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The Watercooler: World of Learning blog, day two


blogIn this Watercooler special, Mike Morrison blogs live from the World of Learning Conference and Exhibition. Highlights include a panel discussion on the future of learning and a presentation by IBM's Richard Straub on organisational development. Read about day one here.

The future of learning

The opening session for day two was a panel discussion on 'The future of learning' with Bob Mosher, Jackie Lawlor of Royal Mail, David Clutterbuck, Clive Shepherd and Hugh Evans from Henley Business School.

BBC journalist Rory Cellan-Jones opened the session and shared his reflections on the event. He said that he had found exhibitors were offering everything from learning to cook, to driving a racing car and supporting Manchester United football club as part of his development. As Cellan-Jones is a ‘non-L&D professional’, I found this an interesting take on how some of our interventions could be seen. With these activities described in what could be seen as a frivolous manner. Is it time for the profession to look at not only the underlying learning, but the apparent validity of the intervention – much like the changes in the psychometric industry in the 1990s?

The theme for the session was 'how is L&D different from five years ago?' Mosher started with the belief that we are more consultative that we once were. He said that in the US they are now starting to see what they call Chief Learning Officers (CLO). These are individuals very senior in the organisation with responsibility for learning and development. This raising of the status is a strong indicator that many organisations are taking the development of people much more seriously and that it is a key business driver.

Jackie Lawlor noted the changes in delivery methodology, with a shift to taking the learning to the learner.

Clutterbuck stated that in research by his company was showing an increased confidence in organisations using internal resources rather than bringing in external resources. For learning and development functions to be more effective Clutterbuck said that we need to look at the culture of the organisation and the operational processes and systems, rather than just the skills and behaviours of individuals. This will be a real challenge for many in the profession. We have in the passed focussed on learning systems and programmes and now we need to concentrate on the quality and frequency of “informal conversations”

Shepherd stated that it was the L&D profession itself which had been the most reluctant to change. He warned that if we don’t change, we could well be a dying breed. He said that we need to understand the needs of operational functions in our businesses and to change what we do and how we do it for both the survival of the L&D profession, as well as the survival of our organisation, in this challenging time.

Evans emphasised that increasingly leaders of our businesses do not have the answers to the issues being faced, and this potential for L&D to facilitate learning (not to provide solutions) is a significant opportunity. Learning, he said, is the key to survival using both formal and informal strategies. Many managers do not have time, or people they can talk to, so they often lack the ability to reflect on what is happening and make informed decisions – this is an interesting opportunity for us to grasp.

In an unscientific poll, Rory asked the audience: “How do you feel about the next six months for L&D?” the audience were 90% optimistic and 10% realist (pessimistic). Clutterbuck added that in a recent piece of research 66% of HR directors said that budgets were likely to increase in the future.

The discussion started to explore the value of SMART goals and the extent to which the range of these was changing from long term to short term, tactical. The panel couldn't agree on which was right in the current climate.

Overall a stimulating session, great for reflectors, but not so good for the pragmatists.

Final session at the World of Learning 2008

At the last formal session I was looking forward to the summary I knew Rory Cellan-Jones was going to offer us.

As 3 o’clock approached, Cellan-Jones looked around the room in amazement – just 37 people in the audience. He got the nod from the organiser on the door to start the session.

Rory introduced Richard Straub, advisor to the chairman of IBM EMA for his presentation:

Driving L&D in a changing business environment

Reflecting on his own positive experience Straub recommended that everyone in the audience considered the question “What is the portfolio I will have when I leave my employer?”

Straub said that he would be posing more questions than he has answers for and that the answer for many of the questions would be different based on the culture in which we operate. Then using a number of bite size pieces of information Straub provided us with food for thought:

  • “The illiterate of the 21 century will not be those that cannot read and write but those that cannot learn – unlearn and re-learn,” Alvin Toffler.

  • That Drucker in the '50s and '60s coined the term knowledge worker.

  • That often when we use Organisational Development (OD) models, we fall into the traps caused by over simplified models, and Straub gave examples.
  • For many organisations we are now moving from a closed world to an open world, where once things were top down, they are now bottom up, where once there was command and control and now there is pragmatism. These structural and cultural changes, while a challenge, provide OD professionals with a wonderful opportunity.

    In Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages by Carlota Perez, Straub walked through the industrial and technological ages and pointed out that at the end of each age is a crash before the ‘golden age’ of that era was realised. For the age of information and technology many thought that was the dotcom crash, but many feel that what we are experiencing now is the beginning of that crash, and that when we come out the other side we will be on the dawn of a new golden age of information and technology.

    Research from IBM suggests that out-performers in many organisations deliver higher revenue growth and manage change more successfully, and that for us in OD and L&D the ability to manage the learning of skills to address business needs is the only competitive advantage.

    Characteristics for success at an organisational level are:
    1) Speed
    2) Risk Taking
    3) Flexibility
    4) Frequent opportunity for trial and error

    We must create the ability for our people to fail fast as we need to be able to learn quickly. Conservatism was acceptable once but will not be a strategy for survival or growth in the current climate.

    Research from think tank The Lisbon Council for Economic Competitiveness and Social Renewal, shows that 80% of the value of human capital is informally developed on the job. We need to create the culture to nurture and capture this learning without stifling it.

    Straub put the Kolb learning cycle up on the screen and asked for the relevance of this old and well used model. Straub challenged us to the need to re-engage learners with models like this to ensure that the informal learning in the workplace was as effective as it could be, and that learners made the most of informal learning opportunities.

    In his final words Straub said that things tend to happen in “hidden champions”, companies of a medium side that get on with things and are often not noticed, it is these organisations that tend to lead the way. How many hidden champions were sat in the audience.

    It was disappointing that so few attended this session as for me it was again one of the most enlightening, Like the final session at the CIPD conference, few attended the last and missed the best.

    Straub’s style made the note taking of this difficult and the reason why the style of this entry is sticky is that it reflected the style of the session.

    Closing summary

    Rory Cellan-Jones closed the event with some quotes from the two days, including:

    “I don’t chose to retain things I can look up.”
    “I am only interested in people that are 100% committed, not 98%.”
    “we don’t hire bad people, only good people and make them great.”
    “How do you touch 65000 people at once? You go online.”
    “We are a curiously conservative profession and we could be decimated by this time next year.”
    “Sex, violence and crime.. and all in one hour.”

    My immediate reflections on the event

    A valuable mix of the sales pitch and the practical with just a little gloss and spin on the content of the sessions (less than at other conferences). The tone of this conference, while discussing the challenges, was much more positive than the CIPD conference just a couple of months ago.

    The fact that the conference sessions were held adjacent to the exhibition space was great for networking, although the sound damping in the seminar rooms could have been more effective to filter out the low hum of the activity in the exhibition itself – especially as a F1 style car was just feet away have its wheel changed by participants!

    Mike Morrison is director of RapidBI a learning and consultancy provider specialising in organisational development. See some of the conference photos at


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