The skills to pay the bills: Learning Technologies Digital Days (March 2022)

I blogged a few weeks back that the Learning Technologies (LT) conference and exhibition had been delayed. Since then, three days of online talks were announced and run to somewhat plug the LT gap, under the branding of “Digital Days” (DD) – #LTUK22.

I have tried to summarise how I was feeling during these DD sessions via the power of gif:

Say skills one more time.

“Skills” was the buzzword. No doubt about it.

Thoughts on the sessions (skills)

Now I perhaps have to jump straight to the final day and Don Taylor‘s session to say that he did set out clear warnings about the “skills” bandwagon. This was timely and I particularly liked a section where Don had gone through the archives to try and find the genesis of this current buzz/focus. Interestingly it seems the initial focus was on “knowledge and skills” (i.e. that knowledge workers need ongoing development) but “knowledge” has been dropped through the news, consultancy, white paper, WEF, etc. hype cycles (LinkedIn have been at it since the DD). As Don explained, what we are now seeing is, amongst other things, lots of tools promising AI-powered solutions to the supposed skill crises. However, his call was to remind us all that skills alone do not lead to performance. As always, L&D needs to push back on the latest trends and concentrate on what we know, for example that knowledge alone does not help either (see, for example, this recent argument about needing more than knowledge for real transformation). In a few of the sessions, including Don’s, there was mention of what we really mean by skills, how/if the word is being used to encompass knowledge, if it is just rebranding of competency/capability, etc. Personally I revert to KISME (knowledge, information, skills, motivation and environment) as pretty much encompassing what we need to consider (with a doff of my cap to performance consulting accreditation with Nigel Harrison way back when). If anything, KS and the M/behaviour combine as the competency. Ultimately every org talks about this stuff differently but as Don and others suggested in the DD we are really just talking about people’s ability to ‘do the work’.

RedThread Research’s excellent recent podcast series has shown how business leaders have identified changes and implications around the ‘skills agenda’ [if I can call it that] (for example Deloitte being clear on the importance of skills, not least in ensuring their agility to create project teams). However, you presume this goes beyond the tech skills (which are obviously the bit that does change quickly as argued on the pod) into other things like engagement/project management (activities which also require a lot of behavioural competency). Indeed Deloitte’s model of development paths (as explained on the pod) sounded less than revolutionary – basically a formalisation of 70/20/10 concepts for ongoing development of competency.

The Fosway Group’s DD session mentioned the growth in skills platforms but also (just has been in the case in the past) the issue of what needs to be in the learning platform versus a HRIS or other location. Personally it feels like you really need to take a big picture view of your ecosystem and link things together as appropriate. The session called this something like ‘out of the box ecosystem-ness’ which is probably more suggestive of aspiration than the market’s reality(?).

RedThread did have a slot in the Digital Days too, with a focus on learning content. This session had various messages but I did like the idea of moving “from control…to facilitate”, this has always been part of my mindset to some extent (probably due to my learning experience growing from libraries rather than teaching). The growth in content however, of course, means a greater need for personalisation and RedThread did argue that if you are embracing a skills focus then you also need to think about content from that perspective. They argued for a 4 category approach to learning content:

  • specific and durable
  • specific and perishable
  • generic and durable
  • generic and perishable

The suggestions on what to do with the above was fairly straight forward but I guess makes sense for those who feel overwhelmed with content. Ultimately the most useful bit, for me, was a quote that asked a key set of questions:

“What’s the strategic change that’s happening? Is your learning content relevant to get to those organizational outcomes?”

Roundtable participant quoted on RT’s slides

The event finished with Nigel Paine, I recently blogged agreeing with some of Nigel’s arguments in an article and I similarly found myself agreeing with much of his DD presentation. Learning was pitched as needing to help with transformation by moving from “safe spaces to brave spaces”. This is fair, enough and to some extent an acknowledgment of the need for ‘stretch‘. However, I would say the humane requirement for having safe spaces at work remains, it is not to say that a team building day can not have a safe (culture) but also be very challenging in terms of team aspirations, agility and development. There was mention of Communities of Practice (CoP) as argued for by Wenger, this always get my support as CoP theory was one of the areas that hooked me in learning design in my MA and got me into my career in learning. Nigel correctly tackled the focus on skills, arguing that deep understanding of problems will lead to learning offerings made up of multiple components (people, content, data, technology) under the auspice of appropriate governance. There was a call to reframe, rebuild and redefine learning to grab organisational development, make knowledge management organic and more. All-in-all, a wide ranging call to action that I have probably not done a great job of summarising. There was also a bit on indicators of success.

Indicators of success

Nigel correctly suggested the organisation’s strategic plan has to be the basis of learning’s work. Learning should make promises that developing self-learning groups and other solutions will positively impact on the plan’s goals. Ultimately I think this is the challenge – we might know that learning needs to be reframed when the “classroom assumption” and “training ghetto” are not good for our organisations but how to prove this works for an organisation with very fixed views on “training” and divisions of labour based on that.

As well as the Digital Days, I also recently watched an excellent session in the Content Wrangler series, entitled “Rewinding the Web: The Internet Archive and Its Wayback Machine“. This session reminded me to look again at archive.org and the excellent Wayback Machine. These are tools I have used a lot in the past but not so much in the last couple of years. Anyways… I thought I would have look to see which of my “to read” wish list of books are available to borrow via the archive.org loan system. One such book was an early edition of “Learning and Development” (by Rosemary Harrison). This book’s editions are nice snapshots of L&D status (the online edition being from 2003). According to the book (which reads like it is essentially exam prep for CIPD qualifications) there are a number of L&D “indicators”:

  1. Integration of L&D activity and organisational needs
  2. Provision of value-adding L&D function
  3. Contribution to the recruitment and performance management processes
  4. Contribution to the retention of employees
  5. Contribution to building organisational capacity and facilitating change
  6. Stimulation of strategic awareness and development of knowledge
  7. Design and delivery of learning processes and activity
  8. Evaluation and assessment of L&D outcomes and investment
  9. Role and tasks of the ethical practitioner
  10. Continuing professional self-development

Ultimately if we consider such a list as what an L&D professional can be assessed on (see also the English Apprenticeship standard) then clearly skills (be it upskilling, reskilling or right-skilling) are very much only part of the puzzle (I also quite like this list as too much focus historically has probably just been on point 7) both as a professional and in what we (can) help with (if empowered to do so by management). Therefore, as Don argued on day 3, lets remember skills but not forget everything else L&D teams can/should be doing.

Thoughts on sessions (Case studies)

There were a couple of good case studies showing how we do have to go beyond skills to really impact our organisations. The British Red Cross and Girlguiding both simplified and aggregated learning for their stakeholders on new platforms. Both took plenty of time to analyse issues, the stakeholder experience, etc. Both found their improved online learning platforms have led to retention, recognising stakeholder’s past experience and building on that (not mass sheep dipping). I liked the Red Cross simplification of message by their presenter, their Chief Learning Officer:

There were some other aspects that sounded similar to models I have used in the past, including Red Cross having a buddy relationship between central learning and those with those responsibilities at site level and the Girl Guides retraining their classroom trainers to run virtual classrooms/webinars. Overall, good examples of being strategic, holistic and delivering modernisation of stakeholder experiences.

[I probably attended a couple of other DD sessions but I’ll leave this post as it is already long enough !]

Author: iangardnergb

My name is Ian Gardner and I am interested in various topics that can be seen as related to learning, technology and information. To see what I am reading elsewhere, follow me on The Old Reader (I.gardner.gb) and/or Twitter (@iangardnergb).

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