January and February have historically been important periods of reflection for the learning industry (at least in the UK) due to the Learning Technologies conference and exhibition (with its adult/workplace learning focus) and BETT (with its <21 education/school focus). This year the decision has been made to push the Learning Tech show back from February to May but I thought I would still take some time now to just reflect on where we are in terms of the evolution/transformation of learning in early 2022.
The language of learning transformation
Firstly it is difficult to ignore that “transformation” is a word being thrown around a lot online and in the media in relation to learning. What people are generally speaking about is the result of the Covid period and that, in terms of transformation, what people are really talking about is the response to the loss of the physical classroom as an option to facilitate/deliver education. Whilst the need to work without a classroom may be revolutionary for some, for example compulsory aged schooling teachers who had never facilitated much/any online learning before, for those of us who (at least in part) self-identify as learning technologists this has been a period that is actually largely evolutionary, not transformative nor revolutionary.
If we think less about schools and universities for the rest of the post and try to just focus on the transformation of workplace learning then too much of the conversation around “transformation” in the last couple of years is, obviously just in my opinion, about laggards catching up. Therefore, what we might be seeing in 2020-22 is those L&D departments who were stuck in the “Training Ghetto” either being transformed into virtual ghettos by Covid or finally waking up to doing things they probably should have always been doing. The “ghetto” idea is of course Don Taylor’s (the chair and organiser of the Learning Technologies show). Don has recently suggested there is a bigger change happening (“all change in L&D” blog post) that goes beyond the quite narrow lack-of-classroom focus of much of the discussion. I’ll come back to Don’s argument from that blog post later.
For those of us who have focused on eLearning (online learning, digital learning or whatever else we want to call it) the last couple of years is far less transformative, at least of the surface of things. That said, simply turning out SCORM modules or LMS courses is obviously not the way forward either – transformation will mean different things to different people. The Google Trends data (I had embedded it below but for some reason it keeps breaking in WordPress) would suggest a “start of the pandemic” spike in interest in what some of us have been doing for a long time. It would be wonderful if we could break this spike down between parents, school teachers, universities, L&D and other groups.
For workplace/organisational/membership/employee learning we could also see this as (instead of being specifically Covid initiated) being learning departments getting hit by the previous buzz around Digital Transformation of work and the preceding but related developments such as Big Data, Web 2.0, etc etc. Personally I would say continued evolution of practice was coming no matter what and Covid has accelerated some good and bad practice. One thing that I can agree with from a recent protocol Source Code podcast is that the panic and rush resulting from Covid led to a “disservice” for online learning.
A recent L&D Disrupt podcast (link to YouTube version) on launching an L&D department from scratch really reinforced for me that there is a pretty standard approach to what many of us do, have done or would do in that situation. However, the language on Disrupt was interesting. No two L&D departments are likely to be equal in terms of the quality of their needs analysis, their exact approach to design, etc. The Disrupt pod also made points about moving from a previous over-reliance on classroom training – is this still, really, what people are talking about by learning transformation, even in workplace environments?
Scope of learning departments
Arguably little has changed in regard to learning department scope. L(&D) departments are expected to maintain stakeholder relationships to develop and deliver appropriate learning strategies for their organisation(s). These learning strategies should reflect how performance improvement is being supported, to help colleagues deliver organisational strategies, behave appropriately and meet their goals. This needs to be aligned with (or part of) talent management – for example having apprenticeships or other ways to replace lost talent, deal with succession, develop managerial confidence/competency, etc.
I love Guy Wallace’s historical perspectives via Twitter and elsewhere. His recent WOINA Syndrome (What’s Old Is New Again.) blog post is great on how we rehash so much stuff. I seriously doubt WOINA is unique to learning within organisations (after all leadership theory, mindfulness and other areas go as far as to rehash ancient philosophy) but you do have to wonder if “transformation” as marketed by consultants, vendors, etc. is really transformational. New lipstick on a pig perhaps? The recent protocol Source Code uses the argument that more lifelong learning is needed due to the pace of change (a debatable argument) and that tech can enable this (less debatable). I tend to think this need and the demand from many employees has always been there – L&D can be the facilitator of upskilling in this model where previously the load was too often put on the individual.
Any organisational learning should be using personal, team and business targets to change knowledge, skills and/or behaviours. Simples. However, Don’s all change argument is that valid in that L&D is no longer “focusing on building and delivering content”. Indeed my first L&D role, rather than more learning/education focused, was initially about managing content. We have clearly moved on from that space with social learning. Where L&D teams continue to struggle is perhaps when the personal, team and business measures are still hidden from them? We hear a lot about data being abundant in organisations but I do wonder how many orgs really have clarity over performance and how many companies still promote based on simple measures (e.g. sales/revenue) or popularity (often risking negative DEI implications). Proper use of data could well be transformational for many on their practice within a scope that is less transformational.
Call it what you will, the scope of L&D work is still likely to need something resembling analysis, design and delivery of learning and change solutions. Usually these will still come from something resembling an ADDIE project, even if the design/delivery is not about authoring content but instead curation or another solution.
I know there is justified hate out there for the use of “instruction” and ADDIE but, personally, these are semantic arguments we can live without as ultimately organisations divide labour between teams based on skill and experience. Therefore, learning and change projects should reach the L&D team as the experts in learning and change.
Ideally this should not be simply the “throw over the fence” approach to perceived requirements that jumps straight to DDIE. Proper task analysis should mean solutions tailored to stakeholder needs, ideally with those stakeholders and the target audience involved throughout. Of course, as always, what the audience’s needs are might have been misinterpreted, misunderstood, misrepresented, etc, etc. None of this is new or transformational.
Masters of our own destiny
Mastering the balance between latest market trends and WOINA has to be part of the solution of what the future of learning will look like.
