Top-down learning occurs because organisations want their employees to perform effectively and efficiently and because they appreciate that this depends, at least in part, on these employees possessing the appropriate knowledge and skills. Top-down learning is designed to fulfil the employer’s objectives for improved performance, not the employees’.
Top-down learning occurs in all four contexts:
Experiential: Employers can initiate all sorts of programmes to maximise the opportunities for employees to learn directly from their work experience. For example, through a process of job rotation, employees might be moved from one position to another, perhaps from one geographical location to another, in order to obtain a more rounded perspective on the organisation’s activities. Similarly, through job enrichment, employees may be assigned additional responsibilities which expand their opportunities to develop. Other initiatives may attempt to institutionalise the process of reflection upon which experiential learning depends – formal project reviews, benchmarking within and between organisations, action learning programmes and, of course, performance appraisal.
On-demand: Where the nature of the work that employees carry out requires that they have ready access to information at the point of need, there are again many opportunities for top-down interventions. These include the provision of performance support materials, in print form or online, at the desktop or through mobile devices; employers may offer online access to vast catalogues of books, using services such as Books 24×7; they may also make available person-to-person support using help desks and other ways to ‘ask-the-expert’.
Non-formal: Of course nearly all employees will require some training to help them adjust to the organisation and to their new positions, to cope with changes and to prepare for future responsibilities. Proactive, top-down interventions include on-job training, coaching programmes and ‘mini-courses’ in various forms including short workshops, rapid e-learning modules, podcasts or white papers.
Formal: Top-down learning is at its most structured and controlled when it is implemented within the wrapper of a ‘course’, traditionally in the classroom, but nowadays just as likely online or some blend of the two. Formal learning is not necessarily rigid, authoritarian or boring – it will often include games and simulations, drama, outdoor activities and other forms of discovery learning.
Top-down learning is the traditional domain of the l&d professional, acting on authority delegated from senior management, sometimes through the human resources department (most typically when the requirement spans the whole workforce) and sometimes through the line (when the requirement is of a more technical nature). Because it exists to serve the needs of management, top-down learning must by definition be managed in this traditional, hierarchical fashion and cannot be allowed to just happen of its own accord.
To many l&d professionals, top-down learning will be their only concern and the only form of learning that they recognise or even acknowledge. But, as we know, even in the most tightly-controlled organisations, a great deal of learning also occurs on a bottom-up basis, on the initiative of employees themselves, who have their own interests in performing well in their jobs and continuing to be rewarded by their employers accordingly. As we shall see in the following chapter, bottom-up learning is more flexible, more adaptive, requires less support and in the right circumstances is capable of being highly effective. So why should organisations continue to devote resources to top-down learning and take great care to ensure that these resources are applied effectively and efficiently? This question requires some careful consideration and that is where we will start.
Coming next, the second part of chapter 5: Why top-down learning is needed
Obtain your copy of The New Learning Architect