What is Corporate Digital Learning?

Photo via CommScope on Flickr and shared via a CC License http://bit.ly/2wHsDaZ

There’s a new term that’s been emerging in our industry recently: Digital Learning.

While that phrase has been in use within the academic space for a number of years, it seems to be catching on within the corporate training space as well. But what is Corporate Digital Learning? How is this phrase different from any of the other labels we’ve used to describe the work that training and development professionals do each day?

I think the answer to that question will take some time to emerge through conversations within our industry over the next few years. While the academic space has been exploring the concept of digital learning for a number of years, there’s still not a single clear definition of what the phrase means.

What I would like to do here is share how I see the definition of Corporate Digital Learning emerging, and why I think the phrase represents a shift to the work training and development will be doing in the future.

What is Corporate Digital Learning?

In order to understand the concept of corporate digital learning I think it’s important to explore each individual word within the context of the phrase itself. I’m also going to explore them in reverse order because I believe that order helps one word’s context build upon the next to shape the overall definition.


Corporate Digital Learning focuses on the activities of learning itself, rather than on the activities related to creating learning resources.

Learning is a term we throw around a lot in our industry. We use the phrase as the very title we often associate with our work – that of a Learning Professional. In actual practice though, what we do isn’t building learning; it’s building resources and programs – usually in the form of training – that provide people with the opportunity to learn. That’s an important distinction as we look at the word learning in the context of the phrase Corporate Digital Learning.

Let me be clear. We do amazing work in training and development, and the resources we have built have helped individuals and organizations for decades. We’ve been creating courses and programs and resources for decades because of a simple paradigm: If people in an organization needed to learn how to do something, we needed to create the content and structure through which they could build that skill. People didn’t have the ability to fill the skill gap on their own. They not only needed someone to provide the solution to them, there was an expectation of it.

That paradigm is rapidly changing.

People in our industry often describe this paradigm change as a shift to “self-directed learning”, but that’s in many ways industry jargon. There’s not a conscious shift among individuals towards self-directed learning; what does exist is a cultural shift in behavior as people realize that they can find answers on their own. That behavior change is increasingly shifting expectations in people from “I need you to solve this problem for me” to “I can solve this problem for myself”. It’s this change that is at the heart of what we call self-directed learning, and it’s being enabled by technology.


Corporate Digital Learning looks at all the ways we interact in a connected digital environment as the infrastructure that drives self-directed learning.

There’s a social paradigm that didn’t exist only a few years ago, yet is almost ubiquitous today.

You’re in a conversation with friends or family and a question is posed to the group. After a brief pause it becomes apparent that no one in the conversation knows the answer. When this happens, inevitably someone in the group will pull out their smartphone to look up the answer.

This scenario is so common today that many of you probably heard a voice in your head saying “I’ll Google it” as you read it.

Photo via CommScope on Flickr and shared via a CC License http://bit.ly/2wHHBOc

The convergence of new technologies that have enabled us to tap into the limitless world of data provided by the internet at any moment wherever we are has fundamentally changed how we interact with information… and each other. It’s this connected digital environment that forms the infrastructure that drives self-directed learning.

While the environment is often an amalgamation of different resources – apps, portals, internet sites, and more – that people call upon in the moment to solve a problem, new technologies designed from the ground up to support this new way people are naturally learning are emerging. These emerging technologies enable us to do two major things.

First, there are technologies that enable us to track all of the different types of activities we engage in every day and to – more importantly – analyze them in the context of learning and performance. Second, there are new services built with self-directed learning in mind, which enable this natural problem-solving behavior while also enabling organizations to structure learning opportunities in a way tied to organizational goals.

It’s those final two words – organizational goals – that lead us to the last word I want to address within the phrase Corporate Digital Learning.


The problems people need to solve in their work aren’t the same as those they explore in their personal lives. These problems are linked to job-related tasks and organizational goals, which alters what digital learning looks like in a corporate or organizational context.

When you started reading this article you may have wondered why I add the word corporate as a qualifier to digital learning. After all, digital learning is digital learning, right?

How learning cognitively works within our brains may be the same, but the purpose and environment in which the learning is taking place is very different, and that context shapes much of the definition of what digital learning looks like in action.

In academic environments, learning is often about developing understanding. The goals of an academic program are to build knowledge, skills, and attributes related to a topic, which collectively lead to an overall understanding.

In organizational learning, the goals are different. Organizations don’t care about understanding, at least not in the literal sense. They care about what employees do.

You might read that and think “Not my organization. We value learning here.” That may be the case. But every senior leader that genuinely says “We value learning in our organization…” is also saying something else, even if they don’t speak it out loud – “…because we believe a culture of learning will lead to better organizational performance.”

The problem-solving behavior I described earlier still applies to people in organizations; they’re just applying these new behaviors in the context of their work. Similarly, the efforts of organizational training and learning professionals are linked to the goals of the organization and the metrics used to measure performance against those goals. That context heavily influences how digital learning is defined within the corporate or organizational environment.

The Future of Corporate Digital Learning

While the term Digital Learning may be emerging as a buzzword in our industry, I think the trends that are driving it are here for the long-term. The number of technologies that are supporting the digital learning infrastructure continues to expand, which will only work to reinforce and normalize the change in human behaviors that are shaping this shift.

People in the K-12 and Higher Education space are already exploring this new way of learning, and the emergence of the trend in the corporate and organizational learning industry continues to grow. Training and learning professionals will need to adapt to these changes in behavior while at the same time linking the shift towards self-directed learning to organizational goals.

The description for corporate digital learning I’ve shared in this post is by no means a final definition. It’s simply the framework I see emerging around the concept. The discussions our industry will have on the topic in the months and years to come will not only bring clarity around this concept, but it will also help deliver tools and strategies to help us harness the potential of this shift.

Personally, I’m looking forward to participating in these discussions. It’s an exciting time to be in our field.

Learn More…

Are you a senior leader whose organization is looking to make sense of these trends? Consider joining your peers at the Executive Forum on Digital Learning , an event exclusively for today’s senior learning leaders taking place on October 24th in Las Vegas!


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