate time and space to explore, experiment, reflect, and grow—all within the flow of work. We pursue curiosity. We embrace questioning as a path to problem solving. We always assume we don’t know enough, yet. We keep each other honest about where we need to get better as individuals and teams. We seek out solutions that address those needs and if none exist, we have the tools to create our own. We recognize colleagues who excel in areas we don’t and invite them to share their expertise.
What's the story of the future of learning at work for your organization?