Over the last three decades, the digital revolution has transformed how the world does business. The latest research from Accenture’s Technology Vision report confirms that the pace of change is increasing. Digital disruptions are cascading, forcing financial services firms to reinvent themselves again and again.

In the middle of all this, the industry has largely overlooked an important question: do banks still need to devote resources to on-the-job learning?

Throughout the history of modern business, as this summary from Chief Learning Officer describes, the answer to this question was a clear “yes.” In the early 20th century, on-the-job learning was led by managers. Employees would learn new skills by watching them in action.

After the Second World War, large organizations like banks began to use psychological profiling and skills testing to determine employee aptitude. Ideas like B.F. Skinner’s teaching machine and the ADDIE framework came to have great influence.

The testing model of human capital development dominated until the 80s and 90s, when corporate universities came into vogue with conglomerates looking to standardize and industrialize skills in their workforce. Companies like IBM built large internal education departments and staffed them with highly trained learning professionals.

The internet disrupted this model at the turn of the millennium. Online courses and classrooms proliferated, as did tools for developing them. Simulations, social learning models, and analytics further professionalized the learning function within large organizations. Practitioners became experts at using the internet to help employees learn.

But the internet and digital tech more broadly did not stop evolving. Organizations like Google, Wikimedia, and Project Gutenberg have made a growing fraction of all human knowledge available online. Initiatives like Coursera, Khan Academy, or Lynda.com mean that all employees need to access top-notch instruction in almost any subject is a computer with access to the internet. Thanks to smartphones, most people carry such a tool with them at all times.

This wave of learning disruption coincided with a huge spike in demand for on-the-job training. Today, job skills have a shorter shelf life than at any point in history. Workers are aware of this, and eagerly seek out the skills they need to stay relevant.

But they are increasingly able to do so independent of any intervention from learning professionals. The day is not far off when an employee looking for training will simply ask Google or Alexa or Siri to locate instruction from a global expert. In an environment like this, do banks still need to keep dedicated learning professionals around?

In my opinion, the answer is “yes.” As the amount of information at our fingertips explodes, the need for informed curation of that information also grows—especially in the world of financial services, which has always been swimming in data.

That does not mean that the learning function will continue unchanged in financial services, however. From where I stand, three major changes are coming.

First, the learning function will go from overt to covert. Where once learning professionals designed courses, taught classes, and evaluated students, they will work behind the scenes to make sure that employees can access the information they need at the push of a button.

Second, learning professionals will go from creating to curating. As the “haystack” of information gets bigger and bigger, those knowing where to find the “needles” of relevant data will become more valuable.

Third, the focus of organizational learning will shift from events to ecosystems. Single courses, conferences, or classes will become less important as on-demand training continues to grow in popularity. “Educational ecosystems” will rise to take their place.

What does this all mean in practice? Come back next week for a look at six tools that point to the future of learning in financial services.

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