When practiced effectively, learning supports organisational strategy and bolsters workplace skills. Theories encouraging employee learning have evolved considerably over the past decade, and employers should familiarise themselves with emerging insights into how people learn. This factsheet examines the meaning of ‘helping people learn’ in a workplace context, focusing on the economic importance of workplace skills and the tangible ways employers can measure the skills and capabilities of their workforce.

The factsheet also explores evolving theories on supporting learning, looking at the move away from training to learning, the shift from instruction to interaction, and emerging insights about how people learn. It also considers the strategic and practical issues in helping people learn, such as the learning and development strategy, identifying learning needs, barriers to supporting learning, performance management and the role of line managers. It concludes by looking at the extent to which learning initiatives are effective in helping people to learn.

While there is widespread recognition of the need to build competitive advantage through the continuing development of workforce knowledge and skills, the methods deployed to support, accelerate and direct learning vary widely and require the support of both line managers and learners.

Whatever the specific techniques selected, these need to be underpinned by an organisational culture that is supportive of learning. Helping people learn requires an awareness of not only which methods are most effective, but also a robust understanding of the behavioural science of learning, and how the wider culture and environment supports learning, including permission to learn and support from managers to implement learning.

Recent approaches build on traditional learning techniques by adding digital, interactive and social elements which are underpinned by a collaborative culture of sharing knowledge. In light of continuing developments, for example in the field of neuroscience, we must constantly seek evidence of how newer approaches to helping people learn can most effectively be deployed as part of wider HR and L&D strategy to help achieve organisational goals.

Helping people learn involves supporting, accelerating and facilitating learning for groups or individuals. In the context of the workplace, this learning is specifically designed to support organisational strategy.

Economic importance of workplace skills

Given that high levels of workforce skills are critical to business productivity and economic prosperity, supporting learning at work is high on the agenda of policy-makers and employers in many parts of the world. For organisations, the skills of the workforce are vital to meet current and future business demands. For individuals, skills levels help to determine their employment and earnings potential.

To improve a country’s skills profile, it’s not enough to simply focus on pre-employment education and training. It’s also crucial for employers to continually invest in and develop the skills levels of their employees through methods such as on-the-job training, in-house development and coaching. Read our factsheet on skills policy in the UK.

Organisations often frame this conversation around the 70:20:10 framework. This theory suggests that individuals gain 70% of their learning from job-related experiences, 20% from social interactions with others, and 10% from formal learning events. Far from being a rigid or research-based formula, the model is best seen as a guideline that a blend of learning approaches is helpful within organisations with certain scenarios being best addressed by specific approaches.

Against this background, organisations should encourage and nurture a learning culture in order to benefit from a highly-skilled and innovative workforce.

Valuing workforce skills

To fully value the skills and capabilities of the workforce, it can be helpful to adopt some tangible means of measuring these characteristics. A major research and engagement programme Valuing Your Talent aims to help employers understand how to measure the impact of workforce skills and capabilities on the performance of their organisation. The CIPD is running this programme in collaboration with the UK Commission on Employment and Skills (UKCES), Investors in People (IIP), the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

Our report Valuing your talent: resourceful assets? explores how better to understand the specific capabilities of an organisation’s workforce and maximise these attributes to drive overall business performance. It also introduces the first steps organisations need to take in human capital reporting to show that people within the organization should be seen as tangible items on their balance sheet.

Supporting individuals and groups in learning is an essential element of an organisation’s strategic human resource management programme – that is, an approach to the management of people that provides a framework to support long-term business goals and outcomes. Within this framework, our work investigating the theories of encouraging employee learning, and the value of the various approaches, has evolved considerably over the last decade.

Emerging learning approaches

Our research report L&D: evolving roles, enhancing skills highlighted the emergence of a number of learning methods to help people learn with the top three being:

  • social and collaborative learning
  • digital learning and training delivery
  • coaching and mentoring.

Whilst there is still a clear role for face-to-face learning and training delivery, many of those who took place in the research study said they were not planning to increase this activity.

These changes raise the challenge of new skills needed by learning and development (L&D) practitioners particularly around digital abilities in delivering virtual classrooms, developing digital content and supporting learners online.

Shift from instruction to interaction

L&D is becoming less about instruction and more about interaction. This means that interaction with the job, the organisation, colleagues, customers and suppliers is increasingly a feature of learning – enabled by social technology and increased awareness of a broader range of learning sources.

