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Reflections on 15 years

For Inside Learning & Technologies 50th edition, a number of us were asked to provide reflections on what has changed over the past 15 years.  This was pretty much the period in which I’d returned to the US and took up with what was kind of a startup and led to my life as a consultant.  As an end of year piece, I have permission to post that article here:

15 years ago, I had just taken a step away from academia and government-sponsored initiatives to a new position leading a team in what was effectively a startup. I was excited about the prospect of taking the latest learning science to the needs of the corporate world. My thoughts were along the lines of “here, where we have money for meaningful initiatives, surely we can do something spectacular”. And it turns out that the answer is both yes and no.

The technology we had then was pretty powerful, and that has only increased in the past 15 years. We had software that let us leverage the power of the internet, and reasonable processing power in our computers. The Palm Pilot had already made mobile a possibility as well. So the technology was no longer a barrier, even then.

And what amazing developments we have seen! The ability to create rendered worlds accessible through a dedicated application and now just a browser is truly an impressive capability. Regardless of whether we overestimated the value proposition, it is still quite the technology feat. And similarly, the ability to communicate via voice and video allows us to connect people in ways once only dreamed of.

We also have rich new ways to interact from microblogs to wikis (collaborative documents). These capabilities are improved by transcending proximity and synchronicity. We can work together without worrying about where the solution is hosted, or where our colleagues are located. Social media allow us to tap into the power of people working together.

The improvements in mobile capabilities are also worth noting. We have gone from hype to hyphens, where a limited monochrome handheld has given way to powerful high-resolution full-color multi-channel always-connected sensor-rich devices. We can pretty much deliver anything anywhere we want, and that fulfills Arthur C. Clarke’s famous proposition that a truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Coupled with our technological improvements are advances in our understanding of how we think, work, and learn. We now have recognition about how we act in the world, about how we work with others, and how we best learn. We have information age understandings that illustrate why industrial age methods are not appropriate.

It is not truly new, but reaching mainstream awareness in the last decade and more is the recognition that the model of our thinking as formal and logical is being updated. While we can work in such ways, it is the exception rather than the rule. Such thinking is effortful and it turns out both that we avoid it and there is a limit to how much deep thinking one can do in a day. Instead, we use our intuition beyond where we should, and while this is generally okay, it helps to understand our limitations and design around them.

There is also a spreading awareness of how much our thinking is externalized in the world, and how much we use technology to support us being effective. We have recognized the power of external support for thinking, through tools such as checklists and wizards. We do this pretty naturally, and the benefits from good design of technology greatly facilitate our ability to think.

There is also recognition that the model of individual innovation is broken, and that working together is far superior to working alone. The notion of the lone genius disappearing and coming back with the answer has been replaced by iterations on top of previous work by teams. When people work together in effective ways, in a supportive environment, the outcomes will be better. While this is not easy to effect in many circumstances, we know the practices and culture elements we need, and it is our commitment to get there, not our understanding, that is the barrier.

Finally, our approaches to learning are better informed now. We know that being emotionally engaged is a valued component in moving to learning experience design. We understand the role of models in supporting more flexible performance. We also have evidence of the value of performing in context. It is not news that information dump and knowledge test do not lead to meaningful skill acquisition, and it is increasingly clear that meaningful practice can. It is also increasingly clear that, as things move faster, meaningful skills – the ability to make better decisions – is what is going to provide the sustainable differentiator for organizations.

So imagine my dismay in finding that the approaches we are using in organizations are largely still rooted in approaches from yesteryear. While we have had rich technology opportunities to combine with our enlightened understanding, that is not what we are seeing. What we see is still expectations that it is done in-the-head, top-down, with information dump and meaningless assessment that is not tied to organizational outcomes. And while it is not working, demonstrably, there seems little impetus to change.

Truly, there has been little change in our underlying models in 15 years. While the technology is flashier, the buzz words have mutated, and some of the faces have changed, we are still following myths like learning styles and generational differences, we are still using ‘spray and pray’ methods in learning, we are still not taking on performance support and social learning, and perhaps most distressingly, we are still not measuring what matters.

Sure, the reasons are complex. There are lots of examples of the old approaches, the tools and practices are aligned with bad learning practices, the shared metrics reflect efficiency instead of effectiveness, … the list goes on. Yet a learning & development (L&D) unit unengaged with the business units it supports is not sustainable, and consequently the lack of change is unjustifiable.

And the need is now more than ever. The rate of change is increasing, and organizations now have more need to not just be effective, but they have to become agile. There is no longer time to plan, prepare, and execute, the need is to continually adapt. Organizations need to learn faster than the competition.

The opportunities are big. The critical component for organizations to thrive is to couple optimal execution (the result of training and performance support) with continual innovation (which does not come from training). Instead, imagine an L&D unit that is working with business units to drive interventions that affect key KPIs. Consider an L&D unit that is responsible for facilitating the interactions that are leading to new solutions, new products and services, and better relationships with customers. That is the L&D we need to see!

The path forward is not easy but it is systematic and doable. A vision of a ‘performance ecosystem’ – a rich suite of tools to support success that surround the performer and are aligned with how they think, work, and learn – provides an endpoint to start towards. Every organization’s path will be different, but a good start is to start doing formal learning right, begin looking at performance support, and commence working on the social media infrastructure.

An associated focus is building a meaningful infrastructure (hint: one all-singing all-dancing LMS is not the answer). A strategy to get there is a companion effort. And, ultimately a learning culture will be necessitated. Yet these components are not just a necessary component for L&D, they are the necessary components for a successful organization, one that can be agile enough to adapt to the increasing rate of change we are facing.

And here is the first step: L&D has to become a learning organization. Mantras like ‘work out loud’, ‘fail fast’, and ‘reflect’ have to become part of the L&D culture. L&D has to start experimenting and learning from the experiments. Let us ensure that the past 15 years are a hibernation we emerge from, not the beginning of the end.

Here’s to change for the better.  May 2015 be the best year yet!

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