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Learning and development at the crossroads pt1


How has Learning and Development changed since its inception ? Donald Taylor believes its not just a focus shift from simple knowledge delivery, and the whole industry has to evolve just to keep up.

As I wrote in Training needs to change or risk irrelevance, I believe this is a crucial time for Learning and Development (L&D). That word 'crucial' might sound overblown, and if you're sceptical reading it, I sympathise. I've chaired the UK Learning Technologies Conference for the past 11 years, and over that period I've learned how much people like to claim that right now is a crucial time for something, anything. Every year is going to be the year of virtual worlds, of mobile learning, of e-whatever. And it never quite seems to happen.
But if I've been chairing that conference for 11 years, I've been in L&D for longer – for almost all my adult working life. And contrasting the position between now and the mid-80s – when I started work as a trainer– I can state unequivocally that this is indeed a crucial time. We're at a crossroads.
The choice facing L&D is stark: change, or face irrelevance.

How we were

Back in the 80s things were different – very different. We didn’t have L&D. We had training. We had one major delivery mechanism, the classroom, which we used along with books and a few media such as video and audio cassettes. Mostly, though, we got people into classrooms and we delivered information (or made it available for discovery) then we checked to see whether the delegates had learned that information.
It was all about knowledge transfer. It was – on a good day – very satisfying. And at the end of the day you could go home knowing that you had done just what the job needed and maybe a little more.
A lot has changed.
There are three drivers which have placed L&D at this dramatic crossroads since those heady days, they are:
  1. How we learn for work has changed
  2. Technology has changed
  3. Executives have changed

Learning for work has changed

Robert Kelley's longitudinal study of knowledge workers at Carnegie-Mellon University is famous, but worth repeating. He asked knowledge workers what proportion of the knowledge they needed to do their jobs was stored in their heads. The figures are:
1986  75%
1997  15-20%
2006  8-10%
This dramatic change is not just because the amount of information we need for work has increased hugely – it has, but not as much as these figures would suggest. It is because the pace of change of that information has accelerated. Once upon a time a graduate would learn plenty of what they needed at university, some more during induction, and then top it up with annual classroom training.
Now we still need people to learn plenty at college and during induction, but in addition they need to be able to find information and to learn quickly while on the job – and much more frequently than once a year.
Some people are very good at this. They use modern technology to find information (typically using search engines) or people with expertise (through social networks). Others will need to be shown how to best use such tools.
But technology plays a far great role in all this than just being a useful sidekick in daily work. It has transformed workplace learning – and threatens to completely out-flank the L&D department.

More on that in part 2.

This article is based on Donald’s introductory talk to the 2010 Irish Learning Showcase, organised by the Irish Learning Alliance in Dublin, and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Donald H Taylor is non-executive chairman of the Institute of IT Training.TrainingZone members can get a exclusive discount to this year's IITT conference, Training 2010. He also chairs both the Learning Technologies Conference and the Learning and Skills Group, a free international community of learning and development professionals. Donald blogs at  - and tweets at:

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