Learning is too important to be left to the professionals

profWorkplace learning professionals are in for a shock. Business is waking up to the fact that learning is now mission critical. Will executives continue to allow learning policy to reside in a separate department or some sub-department of HR for much longer? Do you think they will let “learning professionals” maintain sole control? I doubt it; especially if the military, which is either training for war or engaged in one, is an example.

In my presentation, from training to performance to social (slides 5-9), I show how the military lets training specialists and schools run individual training, but even more time and effort is put into collective training that emphasizes social and informal learning. The latter is run by operators (e.g. line of business owners) not learning specialists. I think business is going there as well, if the struggle over control of enterprise social media is an indicator – and the learning function seldom is allowed to run it. Using the 70:20:10 lens, it’s likely that these professionals may only look after the formal 10% of organizational learning. You could say that is being marginalized.

Enterprise social media and external social networks are where more business transactions will occur. They are also where a lot of learning will happen, but not separated from business. The networked business world is subverting the learning and development hierarchy. Scalable learning does not come from a separate departmental function.

The cost and difficulty of coordinating activities across entities, on a global scale, is far lower now. The pace of change is accelerating and the degree of uncertainty increasing. Perhaps a new rationale will be required to drive institutional success in the future. Perhaps we need to move from a rationale of scalable efficiency to one of scalable learning — designing institutions and architectures of relationships across institutions that help all participants to learn faster as more participants join. John Hagel – HBR

Mainstream media are catching on that in the network era, work is learning and learning is the work. This article from BloombergBusinessWeek is an example of the growing understanding that social learning is a business imperative:

Staff who carry out day-to-day duties—and whose productivity you’re looking to improve—should ultimately be the source for defining what knowledge they need and what knowledge they know is valuable to others.

With learning in the business spotlight, questions will be asked about the efficacy of current methods and practitioners of those methods. We are seeing a growing demand for self-directed and networked professional development. Recently, Craig Wiggins told the ASTD (training & development) community to just stop pretending – “Let’s stop pretending that, at one point or another, we haven’t for a moment wondered if we deserve to be marginalized. (Opinions on learning are never short supply.)” Learning will not be marginalized, but the learning trades, like scribes of old, will be.

11 Responses to “Learning is too important to be left to the professionals”

  1. Donald H Taylor

    Harold I wish I could disagree with you but your final line “Learning will not be marginalized, but the learning trades, like scribes of old, will be.” rings all too true.

    The key word there: marginalized. Pushed to the edges. You’re right.

    At the 2010 Learning Technologies Conference I said that our profession would in 3 years be at a crossroads where we could choose to change and get more engaged, or carry on and put ourselves at risk. At risk not of extinction but of something much worse: irrelevance. I think we’re getting there now. L&D is close to being marginalized, forced further into the Training Ghetto of induction and compliance, while the rest of the organisation gets on with skills, knowledge and performance support.

    However, there are bright spots of great practice out there. Learning Leaders doing a great job – let’s give them the exposure they deserve and help in sharing what they’re doing. ‘Good’ in L&D today looks very different to what it looked like last century – that’s something that needs to be shared widely, and rapidly.

  2. Costas Sotidis

    Harold – thanks for the insightful piece. It has triggered some emotions as I know a number of L&D professionals that are already taking this approach and thus I am surprised that others have yet to “change their mindset”. L&D exists for the business – no business no L&D. Until L&D / HR starts to speak the language of business and “get in bed” with the business then we shall not survive. At a recent internal conference a senior leader was heard to say “if you want me to invite you (L&D) into my business then you need to know my business – take time to know my business before telling me how you will improve my business”.

  3. tanya

    Do you think though that L&D may still have a role though in helping the business to support this social, networked learning?eg. demonstrating more effective ways to utilise them…? (Obviously we need to start doing this first…!)

    • Harold

      I remember the days of the typing pool. Now everyone is expected to handle their own typing. Perhaps a separate learning function will go the same way.

  4. Charles Chumely

    While Learning is a often managed as a separate department from the business, it must remain integrated in the business. A challenge I see for Learning Professionals is to support by identifying solutions, and avoid the temptation of trying to be the solution. The natural inclination may be the opposite when Learning departments feel “at risk”.

  5. Caroline Thomas

    I’ve been thinking about this topic for a while now after reading some earlier, similar posts. As someone who has done quite a bit of self-directed and peer-to-peer (in some cases similar to an old-fashioned apprenticeship) learning on the job, I understand that formal learning is not always required. However, as a non-learning professional who has been responsible for training others, I still see the value in having the input and guidance of someone experienced in how people learn. I hope there will be a middle ground where I don’t have to be an expert in my field and in methods & tools for learning. I think some of this ‘decentralization’ of learning is driven by a desire to save cost rather than just through the benefits that social tools and methods can provide. I’ll be interested to see if this becomes a pendulum swing like many others in business or a real long-term shift in the way things work.

  6. Harold

    I think one reason we have relied on professionals to tell us how people learn is because we did not let people learn for themselves, either at school or work. As learning becomes a continuous work/life requirement, more people will become conscious of how they learn. Humans learned before there were ‘learning professionals’, and they can learn without them. It’s just that many of us have been conditioned to think otherwise.

  7. Caroline Thomas

    Harold – I hadn’t thought of it from that point of view. Will have to ponder this some more. This will definitely be dinner table conversation this weekend…

  8. Asi DeGani

    This is an excellent and very needed debate – for my part I can say that the learning itself has been marginalized and as a result so have the learning trades. Its funny to hear that leaders are offended when learning professionals assume they know the business but are then happy to move on with on the job learning as if they know the business of learning… the amount of times (and orgs) I’ve heard ‘lack of training’ mentioned as a cause of frustration is higher than should be these days.

    Who are we expecting to create the ‘institutions and architectures of relationships’ which enable ‘scalable learning’ other than those in the learning trades? Everybody else in the organization is busy doing their day-to-day job.
    If anything we need to legitimize enquiry – the learning trades need to make is ‘OK to learn, to grow…. to develop’ otherwise the business will die – Kodak and even Microsoft (and maybe tomorrow apple) are examples that businesses that are constantly looking in the mirror learn very little. Learning is the best engine to deal with change – and constant change requires constant learning.

    I think challenging the marginalization is much much harder than actually doing the day-to-day job of empowering people to be more than they are. At the end of the day those very people who marginalize learning are those who are happy with the way things are “the best learning they can get is from other professionals on the job”…. Really?

    The strange thing is that we’ve been through this before – the face-to-face course was meant to die when learning technologies started appearing. People learn naturally and they will bridge the gap if there is no one from the learning trade but you could say that probably about anything that happens in an organization.

    We all eat everyday and are conscious of what we’re eating and yet nutritional and dietary advice is a bigger industry than it has even been.

    Bottom line – learning is too important to be left to amateurs.


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