D. Caulfield

L&D Toolkit: Learning Clusters

What is a Learning Cluster?

Below is the Learning Cluster template I use in my organisation.

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A Learning Cluster is a selection of learning assets given to the learner at their moment of need. The biggest benefit for both L&D and the learner is that whether the learner wants to watch a video, read a book or find a quick definition, it is all provided in a single location. With a Learning Cluster, the learner chooses what they want to learn, how they want to learn and when they want to learn.

How do I give the learner what they need when they need it?

L&D's challenge is to understand and answer this question: "What does my learner need to know and how can I help them get there?". Every industry is ever changing, growing, and becoming more complex, so much so that we all need to constantly adapt to keep up. This has resulted in the rise of the L&D discipline.

However, we in L&D are still asking the question "How can I train my colleagues to be better?". This is an outdated question. Today's question is "How can I help my colleagues make better decisions when it counts?". Better decision making underpins every discipline and therefore L&D's mission must enable people to make better decisions.

Now two questions come to mind:

  • How can I help my colleagues make better decisions?
  • How do I know when they need that help?

I think the answer to both questions is something along the lines of "I don't know what people need or when they need it, but I'll have something ready when they come looking".

The benefit of learning clusters is that we don't need to ask questions like:

  • What situation is the learner in?
  • How much time do they have?
  • Do they want to read a blog post, watch a video or see a live talk?

By putting all options on the table, the learner can decide themselves what they need and when they need it. In the same way that a restaurant offers you a menu of options instead of trying to understand if you're meat or vegetarian, Learning Clusters give you the option of making your own decisions.

How Do Learning Clusters Help the Learner?

Learners want to choose how, when and where to learn. This poses a challenge for L&D: How do we provide everything in a single place?

By giving the learner a cluster of options to choose from, we are more likely to meet their moment of need. It doesn't mean that every learner will look at every assets. That's not the point. By adding a cluster of options to choose from, it is more likely that the learner will use at least one of the options. We're not looking for big wins here. Incremental improvements to our colleagues knowledge is our goal.

Developing Learning Clusters

Use the template at the beginning of this article to create a cluster for any skill you want. You can probably think of a way to upgrade it and make it even more relevant for your organisation. Next, choose a topic you want to address, for example "Email Security".

What do you want to achieve with this Learning Cluster?

  • I want to provide a cluster of assets about email security
  • So that my colleagues do not send sensitive information or click on dangerous content.

Once your goal is laid out, fill in your cluster. You can use custom content created by your organisation or find free content online. As you get better at collating links and resources, you will develop a list of useful websites to use in future Learning Clusters.

Where did they come from?

Learning clusters are part of a larger framework called the Owens-Kadkia Learning Cluster Design Model (OK-LCD Model) which attempts to bring together and expand on learning models such as ADDIE and SAM.

The authors, Crystal Kadakia and Lisa M.D. Owens, saw poorly executed goals within L&D. Namely, that L&D were focused on a single thing - a deliverable to close the capability gap. The deliverable could be a wide range of options such as an interactive video, classroom training or a manual. But the deliverable was always just one element.

What's the problem with delivering one element for one problem? Learners don't want to be told what to learn, when to learn or how to learn. Learners want to be able to choose how, when, where and what they want learn. L&D therefore need to shift from the "1 problem = 1 deliverable" mindset and move towards a "Learning Cluster" mindset.

One problem should not be met with a single solution. It means we put all our eggs in one basket. Instead, by creating a diverse suite of deliverables, we give the power back to the learner and increase the likelihood that they will find something useful and enjoyable in our deliverables.

For more information on the wider framework, see "Designing for Modern Learning" by Kadakia and Owens.