This is a good time for learning and development, and it is also a dangerous time. Some fundamentals in our world are shifting, and while change brings opportunity, it also brings risk. The decision on how we deal with that change is up to us.
We see change every day in the routine of our lives. A car ride is guided by GPS. We expect to know to the minute when our bus will arrive; increasingly, we interact with each other and with information electronically. When we want to know something, we expect the answer to be delivered immediately into our hands, whether it’s the price of a pair of shoes, a vital proposal or the latest news on a celebrity.
However superficially different these changes appear, I believe they all originate from three causes.
One cause is the growing influence of technology and the web in particular. Another is globalisation – including the freedom of movement of capital and labour and lower barriers to trade. These trends are not new. Tim Berners-Lee proposed the world-wide web in 1990, while 1989 saw the collapse of one a most enduring barrier to freedom of movement – the Berlin wall.
The third trend predates both of these: the shift in the value of companies from the tangible to the intangible. (This is those difficult-to-measure things like brand value, intellectual property and human capital.) In 1975, intangible assets accounted for 20% of the Standard and Poor’s 500 value. By 2015 that figure was over 80%.
In concert, these three trends are changing the world. The global economy influences almost all organisations today, and technology supplies a low-cost, near-frictionless medium for supplying intangible assets across it. And these assets – the source of value in the modern world – are almost entirely produced by people. People, exactly what learning and development (L&D) concerns itself with.
Shouldn’t this be the golden age of L&D?
Having chaired the Learning Technologies Conference in London since 2000, I can safely say that things in L&D have changed less than I would have expected or liked. There is no agreement on how to show the value of L&D. We struggle with engaging people in learning. We still want that seemingly unattainable seat at the top table.
And there is one reason for all of this: people.
Things may change fast, but people don’t. We have always arrived in the future burdened by the baggage of our past. The very first stone buildings in Sakkara, Egypt, had columns carved to resemble palm trees, used for centuries before to construct wooden buildings. Two decades after e-learning first emerged, ‘moving from face-to-face to digital learning’ remains a key topic in conferences in our field. Like the masons of ancient Egypt, most people in our organisations seem to want things either in the familiar form, or made to resemble it.
But organisations’ reluctance to adopt learning technology is not the only – or even the major – brake on L&D. Rather, it is our own assumption that the course (whether delivered online or in a room) should be the default method for learning. Once, the course was the best way of training. Now it is just one way of learning. To really take advantage of the way the modern world is changing, we should shift our vision of the role of L&D from being the providers of course-led training to the supporters of learning, in whatever way suits the business and the individual best.
This is a fundamental shift for L&D, with far reaching implications. It requires us to loosen our control over learning, and position ourselves in a new, more strategic role. That will demand new skills and knowledge, in particular the skills to influence others and a deeper knowledge of the aims of the business.
If we can make this transition, we will provide more value and have more influence than ever in our organizations.
If we fail, then there is every chance that at future conferences we will continue to ask ourselves how to demonstrate value, make our courses more appealing and gain a seat at the top table. But be assured, learning in new, exciting ways will not stop. It will be led by innovative individuals and managers pushing on. They will simply do so without any involvement by the L&D department.
In this period of great change, it is time for L&D to take some risks and have a crack at greatness. The worst failure would not be to try and fail, it would be to fail to try, to remain providing courses at the edge of the business, and not where L&D should be – at its core.
Written by Donald H Taylor
Donald H Taylor is chair of the Learning Technologies Conference, London and chair of the Learning Technologies part of OEB. He has been in the field of technology and learning since the early 1980s.