In addition, this changes the skills of the L&D professional from ‘sage on the stage’ creating and presenting learning to ‘curator-concierge’ model in directing learners to excellent existing learning content. This is also a shift in mindset as well as skill set.

Emerging insights about how people learn

In our 2012 report From steady state to ready state: a need for fresh thinking in learning and talent development? we identified the need to lift awareness of the insights that could be obtained from areas such as neuroscience, cognitive science and decision research. We also highlighted some emerging areas of social science insight that could feed new thinking.

A subsequent programme of research culminated in the publication of three reports covering:

  • neuroscience and learning
  • cognition, decision and expertise
  • insight and intuition.

This research highlighted ways in which neuroscience can help us understand key learning issues, including how people and organisations can use technology to enhance learning, as well as to work creatively and encourage more effective innovation.

It concluded that:

  • Neuroscience is producing many insights with genuine relevance for L&D, representing an exciting new source of evidence to be used alongside other perspectives in the ongoing development and evaluation of new approaches to L&D.
  • In the future, the greatest impact of neuroscience advances on L&D may arise in combination with advances in digital technology, especially through gaming.
  • We should see neuroscience as a new area of insight to be carefully combined with those from other perspectives, rather than a definite solution to all L&D challenges.

We explored these issues further in our report Neuroscience in action: applying insight to L&D practice which focused on eight case study organisations.

When implementing an organisational strategy or introducing techniques to support learning in pursuit of business objectives, a range of strategic and practical issues need to be considered.

Learning and development strategy

Given that an effective learning and development strategy is important to business success, it’s essential to regularly review and assess L&D programmes to find out how well they support such strategy. The success of any L&D strategy is usually dependent on how closely it is aligned to an overall business strategy and how much senior stakeholder support there is, plus agility.

Identifying learning needs

An important initial step when implementing development activities is to clearly identify learning needs and the objectives of L&D programmes (that is, how they will meet such needs) in line with the L&D strategy, for example by means of a learning needs analysis (LNA). The challenge now facing L&D in this area is having the ability to respond to the needs quickly enough. This is no longer an occasional activity but a live and active part of supporting agile learning within fast change workplace scenarios.

Barriers to supporting learning

An issue identified by our Helping People Learn research programme is that many key problems associated with learning and development appear at the operational level, and hence may be difficult to solve through policy statements. Subsequent research has helped identify how this may be tackled by methods including performance management programmes and the involvement of line managers in supporting learning culture (see below).

Performance management

Performance management involves establishing a culture in which individuals and groups take responsibility for the continuous improvement of business processes and of their own skills, behaviour and contributions. Providing a supportive environment to help people learn is therefore an essential part of any performance management programme. Tied into the LNA mentioned above and the need for agility, reviewing frequency of performance management can be increasingly important.

Role of line managers

As with implementing any HR or L&D policy, the role of managers is critical in helping people learn and the influence of this group is frequently highlighted in our research. Managers are typically involved in determining L&D needs and may crucially influence organisational culture in respect of supporting learning. Increasingly their role, via coaching and permission to learn, can impact on the success of learning and become more involved in people development. Find out more on line managers’ role in HR and L&D.

Updated thinking on learning styles

In the early 1980s, psychologists Peter Honey and Alan Mumford developed a learning styles classification based on the work of David Kolb. Through a Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) they suggested that individuals have ‘preferred ways of learning‘ and they identified:

  • Activists: High participators who tend to involve themselves fully in new experiences
  • Reflectors: Like to stand back and observe experiences from different perspectives.
  • Theorists: Logical analytical thinkers, good at assimilating new facts and information.
  • Pragmatists: Practical thinkers, with a concern for how things will work in practice.

The premise of their theory is that a learner aware of their preferred style can identify learning approaches that will be most effective, and L&D practitioners can design and deliver learning that can best accommodate learner needs. Honey and Mumford’s learning style theory has been widely used by L&D practitioners.

However, our report From steady state to ready state: a need for fresh thinking in learning and talent development referenced the findings of Coffield and colleagues 2004 paper ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: a systematic and critical review’ which found insufficient empirical evidence to support the theory.

The concept of assigning personal preferred learning styles is now widely accepted as too simplistic therefore unhelpful although the general approach of enhancing learning engagement through a range of methods remains useful.

