Enough with all the learnification. Would it help if we stopped talking about learning in L&D?

There is a ring of the perverse in the title of this post. I realise that but let me try and explain myself as I think this through out loud. The L&D profession has a powerful introspection impulse (we have a well-gazed navel). It is almost as strong as our content infatuation. These features of our world are often portrayed and frequently worried about. I wonder if there is a similar challenge with what I will call learnification. By which I mean: the act of putting learning into everything. I think this is an important reason why people outside of this world struggle to understand it. We keep asking people to understand what we mean by learning

I am not really proposing removing the L word. Life is too short for that argument. I am wondering, though, what our use of it so pervasively means for the industry and how it is regarded. 

I know that many folk smarter than I have, for a long time, referenced the fact that learning is not a thing, it is a process. It is not possible to make learning which is why it is also impossible to deliver it. Managing it may also, therefore, be an unwise endeavour. Supporting, encouraging, inspiring, understanding, preparing for, facilitating, celebrating, getting out of the way of…these are some of the successful tactics that merit time and energy, as those many smart folk have often shown. (We can’t buy those though, so they merit less public attention in the commercial realities of our work). 

I worry that there is a territorial impulse at play in this labelling. By placing the learning label in front of things we claim it to be ours. Our audiences are less clear, if at all clear, of the territory we annex. If learning is a process, then it is the process of the learner – theirs not ours. There are some specialisms which support the label, perhaps. Things like facilitation and understanding of neuroscience are important skills and domains of knowledge but they are probably best kept invisible to the people who do own the learning process. They have other fish to fry and don’t want to hear how clever we are.

And what are these people called anyway? Learners? That seems unconvincing to me. This is not a signifier that anyone uses about themselves. I can’t recall anyone ever referring to themselves as a learner. Employee, colleague, coworker, person, customer, client, audience member perhaps even, in 2020, user. But not “learner”. Learning is a vital element of what these critical stakeholders are trying to achieve but to seperate them out as learners seems artificial. The best experience design recognises the entire experience and all of its needs; there are real risks in too narrow a focus on a single, (subliminal) element. Learning may be a part of the needs we design for but would it ever be all of it?

Which leads me to separation as a broader theme. The ever present designation of ‘learning’ has the effect of separating it on both the user and service side of the equation. Users don’t see the rationale in this separation in terms of process, tools or content. It should all be part of work and getting better at work. On the service side, I am neutral to the in-out debate of HR and L&D. But…the separation of resources and operations, particularly when there is audience contact, needs to be supported by pretty powerful logic when the audience is the same for all parties. Our audience does not segment so well into learning and ‘other people stuff’ anywhere near as tidily as customers do into purchasing categories. 

Separation of tools is a serious challenge as well. It is a barrier for ease of use and utility. The drumbeat demand for learning in the flow of work should not be interpreted as a desire for learning tools nudging at the attention of workers as they try and achieve their goals. It might mean learning in the tools of work (avoiding the separation that the market is fuelling) – that has a clearer logic and brings value from what learning teams might make into that workflow in a more natural way. Can a learning tool really be part of a workflow?

Having said all that, I suspect that what workers are after is intuitive problem solving as part of their work – call it what you like, just make it easy to use and helpful.

The application of the L word so liberally might be testament to a need to justify ourselves? The result of insecurity perhaps.  I am a poor historian but I suspect that the days of the Training Department had less of a labelling problem. Training can be delivered and managed. Training can be easily described and asked for (for good or ill). It can be done to be people (whether they like it or not). Training is rarely in the control of the trainee, which makes it easier to claim the territory. It might be a process but not does not have to be. It can be an event in a way that learning cannot. Similarly, the notion of gathering training data from training systems, for example, makes sense in a way that the learning equivalent does not in either case. 

Perhaps this historical legacy needs to be overcome to make sense of a transition to Learning? Or, perhaps we should skip that and focus on something else – performance, maybe – and leave the learning to those who need it?

What might de-learnification look like?

  • A PLN becomes a personal network – you know, like a network of people
  • An LMS becomes a management system – a more accurate description, perhaps
  • Learning data… is just data (and might be more powerful when part of a broader definition)
  • Learning design is design – good, bad or indifferent but design 
  • The same goes for learning experience design – good experience design is hard enough already
  • Digital learning is no different to any other digital endeavour or process
  • Learning content – just content, no?
  • Learners – just erm…workers? People? no such thing?
  • Social learning platforms are social platforms….neither of those sound great, actually 
  • Learning technology – hmm…what are we left with there?
  • Microlearning – micro what?
  • Learning in the flow of work = the flow of work

Better with the L or without?

2 thoughts on “Enough with all the learnification. Would it help if we stopped talking about learning in L&D?

  1. Bingo. Great points. I myself blame Senge, or rather, the people in T&D who rushed to borrow the L term from his concepts regarding the Learning Organization back in the early 1990s, as their executives started sharing The 5th Discipline. They must not have read that book before deciding that they too would be The Learning Organization. And then the advent of eLearning – instead of referring to it a new advanced type of CBT.

    1. You are a better historian than I definitely. The idea of eLearning as upgraded CBT is a good point. Makes much more sense to me.

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