I have written before about how some terminology has been usurped in work/corporate climates – for example information professionals/scientists losing the “information” moniker to the technologists. Similarly information work around curation often died out, for example information teams in law firms lost staff in the face of internet tools, yet curation has been a buzz word in L&D circles, in part thanks to further tech changes. What we perhaps need to finally acknowledge is that a training team can not “own” or “manage” organisational learning – we can lead, facilitate, curate, communicate, etc. We need to demonstrate the behaviours and show the value in personal development, knowledge sharing and related activities. Nigel Paine’s transformation plans for ’22 mentions L&D’s role should be in that it “encourages the whole organisation to take responsibility for working and learning together”. This is in part about the skills gap that Don focuses on as the change – i.e. organisations face skills shortages, not knowledge/content per se.
L&D’s focus can include offering strategic recommendations on the use of tools to enhance the employee (or other stakeholder/customer) experience. However, I would say we need to be careful on silos – simply having marketing select marketing tools, L&D select learning tools, etc. reinforces old paradigms. Purchasing projects need to recognise the power of digital tools to do things differently – not just replacing old ways of doing things. Don’s impression of Cornerstone Xplor seem to suggest they are taking something of a leap from old paradigms but much of it sounds familiar in ways too. Meanwhile the Source Code pod suggests AR/VR and some other metaverse like applications are the real change. However, the tech will enable new ways of doing things but many of the solutions will still, in my mind, be based on traditional ID/L&D logic – as Guy suggests with his WOINA. For example, the Novartis VR example at Unleash’18 showed how there can be value in moving scenario/location based learning into VR. As Guys says in his post: “technology advances have enabled us to do better” and I would say the iterative improvement (rather than transformation) for many in L&D will be to continue to identify when the time is right for investment in new tech for their use cases. No doubt we will see lots of bad metaverse usage as it becomes more mainstream – just as we saw bad use of other things such as Second Life – but there will be opportunities too.
Skills for success
Anyone who is unfortunate enough to come across me in person will have probably heard me referring back to my MA and MSc in how I go about my work. This might be surprising considering I recently “liked” a tweet supporting experience over qualifications:
My issue with the above tweet is really the “10+ years…experience” part, not the qualification or need for a combination of qualification and experience. Skills, knowledge and behaviours are important – mandatory recruitment requirements, like in the above tweet, ignores this. Is this because recruiting/HR are too often separate from L&D/talent management (theory at least if not practice in a particular org)?
Years of experience, for many roles, is total BS as a measure. Instead, ask someone about their evidence based practice, the theory behind their practice, their achievements, etc. No year, in no other role, is made equal to what you think a year’s experience is – even in theoretically comparable roles like, say, nursing across different hospitals. This is one area where hopefully Covid will make people realise how things have changed, e.g. a year of work experience in a 2021 Covid-impacted hospital would be very different to, say, working there in 2001. This applies in knowledge work too – consulting or sales are very different now too when you can’t travel to conferences, meet clients for coffee, etc.
In many ways the need for a combination of theory and experience is particularly important in L&D given many L&D pros do not come through an L&D education. The problem to tackle, as is hinted at in that L&D Disrupt podcast, is that people come into the learning profession through classroom experiences and we have a rinse and repeat cycle (albeit that there are good things about face-to-face learning too). Actually having some learning theory, learning tech or other related academic/professional qualifications should mean you have at least been exposed to other ways of doing things. Personally doing my MSc fully online has always been a big help in reflecting on my own practice of building such experiences, both in education and workplace learning. Do not get me wrong – 10 years of classroom teaching has value on a CV, however, rather than length of time we are really talking about a skillset as described in the LPI Capability Map or other model. It sounds like Xplor’s value is in automating skill mapping, learning resource mapping, etc – for those of us who have managed competency frameworks and related tools this sounds great but I would also hold quite a lot of scepticism over how well this will work.
Work is learning/learning is work
Difficult to disagree with the Nigel Paine in his wish for 22: “I want 2022 to be the year when learning becomes integrated with work…I want 2022 to be the time when the notion of a learning organisation, with a powerful learning culture, is not deemed an irrelevancy but is an essential part of the modern work environment.” However, this is obviously not a new concept – perhaps what we can hope for is a kinder workplace, one with an acknowledgment of long-term health issues as with live not just with Covid but long Covid and all the other health and personal issues that are too often ‘hidden’ in the workplace. Learning to encourage improvement, career development and more can be part of this more humane workplace.
However, when it comes to the wider move of learning in the flow of work I do fear this part of an automation of more and more roles, as mentioned in a tweet spurred by the Learning Technologies digital event that happened in place of the usual smaller version of the event that takes place as the “Summer Forum“:
This post has gone on long enough but, in summary, I think it is fair to say that whilst innovation for one organisation/professional will mean something different to another org/pro I can see transformation as being about a potential further split in the learning tech market between:
(1) LMS platforms that will continue to exist for organisations focused on “products” – this still makes sense for training providers, organisations offering CPD to members, content vendors, universities and more even if their marketplace continues to face real pressure.
(2) Xplor and other tools expand into career guidance (Don mentions acting as a career service an increasingly important role for L&D as I mentioned here) for the organisation, tying up/reskilling to roles/vacancies and acting as a reimagination of L&D into proper talent transformation.
How much other functionality makes sense in the above situations (such as social learning, collaboration, etc) will depend on the ecosystem beyond these tools. In other words an organisation may be happy with an LMS, HRIS and Microsoft Teams. Others may try and do all of this via a new talent platform. Ultimately it reminds me of a quote from 5 (!?!) years ago about whatever L&D’s focus and scope is it should behave in a way to act as “oil in the engine, not a spanner in the works”.