Learning is not being disrupted (it’s the reverse of that)

(So, it turns out that this is a little ranty, perhaps. This post may overstate some points as I rehearse them. Apologies if that’s a problem but I find that it is a useful way to figure things out).

One of our great problems in the L&D world is that we often care more about Learning than those learners out there. (A side note: I believe learner is a misnomer. People are trying to find things out and get things done. They may learn along the way, but it’s rarely the motivating purpose). We care deeply about the design of learning (content), the management and production of learning (content) and the delivery of learning (content). We are starting to care deeply (I think/hope) about consulting to identify if learning (content) is required or advisable. We are becoming obsessed with curating other people’s learning (content).

I am hopeful that we will start to care equally about gathering and analysis of evidence in those consultation, design and delivery moments. That is a thought for another post though.

Learners, if there is such a beast, care far less about all of those elements. From a punter’s point of view many of what we might call performance challenges are overcome by, the now everyday, combination of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube (or similar content tools). If it’s content you are after, the job is done. Answers are everywhere. This is not disruption for the user, it is the removal of previous barriers and gatekeepers in the search for information.  Training delivery might have been disrupted, but not learning. In this sense, learning has been liberated.  

Equally, if it’s advice and guidance you’re after, there’s a social network for that. We have direct access to a dizzying array of expertise and experience via various social tools and publishing platforms. Careful thought is needed before we stand between an expert and the person seeking their expertise. What can we add to that relationship? Again, that’s where the disruption can be claimed – intermediaries become inconveniences when connections can be made directly. For the punter, it is a sense of liberty and freedom to choose their expert. The sad tale of Thomas Cook is yet another recent example of this change – the value of the intermediary had been eroded but the high street stores were counted in their hundreds.

There is a real risk to those in the workforce learning professions that we are defending scarcity of knowledge and shoring up the barriers to accessing expertise. This might feel good because we are in control and can manage the apparent risks of more open provision. It’s not particularly efficient or helpful to the end user however. Another awkward reality is that we are creating friction and adding cogs to the machine. I worry, sometimes, that we are applying the defences of bureaucrats to the benefits of the bureaucracy, of which, we are inadvertently a part.

It is still true that the workplace is different in important respects from our consumer lives – rules, norms and mores are different in most working environments. However, the tools we use to navigate this space are more likely to be the tools we chose as private individuals. The notion of private individual versus worker is eroding for the same and other reasons. The information revolution brought on by digital development does not respect organisation boundaries and neither do our routine expectations of what a useful experience is.

Disintermediation is at the root of digital disruption and is a scary phenomenon for go-betweens in any industry. Is L&D at risk of becoming the travel agency of the workplace? For consumers, removing the middle-men usually feels like progress towards greater convenience, choice and lower prices. Why would this be different in a workplace learning context.

So what is L&D to do as the forces of disintermediation continue to gather in strength?

Between drafting moments on this post I have listened to this episode of the Good Practice podcast: In Defense of the Course, with Patti Shank. There are some clear calls in here for the value of the classroom based course (physical or virtual). Getting knowledge into the heads of those who are new to something seemed to be at the heart of this. Bringing people together to show, explain, describe and support rehearsal are the benefits in this case. As usual, with the GP pod, they were quick to helpfully point out the uncomfortable yet well known truth – so many courses are actually not very good. Quality counts, after all. (For the Brexit fans: “No course is better than a bad course”?)

What I was more struck by as a potentially sure footed route out of the problem was the reference to facilitation as a central benefit. This feels like a really useful source of value for us to build on. Rather than the making of stuff and the organising of events reflexively; we can bring expertise in how people learn best, how to challenge them, offer guidance and support, develop psychological safety and manage useful feedback. As human skills these are harder to disintermediate to the satisfaction of the consumer (although I think automated feedback looks like a problem being solved pretty well in many cases).

I realise that this is a statement of the obvious on which to conclude. And yet, in a digital context, I think the profession is struggling with how to take up this facilitation role. We tend to see facilitation as something we do ‘in the room’. Some newer products and services are showing promise here: using data to nudge users along, present targeted choices and support journeys in real time. Some are bringing elements of simulation and reach via digital channels to support new facilitation relationships in the more dispersed workplaces we inhabit. Maybe these are the places to reinvent the benefits of the facilitator as useful intermediary?

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