“The Big Quit” has Redefined Learning & Development for the Professional Health Care Learner

L&D leaders across the health care industry paint a picture of the primary goals of professional learners in this post-pandemic world.

Illustration of a person holding a briefcase climbing stairs.

While phrases such as “the Great Resignation,” “the Big Quit” and “the Great Reshuffle” have now become trite, the disruption it has created for trainers in the corporate environment remains. As a marketing manager from a major retailer recently put it: “When I came into this role, I had no experience in health care whatsoever. Literally, they offered me the job, and I was like, cool, we sell health trackers. And then I get here, and I’m like, oh no, I don’t know any of this.”

Over the last two months, I’ve conducted over 35 interviews with Learning and Development (L&D) leaders across a broad range of industries. Their insights have painted a clear picture of the challenges they face in this new post-pandemic world.

“Since COVID, finding talent is extremely hard, so we are forced to hire professionals with little experience, which results in increased training, which is a huge burden on our L&D team,” said a training manager at a large payer. And the HR leaders who are able to hire talent with even a minimum amount of health care training are finding that it’s often not enough. “A medical researcher may have deep knowledge in gene therapy, but that doesn’t mean he has broad knowledge of the industry, which makes collaboration hard,” said a director of compliance excellence & training at a small biotech company.

Taken together, these trends show companies struggling to train large cohorts of employees in different geographic areas, of different ages, with different levels of experience and in different roles – no small feat!

Embracing this challenge, L&D leaders noted the importance of truly understanding how today’s professional learners want not only to consume knowledge but also how they can apply it directly to their current position. They know that accomplishing those goals means that the organization is supported by knowledgeable employees who are passionate about their work and are well-positioned to meet company objectives and compete in today’s fierce market.

So, what do professional learners want?


1. I want to be engaged.

“Engaged” is a loaded word – on the surface, it means learners want to be entertained while they learn, as opposed to letting the required work video play while they get a cup of coffee (oh come on, we’ve all done it!). But in its deepest, true sense, it is an employee who is fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and has a positive attitude towards the organization and its values. Achieving this level of engagement requires leaders to really step up their game when developing training programs.

But how to do this is another issue.

“My instructional designers are not allowed to have learners watch a video and then click, click, click through a quiz. The learner has to move diagrams, provide feedback, make decisions, outline a response, etc. You want to give them information, show them how to apply it and then give them a scenario where they use that information to show more than memorization but actual comprehension,” said the vice president of HR of a large health retailer. 

Another option for engagement is to have a cohort of learners pick a specific problem in business and work through it as a team with an expert mentor. What are the challenges, what are options for solving them, and the steps to follow? The final result is a presentation to a mentor or leader within the company to obtain feedback as part of the program. 


2. Different strokes for different folks.

It’s no small challenge to create a learning program that meets the needs of all professional learners, each with their own learning style, no less. To ensure a course has something for everyone, it should contain learning paths with stackable learning objects so learners can choose not only what they need, but also the order that they will consume that learning. “It’s all about giving choice to the learner,” said one senior program manager at a large health IT organization. “We will include a video, reading material and an interactive activity all in the same lesson so that the learner can choose how they want to consume the same information. Additionally, we always build in redundancy to account for all the different learning styles.”

Another approach to ensure that training programs meet the distinctive needs of each learner is through adaptive learning. This starts with having all employees answer a few questions prior to training to determine their level of knowledge. “All employees at our organization start with an assessment to ascertain what they know now and how well they know it, and then they get a personalized lesson that allows the learner to build upon their initial level of knowledge,” said the director of enterprise learning from a large insurance company, adding “It’s key to ask for feedback from the learner constantly so that you can continually improve the learning.” 


3. Assessments are so yesterday.

If there is one thing employees don’t like, it’s taking tests and answering quizzes. For the most part, L&D consultants agree that knowledge checks don’t necessarily mean that an employee has absorbed the material. “Tests only prove that learners can pass a test,” noted an HR vice president from a major pharmaceutical company. “The training program needs to include some type of job component that allows measurement of whether the employee can apply what they learned to their role, not that they can pass a test.”

 One senior business program manager at a major software company said: “My model is I'm going to tell you the content, then I’ll show you how to do it and then I ask the learner to do it. If the learner can do it, then they have learned the skill.” He went on to note that it’s best to include this type of exercise at a point in the course where learners are experiencing challenges. For example, walk the learner through the process for obtaining FDA approval on a new drug and then set up a simulation where the learner has to make decisions through each step of the approval process. 


4. Certification: Everyone wants a gold star.

Yes, employees want to be engaged, and yes, they want to apply their learnings directly to their work. But they also want to ensure that they are being recognized for that work and that they earn a meaningful reward. One senior account manager at a major technology company said, “Our employees repeatedly cry out for learning material focused on health care – ‘I am starting a new project, I’ve never worked in health before, I need information’ – and then we’ll work to get the team the information and then it’s ‘oh I am too busy, this is too much, I don’t have time.’” He went on to say that those same employees will then spend 10 weeks doing an HMX course, but won’t sit through a 2-hour internal lecture. He could only assume it has something to do with earning a certificate from Harvard. 

And certification means something in this hot job market: “I see a lot of resumes, and people like to list their certifications and credentials. When I see awards or courses certified by Harvard that have cachet then I pay attention. Harvard is one of the best, and anybody would love to have that certificate because it differentiates them in the market.”

While the challenges in the corporate learning environment are significant, developing and implanting a cohesive, modular course that pulls the employees in and allows them to interact with their peers is a win-win for both the employer and the employee. The L&D director at a major pharmaceutical company summed it up: “When employees have access to the training and education, they are more successful in their roles, and the company is well positioned to stay competitive in this intense, turbulent market.”

Danette Somers is the director of product management for Corporate Learning at Harvard Medical School.