What comes next? Possible signals of future value

This is a thinking out loud piece from my experience of the last few weeks. Like most, I have found that it is hard to know what to think yet some thoughts have emerged and lingered long enough to give some form of voice to. So, this is not a white paper or serious position. Neither is it a prediction – I don’t know what comes next any more than anyone else. But, I am wondering whether there are some useful signals of future value from what we have seen so far during this period of lockdown/isolation/social distancing. These notes are the themes of those thoughts about one month in.

Physical remoteness does not prevent useful development of performance and effective support of learning (or it doesn’t appear to). The forcible breaking of the face-to-face chord has demonstrated that facilitation, communication, community and challenge can be achieved through remote means. We can still meet, talk, argue and zone-out without being in a classroom. Yes, it’s different. But no, it is not a weak dilution of a superior format. It has always been unhelpful to view experiences via digital tools as substitutes of face to face experiences. They can and should be handled differently and they can generate a great deal of the benefits of being in the room – not automatic but clearly possible.

Physical distance does not *have* to mean social distance or, rather, to mean the absence of social interaction. Again, it’s not the same but it’s not a binary setting either. 

The short term reflex response to lockdown has seen and will continue to see a replacement of existing classroom activity with digital tools and events out of necessity. The signals are clear that these alternative channels are here to stay and offer real value, perhaps better value, certainly at scale. People will gather, of course and we will value it so much more when we do. But I think we might (and should) value it more for what we can really achieve together rather than just what feels good. The finance departments will keep our impulses in check here anyway, should that giddy time of flights and hotels return more quickly. With a better understanding of available alternatives, travel for courses will struggle to achieve essential status in many organisations. When we do gather in a room it will have to count in different ways and we may be called upon to describe results beyond delegate feedback in a more rigorous manner. The same is likely to be true of conferences and seminars – the global communication of ideas has been quite well facilitated for a while without the need to move people around.

This is true, as I see it, of our new office work world. So many of us in this game are office workers and we need to guard against generalising beyond our immediate experience. So will this emerging practice help less for those working in other locations? Our newly designated key workers are in shops, hospitals, managing and operating transport services, distribution depots, prisons, caring for people and generally not working in offices. Zoom on the kitchen table is not a useful tool choice. There are clues to new sources of value here as well maybe.

The tools we are relying on for our own lockdown productivity and entertainment are available for all and are typically ready to hand. Anecdotally, there is evidence of some tools working better on a smartphone than a corporate PC, as developers focus consumer tools on their largest audience use cases. What can we offer these workplace learning contexts if we think about the use cases in the way app developers have already been doing?

We have glimpsed a world beyond the eLearning module on the LMS and classroom ‘delivery’ (whatever that means). Simple, swift relevance using the tools of the workplace has driven so many decisions over these last few weeks. Time for a major, waterfall roll out has not been available and we use what is to hand. There is lasting value here for reaching these non-office audiences and helping them find things out and get things done where and when they need it and as close to work as they chose. This might be the most valuable signal I have seen so far and might itself signal a shift to consumer thinking in design and delivery (I cross my fingers as I type this).

I wonder whether there is a benefit from asynchronous interaction as well? Whilst it is harder to herd everyone into the same space at the same time, there is an opportunity for people to communicate and feed back when they have time and it seems most relevant. The internet has been such a revolutionary force in this respect. I have not yet had the chance to observe this in any meaningful way beyond the ongoing benefits of Teams, Slack and WhatsApp groups. Similarly the benefits of open document platforms are coming to the fore (like this open curated listing of useful L&D resources for Coronavirus times started by Martin Couzins). What have others seen beyond the Klondike rush to the webinar? 

Speed of action and decision making has been impressive. It has also been pretty scary and the pressure is high. Many observers, myself included, have commented that the L&D world tends to set a pace behind the more dynamic sectors we observe elsewhere (this is a generalisation, of course). The pace at which businesses, teams and individuals have responded to this upheaval is impressive. Smart people are using their best judgement and available evidence to tackle wholly new problems. This inevitably feels risky and some will be more comfortable than others as it lets the ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’ cat out of the bag. The ability to act quickly and respond to evidence is a really important facility and a method that should be a long term benefit particularly as major changes seem both inevitable and very hard to perceive.

The need for data is acute. We are in the midst of a vast experiment in workplace behaviour, people performance, usage of digital tools and content consumption. The indications from communications product providers, media businesses and infrastructure providers is that we are active and consuming digitally at a level we have not seen before. The L&D industry has seen a sudden burst of activity focusing on the ugly phrase ‘pivoting to virtual/digital’. The onrush of webinar production activity and digital content delivery has, anecdotally, been enormous. The trouble is, we don’t really know as we are lacking agreed measures of activity for this stuff. There is enormous value here in common and accepted definitions of learner activity in a digital context. 

The L&D industry needs objective data sources to benchmark and evaluate digital usage and behaviour in its steps to digital maturity. Do we have that data in place as an industry or as organisations within it? I am uncertain that we do. By comparison, the broadcast industry (digital or otherwise) can paint a picture of audience behaviour in our weird world. If the future of L&D rests on these technologies, we need to know what’s going on. (I have some ideas on developing resources on this topic, if you are interested).

Less is definitely more for social media activity. This is the least scientific observation of all (a low bar, I know). Social media activity seems to have quietened down quite a bit in my experience: both what I observe and in my own behaviour. There are less posts and less people posting in my feeds – LinkedIn and Twitter for me. (I mostly gave up on Facebook a couple of years ago and Instagram smells quite a bit of Zuckerberg as well). There is less sounding off as well, I am finding. Perhaps there is a greater sensitivity to others. Perhaps it’s a signal of lower confidence in how we see the world. Perhaps we are just funding these feeds less helpful in such a densely troubling media environment. Perhaps the algorithms have been tweaked to suppress whatever fake news is. I am finding it quite valuable though. Having been a big supporter of social media over time, I have found the last couple of years much less positive for me and often damaging on a number levels. I hope this new clam continues, or I can find effective ways to tend to my feeds to make it so. For social media, less is more.

Organisations with a clear sense of purpose might have an advantage in surviving this and emerging from it with health intact. It seems probable that customers and consumers are noticing and appreciating this already, strengthening a pre-lockdown trend in the attraction to causes. It might be that organisations who include and demonstrate care for their workforce in meaningful ways will continue to attract and benefit from motivated people with a personal connection to what they are trying to do. Compare the response to Brew Dog repurposing its manufacturing capacity to good old Sports Direct claiming to be an essential service. Not all businesses will change or even react but it is instructive to observe that elbowing our way to the front to satisfy me and mine doesn’t solve the problem – we need to take care of us and ours at the same time.

This is the last but by no means least observation and it really needs to be recognised, celebrated and protected. It’s not a unique nor a novel observation but as I see it, the L&D industry is brimming with helpfulness. From businesses opening their content libraries through individuals setting up coffee mornings to kindly questions and offers of support across all social media channels, I have seen and continue to see so much helpful interaction. I firmly believe that our professional endeavour needs to rest on solving peoples meaningful problems and seeing personal problems being solved with such care and attention is bloody marvellous. It signals great potential for whenever what comes next does start to arrive.

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