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Wednesday, August 05, 2009


In the T+D article Learning Gets Social, Tony Bingham paraphrases something I said:

In the May issue of T+D, Tony Karrer, an e-learning technologist and CEO of TechEmpower, encouraged companies to start adapting to the current trend in informal learning because otherwise, they will find themselves marginalized in the business.

I thought it would be good for me to put some context around what I meant by this.  Especially given that there's been some push-back on the term "marginalized."

In the Business of Learning, I pointed out that there were some pretty significant questions facing the training industry.  Budgets have been hammered this year, and there's a question as to what spending levels will look like going forward.  During the Free Online Conference – Future of Learning we heard different perspectives. 

  • Skill Building Still in Demand.  There was definitely the belief that there are continued need for skills development.  If anything, there is increased need.
  • Catalogs / Courses Commoditization.  At the same time, the business of selling a catalog of courses is seen as being tough going forward.  Unless you do something to differentiate yourself in a real way, you will be more and more of a commodity.
  • Many Ways to Differentiate.  We heard several people talking about focus on performance.  We heard about use of assessments.  There was discussion about a lot of the things that need to happen outside the training event.

While there are great content vendors out there, I really didn't hear anyone who was claiming that being a content vendor was a great business right now.  Instead, they talked about other kinds of things that would differentiate them in the marketplace.

I believe the same thing is true for internal learning and development organizations.  If you are seen as being the place you go for training / content production, there will still be need for your work, but it will be under greater pressure, just like external training suppliers.

There are some other big picture trends going on that have impact on this:

  • Faster pace
  • Greater focus and value on high end concept work 
  • Job fragmentation – fewer people in any single job role
  • Shorter job tenure

These pressures suggest that there are greatly increased learning needs within organizations.  However, less of these learning needs will be successfully met by traditional methods.  If you look at what makes a good situation for formal learning:

  • Large Audience
  • Similar Level / Needs
  • Known, Stable Content
  • Few Out of Bounds Cases

Of course, these are almost the opposite of the trends I mentioned.  So, while formal learning solutions will make a portion of how learning will occur, the increased demand for learning will be met through other forms.

This leaves us with the questions:

  • What the role of learning and development relative to all of this?
  • If L&D leadership chooses to focus primarily on traditional methods and less so on informal learning opportunities, will they be marginalized in the business.


Ben said...

If L&D leadership chooses to focus primarily on traditional methods and less so on informal learning opportunities, will they be marginalized in the business?

Depends on the business. Also depends on what you mean by "marginalized."

If you are an L&D professional in an industry where your competition sticks mainly to traditional classroom-based training, then you will probably not be marginalized by sticking to this approach yourself.

On the other hand, if you find yourself trying to sell informal and social learning to skeptical or even hostile senior management, you'll find yourself personally marganilized very quickly.

Tony Karrer said...

I'm not sure I buy that just because other L&D leaders in your industry stick to traditional training insulates you. Maybe as a group you are all going to be marginalized?

I don't disagree that you have to be sensitive to the views of others in the organization and what they see as valuable. And what they see as your role. There's also a language issue - selling social or informal learning might be hard, but selling "sharing of best practices" or "communication after the training" might be easier.

Ben said...

Tony--thanks for the response.

I want to start by saying that I'm a proponent of informal learning, not some oldschooler trying to score points or be argumentative. Even though I'm on your side on this thing, my reaction to the "marginalized" comment was not good. (Based on your post, I'm guessing that this was not an isolated reaction.)

You're trying to spread an idea which is a marketing effort. With that in mind, let me try to make sense of my own reaction along the lines of Seth Godin's All Marketers Are Liars--great book, by the way.

Here's the story I tell myself about myself. It's my idea of who I am, or who I want to be:

"I'm a learning professional, and I'm good at my job. I'm interested in creating business value. I'm interested in how I can use technology to make learning better. I think change is a good thing, and I like being the agent of that change."

Let's take a look at how various kinds of messages fare going through this mental filter.

"Informal learning can give your company a competitive advantage. Here are some examples of people just like you and how they've implemented this stuff. Here is some research that shows that it really works."

Filtered Reaction:
This message is great. It reinforces my view of myself as an innovator. I can feel confident selling these ideas up the ladder. I'm excited.

Here's a different sort of message.
"...start adapting to the current trend in informal learning because otherwise, you will find yourself marginalized in the business."

How do you think that message comes off? Does it fit my story?

Tony Karrer said...

Ben - I hear what you are saying. I think both messages are needed at different times and with different people. In some cases, there's a need to simply shake people up so that they recognize the danger of doing nothing. In fact, that's the competition here. Doing nothing. I will try to make sure that both messages come through, but when your competition is doing nothing, I believe that marketing requires exposing the risk of making that choice.

Anonymous said...

I agree that change must occur in training, and that businesses need to compete to make this happen. I enjoyed reading both of your ideas.

Unknown said...

I have a related (I hope) question. Our L&D department has a new leader with wonderful, forward-thinking vision. She is also brave enough to empower us to go forth and be innovative with learning solutions. So, while the threat of being marginalized is less, we are overwhelmed with how to manage our changes in ways that don't kill us. Ours is popular and trusted department in the company, and everyone wants us with them as they bring up new systems, processes, and fix broken process. Perhaps this is a different post for you, but what ideas and best practices are out there for those of us drowning in the waves of change? (Okay - that was two questions, but they ask the same thing.)

Tony Karrer said...

That's a great question. We are all feeling that sensation of "drowning in the waves of change" at times. It can be at many levels as well.

I do think it's worth stepping back at points to assess what you are doing today and what you might do different. No one can create new time, so it's a choice of where you spend your time.

I'm not sure without more context how to help.