Is L&D really changing or just innovating the ordinary?

This is a revisited post. Or, reused for a fresh context. I first wrote this as preparatory thinking exercise in advance of the Learning Technologies exhibition in 2020. I bumped into it again as part of a curated learning experience. (This, I think, is a compliment). As we conjure with covid, I think it has a different relevance. Little did we know…

Essentially, the argument suggests that our covid response as an industry has been ‘ordinary innovation’ (the same training model with new tools and products to deliver it) rather than ‘existential innovation’ (solving problems or creating value in ways that were not previously possible). There is a risk of calling things too early as the pandemic is far from over, but the signals are that the focus has been on ordinary innovation. The signals of existential innovation are gathering though and the sense of what might be possible is clarifying.

Here is the original post:

[Warning: this is quite a long one. It grew as I thought and typed.]

It’s that time of year. We have digested the ‘new year, new me’ fare of the turn of the year (I am always relieved when that meal is over). We have seen the hot topics of the industry in Don Taylor’s excellent annual research. LT2020 is almost upon us and the industry is positioning itself: vendors as providers of the new solutions, analysts and commentators as seers and guides (no thought leaders please) and attendees as seekers of answers. There is a strong sniff  of “what next” in the atmosphere. Here are a couple of pence on the matter as I prepare for my own trip to (far) East London in search of the future.

Since my time at the BBC, I have believed that the L&D world has instructive parallels with the News industry and the journalism profession. I think this continues to be true. The industry must respond to fundamental disruption of consumer choice and business model as the internet tears up another commercial arrangement with traditional media. The profession has to respond to no longer being the only editor and storyteller in town as digital platforms liberate news consumers to both create and consume in completely new ways. The themes for L&D as a function and those of us in the profession are closely analogous, I reckon. People are at liberty to seek instruction as they chose and the control of the training department as intermediary is eroded. Many to many communication has changed everything, it seems.

With this observation in mind, I will steal with enthusiasm from this article on the BBC News Labs site by David Caswell: Journalism Innovation in the 2020s. He is pondering the ‘where next for news’ question and offering a choice of two types of innovation in response: ordinary or existential. Ordinary innovation he describes as the quest for better ways of doing what we do. Caswell proposes that this will not be enough – only existential innovation will offer certainty of ongoing relevance. This means fundamental changes in audience relationships, what is made for them (with them?) and how they connect with it.

I think we can observe two streams of debate in the L&D industry at the moment as we seek ongoing relevance for organisations and for our users. The ordinary innovation stream tends to look to applying new developments from the, often digital, outside world and apply them to the current model. There is value in speed, efficiency and accuracy from these changes as new forms of content, targeting and delivery are applied in response to stakeholder needs. This innovation is fuelling a high level of investment in learning technologies and related sectors and the creation of news services and products for budget holders to select from.

A few examples of ordinary innovation in the L&D world spring to mind: 

  • The shift from LMS to LXP: a significant change in user experience and in operation to fulfill the evolving needs of the organisation and the learner.
  • The shift to short form video: a major improvement on the presentation of PowerPoint content as a communication tool
  • The shift from content creation to curation: a great step forward and a real efficiency gain in getting useful content to the user.
  • The adoption of webinar tools: enabling scale, reach and convenience in the facilitation of instructional events in a digital context.

These are valuable and important developments for the industry and for practitioners as expectations rise for the provision of L&D services in organisations. They are not existential innovations, however. 

There are signals of a more fundamental scale of change emerging now. The drum beat of commentary exhorting us to focus on people performance rather than the design and management of Learning is building. Are there performance problems to solve at all? This, to me, is more than a shift and looks for value beyond production of content and management of programmes. Behaviour change becomes more important and requires data sources beyond the boundaries of Learning to signal value.

This kind of innovation might look like a performance problem solving service maybe that has as much relevance to its users as it does to stakeholders. That user relevance, for me, feels like it needs foundational change. Experiences and tools that ‘learners’ choose for themselves is the test to pass with the business relationships to invest in them. 

The latest (at time of writing) Learning & Development Podcast episode is a great discussion of these themes, as so many episodes are, in fact. If David will forgive me for the simplification, the sentiment I heard was: more performance, less Learning, please. Or as Nick Shackleton-Jones also posted this week: less Learning more learning please. (That upper case L is being found out as a trouble-maker and not the senior prefect we may have thought).

Clarity about causes is really important here. Organisations get the L&D functions they ask for by and large. They set the objectives, priorities, systems and culture within which we all offer our best endeavours. If L&D is focused on efficiency and effectiveness of the current model, it is because that is the direction being set, both consciously and reflexively. Senior leaders tend to seek the Learning they grew up on. Mark Britz has many smart things to say about systems in organisations; their influence and the boundaries they can create. 

Vendors are focused on budget holders, of course. They are most interested in the needs of their clients now and in the near term. The larger the organisation is, the more complicated it becomes to release funds from it. What are they prepared to put budget against in the next 12 months? Inherently and absolutely rightly, this is about fixing the current challenges customers face. That is what those R&D budgets and stall fees are for, after all. There are signals from more recent start ups and investment that change is in the wind, though and clients are becoming restless for different solutions. Even the LMS is disappearing from the lexicon, so anything is possible. 

These shifts take time, however. The language of performance and experience is starting to nudge its way past training and programmes in many conversations. The recent flurry of L&D podcasts are, refreshingly, absorbed in this debate and rarely debating the merits of LMS vs. LXP. Not those that I have heard anyway. 

How many signals of existential change will we see in East London this year? 

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon on

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