As part of Totara’s ongoing Disruption Debate series, Lars Hyland has been speaking to thought leaders and experts from the L&D world. A few weeks ago he talked to me, and this is the summary of that conversation that appears on their website here.
“L&D departments today are trying to build everything and do everything for everyone, but the world is moving so fast that that’s become an impossible activity.”
Throughout our Disruption Debates so far, the accelerating rate of change in the world has been a persistent theme. The thought leaders we’ve spoken to have consistently commented on the fact that L&D professionals must adapt to keep up, and that the role of L&D teams is changing rapidly. Jane believes that people in the industry must accept the fact that we can’t do everything, and that our roles should focus on equipping employees with the skills they need to become ‘modern professional learners’.
“Leadership must accept that they can’t provide everything, and they shouldn’t see this as a failing. Instead, we should focus on providing the core essentials and getting those right. As well as this, we are responsible for helping people become more self-reliant and self-sufficient. Learning new skills involves much more than just taking courses. There is a wide variety of ways in which people learn, and we must make the most of those opportunities and experiences. L&D should be redefined as an enabling and supporting service – not just designing, delivering and managing.”
The value of continuous learning
“We talk a lot about lifelong learning, but in the workplace, continuous, independent learning is becoming increasingly important.”
Jane believes that L&D professionals need to break free from their traditional roles and relinquish some responsibility – instead of spoon-feeding employees, we should be helping people do things for themselves. This, Jane says, requires a key mindset change in the learning community, where typically the L&D department has seen itself as the sole provider of courses and training opportunities.
Lars agrees with this, adding: “A lot of L&D departments are under the illusion that they’ve been controlling everything people are learning, but a lot of learning happens under the radar. By the time L&D do something, it’s already redundant. People want learning that is fundamentally easier to engage with, fuelling the trend around microlearning and smaller, sharper pieces of knowledge consumption.”
L&D professionals don’t have to be learning designers
In a similar vein, Jane continued with the idea that L&D professionals don’t actually have to be learning designers. “A lot of learning doesn’t have to be designed at all, or technology enabled. Learning means many different things, not just acquiring knowledge and skills in an instructional way – sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and very often it’s not planned.”
So how should L&D be thinking about their roles instead? “We’re there to help people make the most of their workday experiences. People don’t want to be spoon-fed or have us breathing down their necks.”
Jane says that a key problem many L&D professionals encounter is getting swept up by the latest trends and forgetting about designing learning. A lot of vendors talk about technologies like VR, but if it’s not needed in the specific context of your organisation’s learning environment, it can have a negative effect as people get annoyed and frustrated with the unnecessary technology. To combat this, Jane said we should be thinking primarily about what fits in with learners’ working lives, not just using the latest technologies for the sake of it with an ‘L&D knows best’ approach.
Cutting through the noise
“The trouble is, we have so many technologies and tools now that we’re overwhelmed, and not thinking back to the real problem. Let’s forget about the technology – let’s think about solving problems,” said Jane. “Sometimes it’s not even a learning solution.. Don’t just design something because you think it will be fun or because you’ve been told it’s the next big thing. If technology is used right it can be fantastic, but if not it can cause more problems than you started with.”
Lars pointed out that part of our desire to use technology to solve every problem is related to individual’s use of personal technology. Everyone uses so much technology and so many devices in their personal lives that we can lose sight of the fact that not everything requires a technology-driven solution. “Through our personal use of technology, we’ve trained our attention spans to want things immediately, with a simple interface and short, frequent bursts of engagement. E-learning has gone through so many iterations and technology has evolved in so many ways, and today’s learners want learning that is personalised, contextualised and fits around them – it doesn’t necessarily matter how they get access to it.”
Again, this is about L&D not just thinking of themselves as being procurers of technologies or people who design courses – this is about getting L&D professionals thinking more about the underlying learning requirement. As Jane points out, people have lost confidence in training, and think of it as something to endure rather than something to enjoy. It’s up to us to change attitudes and get people excited about learning, and that often means taking a step back from the technology and taking the time to understand the real underlying challenges.
The two types of L&D professional
Jane said that there are two types of L&D professional:
- Those who want to change things – they are continuously engaging in informal learning themselves, immersing themselves in what other people are talking about, looking for sounding boards, taking risks and opting for a more intuitive approach.
- Those who want to catch up – they prefer to play it safe, wait for other people to try things and copy what works and take a more traditional approach to their own learning, choosing to attend conferences and read industry magazines for ideas.
“Of course, some people fall in between these two categories,” said Jane, “but broadly these are the two main types of L&D professional I see. Often it’s those who come into L&D from outside the industry who are more likely to want to push ahead and think outside the box – they won’t have the same legacy thinking as people who have been doing it for years. And partly, it depends on how much support someone has in the organisation, and whether or not they’re in a position to take initiative with new ideas – who is backing them? Do they have the budget? Do they have buy-in from the right people?”
“L&D teams tend to be in a difficult place – we need to make sure people think of it as more of a strategic role rather than just taking orders from managers. Sometimes I don’t see a lot of desperation to change in L&D – often people want to keep doing things in the same way and don’t consider updating their own skills.”
Lars believes that this is a symptom of tactical, rather than strategic thinking in L&D. “Learning professionals are often so busy reacting to things – a big change programme, a product launch, a new management team – that they don’t have the luxury of time to proactively reflect on the deeper challenges. Sometimes it takes a braver, more maverick character to take risks and prove that things can be done differently, and that’s an attitude that needs to be brought to a wider constituency for broader levelling-up of L&D.”
A new attitude
So what can we do to break the cycle and focus on building our own skills? Jane has already seen attitudes changing.
“In the last few years, people have started to become more open, and are getting braver about making changes. Even if it’s just attending an online workshop, it shows that people are chipping away at gaining new skills in their own small ways. At the moment, there’s more talk than action, but what’s important is that there is some action – it’s just happening in invisible pockets and people are trying new things surreptitiously in case they don’t work.”
Is the answer, then, being more vocal about what we’re trying, even if it’s not working? Jane believes that people often stay quiet about trying new things in case they fail and can’t secure budget for the next thing they want to try – but failure should never be feared, as it’s this that helps us get closer to what actually works.
“The L&D community should be open to everything,” said Jane, “Don’t have a closed mind and think things need to be done how they’ve always been done. There will always be a bit of trial and error involved in L&D. Try a pilot to see if something works – you can’t fail, because the pilot shows if it does or doesn’t work on a small scale. We need a more adaptable, agile mindset. If you’ve got that, then everything else will fall into place.”
What did you think of my take on the debate? You can get involved on social media using #DisruptionDebate.