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How to use learning pathways to close skills gaps

The talent required to take an organization to the next level often already exists in-house, and learning pathways can be an effective tool for unlocking that untapped potential.
learning pathways
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach

In recent years, companies large and small have embraced upskilling as the key to success in a rapidly evolving world of work. As organizations look to prepare their workforce for the future, learning pathways are becoming a necessary technique for L&D teams to master. 

Learning pathways are goal-oriented sequences of instructional experiences designed to foster growth. Thoughtfully designed learning paths reduce “analysis paralysis” and time waste by presenting the learner with a roadmap to success.

The rise of learning pathways

Learning pathways are an efficient way to close skills gaps within an organization, making the best use of an existing talent pool without the hassle of recruiting and hiring. By offering learning pathways designed to teach in-demand skills, L&D can help build human capital whenever and wherever it’s most needed.

Learning pathways aren’t just beneficial at the organizational level – they benefit learners as well. With so many potential avenues to learn something new, well-designed learning pathways cut through the noise by offering a clear series of steps to help employees reach their goals. 

A large factor in a training program’s success is how it’s delivered. It’s infinitely easier to lead learners when they know where they’re going and are excited to get there (versus launching into a series of directives and cattle-prodding them into action).  

Best practices for designing learning pathways

The talent required to take an organization to the next level often already exists in-house, and learning pathways can be an effective tool for unlocking that untapped potential. The problem is, sometimes an organizational culture can cause employees to hide indicators of their need for personal growth. 

Psychologist and professional development consultant Robert Kegan studied how organizational culture impacts employees’ mindsets about failure. He discovered that people feel compelled to hide their weaknesses. Because those employees aren’t comfortable talking about areas where they need more training, their needs go unmet, inhibiting productivity and stifling growth.

When L&D offers a variety of learning pathways to choose from, especially in an on-demand format, it gives employees agency and autonomy in their professional development. They don’t have to reach out and ask for help; it’s available right when they need it. 

Thoughtfully designed learning pathways reduce time waste by presenting learners with a clear roadmap to success.

In this low-pressure environment, all members of an organization can take ownership of improving their skillsets and addressing areas where they could benefit from additional training. They can also explore new competencies and see if they have what it takes to try an entirely different role.  

Along with utilizing an on-demand format, here are some additional best practices learning professionals can use for developing a high-impact learning pathway.

Select high-quality resources

When curating resources for learning pathways, using high-quality content is vital for learner engagement. YouTube and TikTok offer millions of videos with basic to advanced lessons in every imaginable skillset, so learners have developed new expectations what defines for premium quality content. L&D teams can meet their needs by keeping a pulse on learner preferences and staying in the know on best-in-class content providers. 

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Include a mix of content

Whether aimed at supporting soft skill development or teaching technical skills, there are multiple ways to deliver content in a learning path. eLearning that includes a complementary mix of articles, videos, podcasts, and infographics is perhaps the most common. An article from Harvard Business Review states that offering content in a variety of formats will “keep learners engaged longer, increase recall of concepts, and cater to a wider range of learning preferences.”

Build learning scaffolds

Charles Duhigg, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter for The New York Times and author of Smarter Faster Better, says, “When I learn a piece of information…I really only remember it if I know how to fit it into a scaffold of previous things I’ve learned. The more that we help people build scaffolds around new facts and figures or new ideas, the more we’re helping them learn how to use that information in the future.”

When a learner returns to the material after a temporary resting state, their understanding of it increases.

Learning pathways can help employees build on prior knowledge, especially when offered in a microlearning format. Because microlearning experiences come in short, incremental bursts, they allow a learner to take breaks and easily return to the information at a later time. When a learner later returns to the initial material after a temporary resting state, their understanding and retention of the content increases.

Communicate relevance 

Assembling learning pathways requires an understanding of how to best engage adult learners. Adults are more motivated to engage in learning when it’s highly relevant to them, and when they understand the return for their investment of time. At the beginning of a pathway, ensure that messaging clearly communicates what learners will accomplish by completing the path. Then, throughout the path, look for ways to highlight the relevance of the learning by linking it to job tasks and business objectives. 

Keep learners motivated 

In addition to highlighting relevance throughout a learning path, designers can incorporate ways to celebrate learners’ milestones along the way. For example, upon completing a course, learners might receive a digital badge or downloadable certificate that they can add to their resumes. Employees place a high value on transferable credentials, so creating artifacts of achievement suitable for inclusion on LinkedIn or a professional portfolio can motivate them to make progress. L&D can also spotlight achievements like course completions to the learner’s entire team or department.  

Promote new learning pathways

After developing a learning pathway, don’t simply add it to the LMS and hope for the best. Launch it by sending out organization-wide emails and preparing promotional materials that convey the value of the pathway. Share about opportunities that could result from mastering the skill. Leaders at all levels of the organization can also help by sharing the information with their teams, perhaps even offering incentives to participate.  

Final note

Learning pathways can prepare employees to take on greater responsibility, qualify for a new role, or cultivate better habits to improve their performance. To choose which learning paths to build, L&D must gain a deep understanding of business priorities as well as skills gaps within the organization.

Industry trends can also offer some clues. For example, McKinsey & Company conducts ongoing research on business trends that recently yielded a list of 56 foundational skills for the future of work. 

Whichever capabilities they teach, learning pathways are critical tools for ongoing professional development and can be used as a central element of any training program. They offer employees the chance to explore and practice new skills, cultivating a sustainable growth mindset across the organization. 

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