The What, Why and How of Building a Digital Academy

Brandon Hall Group’s Principal Analyst, David Wentworth, makes the case for why, in the wake of the global pandemic, organizations should harness a corporate university and what these digital academies need to include to give you the best results.

A corporate university may seem either quaint or only for the largest of organizations, but in the wake of the current pandemic and the near-disappearance of in-person training, there is an opportunity to take specific learning initiatives or strategic business needs and develop digital academies focused on achieving those outcomes.

These academies take the immersive nature and structure of a corporate university and give it the strategic specialization of an agile project team. Digital academies, hubs or campuses permit organizations to create programs that are focused on key initiatives, such as leadership development or sales enablement; areas that require a bit more attention than training in general.

At a time when companies are working through an accelerated digital transformation of learning, digital academies present an opportunity to put specific programs together to leverage the best blend of learning technology and content required by the learners, the subject matter, and the intended outcomes.

You might also like: ‘5 Tips for Building an Effective and Engaging Digital Learning Academy

What Goes into a Digital Academy?

As previously stated, a digital academy is generally focused on a specific initiative or strategic need within the business. Another thing that often distinguishes them from other digital learning is an executive sponsor. This executive (or executives) provides the impetus for the strategic purpose and also elevates the academy’s profile within the organization.

The digital academy’s content must be rigorously curated. Participants should know that anything and everything they encounter is there to help achieve the stated purpose and is the most up-to-date, relevant material available. This requires a faculty, typically accredited or certified in the strategic area.

As the term digital implies, these academies should leverage learning tools and technologies to ensure that in addition to more formalized classes and courses, there are opportunities for self-directed learning and learning in the flow of work.

Brandon Hall Group conducts extensive research on the learning experience and digital tools, and found that organizations where learning strongly impacts organizational outcomes such as individual performance, employee engagement, and time to productivity are about three times more likely to have consistently used a blend of modalities that includes the following:

  • Video learning
  • Coaching/mentoring
  • Informal peer-to-peer learning
  • Microlearning
  • Mobile learning
  • Social/collaboration tools

Handpicked for you: ‘10 Pro Tips for High-Impact Distance Learning

Designing the Academy

A digital academy deploys a blend of tools that aligns with the program’s goals — and it’s never a one-size-fits-all proposition. The blend must be adjusted and evolve based on the changing needs of the organization and the outcomes, good or bad, of the learning programs.

Beyond the content and modalities, the overall learner experience is critical in a digital academy. Because it is so focused, there should be a cohesive, coherent experience to everything. Most important is the ability to provide context and personalization.

Looking again at Brandon Hall Group research, organizations where learning has a strong impact on a variety of outcomes are more likely to feature learning experiences with these characteristics:

  • Contextualization based on learner requirements
  • Opportunities to practice/apply knowledge
  • A method to reinforce learning concepts
  • Methods to gather learner feedback
  • Personalized learning plans that allow learners to track their progress
  • Learning recommendations based on learner information
  • The ability to search, explore and discover learning opportunities

Additionally, these companies provide learners with the expected goals and outcomes of the learning and link the learning to their personal objectives.

Related reading: ‘Virtual Learning Delivery Tips: L&D Professionals Reveal What’s Working

Measurement, Aligning Goals & Preparing for Impact

Because the academy is built around a specific purpose, it’s critical to properly measure its impact on those outcomes. Simply measuring the number of participants is insufficient. Completion data has very little value unless it is combined and analyzed with performance, behavior and outcome data.

In Brandon Hall Group’s Learning Measurement Study, just 24% of companies say that most or all of their learning programs are designed based on specific, defined metrics. With a digital academy, the metrics are defined by the stated purpose of the academy, making measurement simultaneously simpler and more critical than generic learning programs. Since the academies are based on strategic initiatives from the business, those are the overarching goals. They then need to be converted into behavior and performance outcomes, which then can be translated into learning outcomes.

mature measurement strategy supports a successful digital academy by enabling learning leaders to demonstrate its impact. Proper measurement ensures continued improvement of the program, as well as elevating the academy’s profile as a strategic driver of business outcomes.

A digital academy is an appropriate approach for any organization seeking to focus on a strategic area of the business. Whether it is leadership development, certification of professional groups, software development, or any area that demands a more in-depth learning strategy, the concept provides a way to bring the learning to the next level. Learning strategy and technology company LEO Learning, the first company to consider digital academies, offers these guidelines. 

Digital academies:

  • Are well-known learning initiatives within an organization
  • Tend to focus on a specific learning initiative
  • Deliver multiple programs and learning pathways
  • Deliver multimodal learning
  • May include content curated from outside your organization

Keep reading: ‘3 Key Ways to Adapt Your Learning and Measurement Strategies in 2021

For more on this topic, watch the on-demand recording ‘What You Need to Know to Build the Perfect Digital Learning Academy’

David Wentworth, Principal Learning Analyst, Brandon Hall Group @davidmwentworth

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Mike Cooke

Chief Executive Officer of Brandon Hall Group Mike Cooke Prior to joining Brandon Hall Group, Mike Cooke was the Chief Executive Officer and co-founder of AC Growth. Mike held leadership and executive positions for the majority of his career, at which he was responsible for steering sales and marketing teams to drive results and profitability. His background includes more than 15 years of experience in sales, marketing, management, and operations in the research, consulting, software and technology industries. Mike has extensive experience in sales, marketing and management having worked for several early high-growth emerging businesses and has implemented technology systems to support various critical sales, finance, marketing and client service functions. He is especially skilled in organizing the sales and service strategy to fully support a company’s growth strategy. The concept of growth was an absolute to Mike and a motivator in starting AC Growth, in order to help organizations achieve research driven results. Most recently, Mike was the VP and General Manager of Field Operations at Bersin & Associates, a global analyst and consulting services firm focused on all areas of enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. Tasked with leading the company’s global expansion, Mike led all sales operations worldwide. During Mike’s tenure, the company has grown into a multi-national firm, conducting business in over 45 countries with over 4,500 multi-national organizations. Mike started his career at MicroVideo Learning Systems in 1992, eventually holding a senior management position and leading all corporate sales before founding Dynamic Minds. Mike was CEO and Co-Founder of Dynamic Minds, a custom developer of software programs, working with clients like Goldman Sachs, Prentice Hall, McGraw Hill and Merrill Lynch. Also, Mike worked for Oddcast, a leading provider of customer experience and marketing solutions, where he held a senior management position leading the company into new markets across various industries. Mike also serves on the Advisory Board for Carbon Solutions America, an independent sustainability consulting and carbon management firm that specializes in the design and implementation of greenhouse reduction and sustainability plans as well as managing the generation of carbon and renewal energy and energy efficiency credits. Mike attended University of Phoenix, studying Business Administration and Finance. He has also completed executive training at the Chicago Graduate School of Business in Chicago, IL.