Top-down or Bottom-up? Your Approach to Learning Experiences Makes all the Difference

Different providers are offering different takes on experiential learning and development. Under the hood, different approaches to talent and skill management make a huge difference.

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By Adam Etzion, HR Analyst @ Gloat

October 29, 2020

L&D, Skill Management

There’s a concept in evolutionary biology known as “convergent evolution.”

Simply put, it means that animals can end up looking and behaving very much alike due to various evolutionary pressures, despite coming from vastly different evolutionary origins.

The classic example researchers like to give in order to demonstrate this principle is the similarity between dolphins and sharks.

Both dolphins and sharks are aquatic, predatory, roughly the same size, and mostly the same color. They inhabit the same habitats, share similar diets, and even their silhouettes can be difficult to tell apart. But while sharks and dolphins are very similar today, their evolutionary origins couldn’t be more different. Sharks evolved directly from fish, while dolphins evolved from land mammals, probably similar to modern hippos.

This evolutionary gap means the two are also very different “under the hood.”

While sharks have gills and lay eggs, for instance, dolphins, being mammals, breathe air, give birth and nurse their young. In short, while both hunt for similar prey in similar environments, and may seem similar to the untrained eye, when you start noticing details you begin to realize that though they share a lot of similar traits, they are, in fact, very different animals with different needs and abilities.

The same is true of experiential learning and development.

Different platforms may, superficially, offer similar services; talent matching, skill mapping and even career pathing – but at their core, it makes a huge difference what the driving rationale behind the platform’s design was, originally.

Why? Well, it all boils down to top-down or ground-up.

The Difference Between Learning & Development and Skill Management

To the untrained eye, skill management and L&D are more or less the same thing – but like sharks and dolphins, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

While both skill management and L&D deal with developing a workforce’s skills and abilities, services which offer these solutions come at it from very different directions.

Companies that offer L&D as a service are essentially offering a curriculum; they have a set “library” of skills and capabilities, and the tools to teach them. This is reflected in the types of opportunities L&D platforms offer as well: internal opportunities are seen as an extension of the L&D process – and assessing a successful deployment of the platform relies on quantifying things like hours of learning materials consumed, or number of courses finished.

Essentially, L&D-based platforms ask, “How can we better distribute existing professional knowledge?”

This is a top-down approach, in which structured knowledge – often accumulated and curated by professionals outside of the organization – is the key driver. Moreover, it doesn’t take into account situations in which employees don’t know what they need to learn in order to bridge relevant gaps.

Skill management-based talent marketplaces, on the other hand, aren’t focused on looking at what knowledge you have available and asking how it can be distributed throughout the organization. Instead, they take a ground-up approach, in which skills and abilities are mapped out organically, and examined in light of projects, assignments and goals within the organization, focusing on skill gaps and skill concentrations both in the present and in future projections.

Where L&D solutions ask “How can we distribute the knowledge we have,” skill management talent marketplaces ask “What knowledge do we need in order to progress?”

This results in a vastly different approach to internal mobility opportunities: while they do align with the personal aspirations and career growth of employees, they first and foremost serve the broader strategic needs of the company.

In short, talent management is fluid, data-driven and bottom-line based, while L&D solutions are more rigid and not directly tied to specific company goals.

This begs the question – is one type of system superior to the other? What inherent advantages and disadvantages do these systems offer?

The Right Approach

Before we decide which approach is “better,” it’s worth noting that a good solution provides the best of both worlds. That means both looking at the situation “on the ground” and offering relevant insights and opportunities to help both employees and the organization as whole reach their goals – while also taking L&D and top-down considerations into account to round out the picture.

The question, then, is which approach should be nestled into which.

To start answering that, we need to acknowledge that for goal-oriented companies, learning should usually not be a goal unto itself. That’s not to say there’s no need for employees to learn and grow professionally – but it does mean that that growth needs to complement and ultimately align with the organization’s bottom line.

That’s not a cold and calculating approach, though; when companies go out of their way to make sure their interests align with those of their employees’, and vice versa, the foundation of the relationship between enterprise and workforce become stronger and more meaningful – whereas learning for its own sake can feel superfluous, or, worse, meaningless.

So while there is definitely room to provide experiential learning opportunities through the talent marketplace, the driving force behind them should be a smart, dynamic system that knows how to make sure these opportunities are translated not into good learning metrics, but into projects and positions that benefit both employees and the company.

So which is better?

So – which option is better? We’ll leave that for you to answer, after considering all the facts. After all, you know your company best, and can tell what the situation on the ground demands.

It is this writer’s opinion, however, that while L&D-oriented solutions can offer fantastic learning opportunities and resources, if those opportunities don’t organically emerge from and loop back into the distinct, dynamic needs and requirements of the implementing company’s unique ecosystem, it will be much more difficult to leverage them into meaningful talent management follow-throughs.

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