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Chris Pirie

Learning Futures Group

Founder and CEO

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Why we need a completely new learning and development approach


Though there’s now some doubt as to whether he actually said it, Einstein’s very useful definition of insanity – to keep doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results – is depressingly relevant for L&D right now.

Why do I say that? We know that in learning and development our mission is to prepare our fellow team members and the wider organisation for a changing world of work and skills. 

The problem is that we’re trying to do this with pedagogical models drawn from early 19th century thinking on work and society, using technology from the 1990s. We know that all of us – be we an HR or training professional, student, part-time worker, contact centre agent, sales professional, academic, lawyer or CEO – face almost unimaginable forces of change in the next few years. Given this, I can’t help but think the tools we’re currently using are not going to cut it.

It’s not just me saying this, of course. Worryingly, our peers and users have decreasing confidence in our methods, too.

Research in 2018 from the Association for Talent Development (the world's largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organisations) found that only 42% of corporate leaders think L&D can help them meet their business’s goals. Furthermore, only 38% of learning professionals think the community will be ready to meet their learners' needs in five years time. And, even more tellingly, four times more self-development activities for jobs happen outside of L&D at present.

Vanishing work

In some ways, we’ve been here before. Agricultural jobs represented over 50% of the workforce in the early 1900s, for example. Then mechanisation brought on by the internal combustion engine reduced that number to less than 5% today.

New job categories and businesses emerged to take the place of those previous jobs. But this time, forces like AI, digitisation, the rise of the robots, globalisation, Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China mean the impact will happen at a much more rapid pace.

Vaguely waving at MOOCs and YouTube training films and thinking ‘job done’ won’t work

This means change will disrupt roles that were previously immune to displacement because of required higher order cognitive or communication skills.

I give you RPA; I offer you Alexa; I point to champions of ‘Go’ giving up because they know the machines will now always beat them.

The world is changing

I know this myself as I’ve lived through disruption, and it was sometimes pretty scary. My past role as Chief Learning Officer for Microsoft globally was to help engineers learn the right syntax and commands, and help the corporate sales team figure out the most compelling features and functions in Office to get businesses to buy.

Under my watch, both of those core aspects of training just disappeared. Much of syntax and command selection is now automated, and now the mission of enterprise sales teams is to co-create opportunities with business leaders, not drop products on them then disappear until licence renewal.

The job roles I supported changed fundamentally – the skills and behaviours that created extraordinary value just five years earlier are now automated, digitised or irrelevant. 

We must find ways to harness these innovations in technology to help augment, accelerate and scale human learning. 

Many L&D leaders that I speak to everyday know this to be true. The world is changing frighteningly fast. We can’t expect to solve this problem using eLearning content that no one really wants to waste their time with. Hiring lecture halls and getting contractors in to walk through 40-slide PowerPoint decks isn’t enough anymore.

And, sorry, vaguely waving at MOOCs and YouTube training films and thinking ‘job done’ won’t either. Even ‘curation’, perhaps the last refuge of the L&D team, looks like just another drop in that vast content ocean competing for our distracted learners’ attention.

A way forward: constructive disruption

So let’s stop doing what Albert mocked us for. The old tools need to be replaced. And maybe a way to do this is to deal with disruption by, well… disrupting ourselves.

In her great book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, Whitney Johnson says:  “It is vital that we are equipped with the humility to understand that changing the world and keeping innovation alive require that we change ourselves.”

In my 30 years in business, I’ve found that to be a common defining characteristic of innovators, leaders and thinkers who all seek to disrupt themselves and their current practice in order to learn, grow, and achieve.

Leverage tech, yes - but keep it all human

The obvious and necessary TrainingZone community member question at this point is: ‘what would disruption for the L&D department mean?’

The way forward has to be to turn workplace learning into learning science. The traditional corporate training department will need to think very differently about its role in developing the current and future workforce if we are to solve these complex problems.

We must find ways to harness these innovations in technology to help augment, accelerate and scale human learning. 

We can do this by being proactive and looking to form new partnerships and alliances. We must beg, borrow and steal from other disciplines like data, social, computer and neuroscience to get substantially more effective at what we do. 

Let the journey from L&D department to the in-house learning science lab start today.

Data will be key here, as will tapping into social learning models and the learnings from our colleagues in laboratories and psychology departments about how to better harness the innate capability we humans have to learn, teach and collaborate. We must build cultures where growth mindset and learning are celebrated and championed. 

In short, we need a new model for corporate learning based in scientific method, which leverages technology but also remains deeply, deeply human.  We can do this by building a new ‘learning science’ model to run smart experiments and find the answers together by ‘working out loud’ as a collaborative, re-inspired L&D community. 

So, Albert: we get it.

We won’t do the same-old any more.

Let the journey from L&D department to the in-house learning science lab start today.


Author Profile Picture
Chris Pirie

Founder and CEO

Read more from Chris Pirie

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