Educating the Modern Workforce Learner

Educating the Modern Workforce Learner

By Steve Morse, MEd RRT CHPT CTP

Director of Education, Covenant Care

As organizations change their product or service delivery model to meet market demands and competition forces, the need for an agile and responsive workforce to support these changes is critical. Without a workforce that can readily attain the competencies and skills to support a changing business model, an organization will fail to thrive.

Learning and development is a common support service in organizations with responsibility for resolving employee competency and skill gaps. A new challenge, however, has manifested that is making it difficult for learning and development professionals to provide much needed educational interventions effectively and efficiently – the current state of the modern workforce learner.

The Modern Workforce Learner
Today’s workforce is being asked to do more with less, is easily distracted from multiple responsibilities, and has very little time to devote to learning. Bersin by Deloitte (2014) identified key characteristics of the modern workforce learner:

  • Interruptions occur as frequently as every 5 minutes in the workplace.
  • 2/3 of knowledge workers complain that they don’t have time to do their jobs.
  • Smartphones are unlocked up to 9 times every hour and the average person checks their device 150 times a day.
  • The number of times an employee accesses the internet has jumped from 5 times a day to 27 times a day.
  • 1% of a typical workweek is all that employees have to focus on training and development.

Kadakia (2016) shares “A modern learner is someone who is in an environment where content changes fast and learning needs change even faster.” The definition of a modern workforce learner provided by Kadakia would apply to any organization experiencing change in which learners need to acquire new competencies and skills to support the change. In short, the modern workforce learner is overwhelmed, distracted, impatient, and untethered – work often occurs in multiple locations or remotely (Tauber, & Wang-Audia, 2014).

Needs of the Modern Workforce Learner
The paradigm has shifted for learning and development on how to best meet the needs of the modern workforce learner.

Modern workplace learning is about using technology to put the right information at employees’ fingertips at the right time – giving them easy access to knowledge, knowledge sharing, and training so they can lead their own continuous improvement (Paul, 2017). 

A new learning architecture is now being designed and deployed by learning and development professionals to support the concept of continuous learning for continuous improvement.

…continuous learning is not solely about formal, planned, learning activities. Rather, its resources, expectations, and learning culture is organized in such a way as to encourage employees to learn continuously throughout their tenure with the organization (Mallon, & Johnson, 2014, p.15).

Continuous learning takes into consideration the needs of the learner (Mallon, & Johnson) as to whether they are immediate (supporting success in the moment), intermediate (growing in the current role), and transitional (growing a career). To encourage the modern workforce learner to engage in learning continuously, multiple modalities of learning options must be made available to them that are both prescriptive and self-directed.

Multiple Modalities of Learning Options

Research literature indicates about 70% of learning occurs from on-the-job, experiential learning, 20% from informal sources and collaborating with peers, and 10% from formal classroom and course instruction (DDI, & Brandon Hall Group, 2016). In alignment with these literature findings, continuous learning (Mallon, & Johnson, 2014) is categorized in one of four contexts:

  • Education – learning events such as classroom training, e-learning, etc.
  • Experience – learning on the job such as taking on different assignments.
  • Environment – learning through tools and systems on the job.
  • Exposure – learning through interactions such as coaching or professional organizations.

The inference from the continuous learning context descriptions is that learning occurs everywhere. “Today’s learners participate in a classroom that’s radically different than previous iterations because it’s an experience, not a physical place” (Hays, 2016). With respect, learning approaches (Mallon, 2010) can be classified as formal or informal.

Instructor-led Training

Virtual Classroom













Social Networks

Communities of Practice




Electronic Performance Support


Rotational Assignments

Development Planning


From the classifications of learning approaches, the modern workforce learner has access to multiple learning options that are both prescriptive and self-directed.

Expectations of the Modern Workforce Learner

In addition to multiple learning options, the modern workforce learner has expectations of learning that include immediate, anytime, anywhere access to relevant information; curated, bite-sized content drip-fed over longer time intervals; and content that is engaging, attention-grabbing multi-media in design (Gnowbe, n.d.). To meet these expectations, learning and development professionals are utilizing specific instructional strategies (Paul, 2017; Rentier, 2016) to enhance the learner experience:

  • Microlearning – small, bite-size chunks of engaging instructional content, no more than 5-10 minutes in length, that are easily accessed throughout the work day.
  • Video learning – instructional content as video vignettes that are accessed via desktop or mobile device.
  • Mobile learning – instructional content accessed through mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet.
  • Social learning – learning that occurs through interaction with others.
  • Gamification – design of instructional content to include gaming elements such as point scoring or competition to promote learner engagement.
  • Content curation – instructional content is managed in a repository such as a social learning platform or learning management system for easy access.

In Consideration of the Modern Workforce Learner

The modern workforce learner has been shown to represent a unique audience of adult learners. It is commonly recognized in the literature by learning and development professionals that adult learners are internally motivated, have a readiness to learn, and are responsible for their own learning (Morse, 2016). These characteristics of adult learning are particularly important given the heavy reliance of self-directed learning from informal learning approaches through continuous learning.

As with any learner audience, however, a thorough assessment of the learner’s needs must be completed. If it is determined that an adult learning approach does not meet the needs of the target audience, then a more direct, supplantive method must be used to guide the modern workforce learner (Morse). In the latter case, clear expectations and a learning roadmap will be a must for the modern workforce learner to succeed in the new reality of continuous learning.


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