Accelerated learning

Accelerated leaning focuses on understanding the psychology of how we learn and on how to create an optimal learning environment through factors such as:

  • a positive learning environment
  • engaging not just the rational mind but the whole body
  • learner involvement and collaboration
  • establishing the learning context
  • learning through work itself.

Colin Rose, a pioneer of accelerated learning, developed the MASTER model to support learning practitioners to design and deliver effective learning through the following factors:

  • M – Mindset to positive
  • A – Acquire the knowledge
  • S – Search out meaning
  • T – Trigger your memory
  • E – Exhibit what you know
  • R – Reflect on your learning

Application of neuroscience in learning

Research is continually advancing our knowledge of how psychology and neuroscience can be applied to learning and several neuroscience models are being applied to learning design and delivery.

Our psychology and neuroscience in learning factsheet examines the changes in thinking around the psychology of learning including recent criticism of key models for being, amongst other things, too simplistic and not resulting in consistent learning gains. It also examines some key models which apply neuroscience to learning, focusing on the RAD, SCARF and AGES models.

When reviewing what's involved in helping people learn, it's essential to consider the results of any initiative to build on successes while also learning the lessons of programmes that work less well.

Any analysis of particular techniques needs to be placed firmly in the broader context of how well the underlying organisational culture supports learning and development across the workforce.

Evaluating learning

Approaches to evaluating learning and development involve the formal or informal assessment of the quality and effectiveness of any training and learning provision. This is usually either by some measure of the value of the provision itself (the input, for example the quality of course content and presentation) and/or by monitoring its impact (the outcomes, for example improved skills/qualifications or enhanced productivity/profitability).

Which are the most effective techniques?

The CIPD and Towards Maturity research report Future of learning: a changing perspective for L&D leaders notes significant changes in the delivery of learning in the organisation with the top three shifts being to use online delivery, social and collaborative learning facilitation and coaching and mentoring.

This doesn’t mean that traditional face-to-face learning hasn’t an important place in organisational learning but that there are trends to provide learning ‘in the flow’ of work rather than removing learners from their work context.

Towards Maturity, our strategic L&D research partner, noted in its report Unlocking potential: releasing the potential of the business and its people through learning that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed expected face-to-face learning to decrease in favour of blended and online learning, although the proportion of learning offered face-to-face still remains quite high with:

  • 56% of programmes offered by face-to-face alone
  • 22% of programmes offered online only
  • 22% offered using a blend of face-to-face and online.

Effective learning now demands a range of approaches with learner needs and preference placed at the top of the choice of a design and delivery method.

For an analysis of a wider range of ways of learning, go to our learning methods factsheet.


ILLERIS, K (2010) The fundamentals of workplace learning: understanding how people learn in working life. London: Routledge.

MERRIAM, S.B. and BIEREMA, L.L. (2013) Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Visit the CIPD Store to see all our priced publications currently in print.


DAM, N. (2013) Inside the learning brain. T+D. Vol 67, No 4, April. pp30-35.

DRANITSARIS, A. (2013) Lessons to learn. Human Resources. January. pp50-52.

JENSEN, M. (2012) Engaging the learner. T+D. Vol 66, No 1, January. pp41-44.

MANUTI, A., PASTORE, S. and SCARDIGNO, A.F. (2015) Formal and informal learning in the workplace: a research review. International Journal of Training and Development. Vol 19, No 1, March. pp1-17.

CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.

Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.

This factsheet was last updated by Andy Lancaster.

Andy Lancaster

Andy Lancaster: Head of Learning and Development

Andy has more than 25 years’ experience in learning and organisational development in commercial, technological and not-for-profit organisations and has also worked in a consultancy role.

As Head of Learning and Development Content at the CIPD Andy is responsible for professional development and learning products, digital content and qualifications for L&D, coaching and mentoring, management and leadership and business psychology.

Andy also plays a key role in leading the direction and delivery of the CIPD's wider new vision for L&D. He was part of the team that developed the CIPD's new L&D qualifications, oversees the Leaders in Learning Network and is helping pioneer online digital learning at the Institute.

Andy has a Master’s Degree in Instructional Design and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (FCIPD), the Chartered Management Institute (FCMI) and the Learning and Performance Institute (FLPI). He regularly speaks at conferences, write articles on behalf of CIPD and is the co-author of the "Webinars Pocketbook".

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