Posted: 16 Oct. 2020 5 min. read

The importance of continuous learning in the alternative workforce

Creating value and impact through the alternative workforce

The growth of the alternative workforce is largely responsible for shaping the evolution of the talent landscape. Many organizations are grappling with the rise of alternative workers and challenging their own orthodoxies around offering developmental opportunities to their off-balance-sheet talent.

While these opportunities are often limited to training events, providing the workforce with access to a broader range of learning experiences can better engage both alternative talent and their on-balance-sheet counterparts, improving overall organizational performance and driving competitive advantage in the market.

The growth of the alternative workforce (people outside of traditional full-time employment) has affected the global talent marketplace. In the United States alone, the number of self-employed workers is projected to hit 42 million people this year,1 and in Britain, the gig economy more than doubled from 2016 to 2019 to 4.7 million people.2 Moreover, Deloitte’s latest millennial study found that 64% of full-time workers want to do “side hustles” to make extra money.3 As the size of the alternative workforce grows, companies are exploring better ways to engage their alternative workers. One area of focus that organizations are considering is expanding learning and development (L&D) opportunities to their entire workforce.

Training versus learning

While the distinction may seem semantic, there is good reason to separate training from learning, especially when considering an organizational approach to developing alternative talent. Training is generally delivered through formal channels (e.g., e-learning courses) and is often tied to compliance.

Even though it is certainly necessary, training tends to happen outside of the flow of work. In other words, a worker stops what they are doing, attends, or engages in a separate event, and then returns to work. Learning, however, when well-planned, can happen throughout the standard workday. Learning can be built into the workflow experience (e.g., a quick coaching session or a microvideo to help a worker accomplish a task) and doesn’t necessarily rely on formal delivery modalities.4

Learning in the flow

Deloitte’s point of view is that the balance should be tipped in favor of more learning delivered in the context of a worker’s daily activities. Learning can be broadly categorized into the “Four E’s,”5 a model that promotes continuous, in-the-flow learning by facilitating a holistic approach to development across four learning paradigms:

Education: Formal training that has traditionally fallen under the umbrella of learning and development (e.g., classroom training, e-learning, and simulations).

Experience: Learning that generally occurs in the workplace as workers complete their jobs (e.g., stretch assignments, job rotations, and special projects).

Exposure: Learning that involves interaction and relationship-building in the course of work that help workers develop by building connections (e.g., professional conferences and organizations, volunteer assignments in their communities, communities of practice, coaching and mentoring activities; and blended learning effort through MOOCs (massive online open courses)).

Environment: Learning on tools and systems that workers use on the job to support them in successfully executing their work (e.g., information systems, search engines, job aids, performance support tools, and online asset libraries).

Continuous learning approaches align with evolving learner preferences and help businesses develop their workforces more rapidly. Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report revealed that almost half of the study’s global, cross-industry participants do not provide members of the alternative workforce access to knowledge-sharing tools and platforms and that only 16% see integrating knowledge management across off- and on-balance-sheet workers as a key factor to consider when developing knowledge management strategies.6 In fact, the 2020 report revealed a critical concern that organizations may be failing to recognize the importance of alternative workers as critical to a holistic and strategic approach to optimizing talent. So, what should organizations do to successfully adopt broader-reaching practices when it comes to offering learning opportunities for alternative workers?

Figure 1: Learning approaches and continuous learning:

Here are some key considerations for organizations looking to offer training and continuous learning opportunities to engage their alternative workforce:

  • Engage and retain the alternative workforce: As an organization works to attract top talent, it is important not to lose sight of the talent they already have. Seven out of 10 people say that training and development opportunities influence their decision to stay with a company.7 Deloitte’s research on “high-impact learning organizations,” conducted in 2005, 2008, 2011 (before, during, and after the last recession), and 2017, showed each year that companies that “overinvest” in L&D (spending per worker) rated highest in worker retention, innovation, and customer service and outperformed their peers threefold in long-term profitability.8
  • Improve a team’s (and, therefore, the organization’s) ability to perform successfully: Research shows that the highest-performing teams tend to be those that received the greatest overall levels of support, along with learning opportunities on how to be an effective team leader and team member. The difference is dramatic: 62% of top-performing teams reported that their organization provides a lot of support, which is 33 percentage points higher than the overall average of 29%.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to the “human experience”: Organizations have started to focus on elevating the human experience of full-time and alternative workers alike, first by asking, “What are the shared values and aspirations of the people in my ecosystem?” and then by creating experiences driven by those values, strengthening connectedness with the organization. Organizations that see the appeal in elevating the human experience understand that their opportunity lies in being able to influence and shape human expectations within their industry, driving competitive advantage for business growth and market impact.


Terry Paterson is a managing director at Deloitte Consulting LLP and a leader in Deloitte’s Learning & Leadership Consulting practice in North America.

Carly Ackerman is a manager in Deloitte’s Human Capital Learning & Leadership practice.

Elam Lantz is a senior consultant in Deloitte’s Learning & Leadership Consulting practice.

Kriti Vij is a consultant in Deloitte’s Consulting practice.


Deloitte, 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, “Ethics and the future of work.”
2 Ibid.
Deloitte, 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report.
Bersin by Deloitte, “Continuous learning: A primer,” 2015.
Deloitte, 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report.
8 Deloitte Insights, “A new model for employee engagement,”

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Robin Jones

Robin Jones

Principal | Workforce Transformation

Robin is a Principal with 22 years of organization and workforce transformation consulting experience. She spent the majority of her career advising business leaders of Technology, Media, and Telecommunications companies through complex business transformations. With a focus on the Future of Work, Robin advises senior executives as they contemplate how data, technology and societal changes are impacting the work, workforce, and workplace. At Deloitte, Robin leads Workforce Transformation with end-to-end responsibility for the market, services, and talent, and serves on the CEO’s Marketplace Leadership Team in Deloitte Consulting. Robin holds a PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Georgia Tech and an MS in Architecture and BS in Interior Design from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.