Lessons from Nashville – by Donald H Taylor, chairman, Learning and Performance Institute
I spend a lot of time at conferences—whether running them, talking at them, or attending—and I can tell you the toughest thing about getting them right is not finding the right venue; it’s not getting the food to arrive hot, nor even choosing the speakers.
It’s setting the right tone.
That’s why I was so impressed by the 2015 Lectora® User Conference in Nashville in May. The venue—the Music City Center—was great, and the setup totally professional, as you would expect from Trivantis, but what really struck me was the buzz among the delegates and the positive atmosphere. People were there from all over the US and beyond, ready to share thoughts, experiences, and insights into the fast-changing world of learning that we’re all facing in L&D.
Clearly there’s a strong community feeling among Lectora users, and the Trivantis crew had done a great job of supporting that and helping it flourish.
As the opening keynote, I did my best to maintain that spirit and add some energy, by posing questions and inviting the delegates to talk together and share experiences. It’s my experience as the chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute that no matter how smart any of us thinks we are individually—and this includes the person on stage speaking—we are smarter when we share what we know.
In a way, that was the simple message of my opening keynote—we are now in a fast-moving world, where traditional learning and training methods meet an increasingly smaller range of needs. Standing and talking is no longer enough. We can help people learn better, faster, when we encourage them to share.
It was all very different when I began as a face-to-face trainer in the mid-1980s. Back then, courses and books were all we had. Today, we have to adjust our practice to meet the needs of learners, and the reality of a very different business environment.
We now live and work in a global economy where the speed of change is far faster than ever. In 1958, the average company in the S&P 500 Index remained there for 61 years. That number is now less than 20 years. In the 1960s, stocks were typically held for over 8 years. They are now held for an average of about 6 months. The world of business is tougher, and more unforgiving, than ever.
That’s the big picture. On the smaller scale, our lives are all impacted by business’s shortened time-scales. In this environment, the traditional approach of conveying new information—the course—cannot supply all the answers. A course simply takes too long to produce, check, and distribute to meet most learning needs. When Charles Jennings was Chief Learning Officer at Thomson Reuters, he reckoned many of his learning assets were obsolete within three months. That’s very different from my face-to-face training experiences in the mid-1980s, when we would create a course and use it for the next two years.
Courses are still an important part of what we do, particularly for on-boarding and for compliance, where people don’t know what they don’t know. But as the business demands that skills transfer and information acquisition become ever more rapid, we have to expand our repertoire of offerings. If we don’t, we run the risk of getting stuck in what I call the Training Ghetto.
When I used that term in Nashville, it struck a chord with the audience—the idea that we’re too often ignored by the rest of the business, or treated as a strange, different place where people talk a slightly odd language and think differently.
When the business thinks of us like this, it has an impact on how we work. Usually that impact is pretty negative. The most obvious manifestation is when managers show up with a very specific request for training to “fix” their team, something like “They need a 30-minute eLearning course on time management.”
Usually, of course, the real problem is not the team. It’s the manager. The fitting response is to tell them to return to their teams and be a better manager, or as one member of the Nashville audience suggested, simply to “Get out of my office!”
Although that approach would be very satisfying in the short term, in the longer term it’s probably healthy neither for the effectiveness of the L&D department nor your own job security. Instead, I advocate an approach that’s easy to describe, although more challenging to put into practice: move your approach from the supply-side to the demand-side. Stop thinking of problems in terms of the solutions we have at hand (usually courses) and ask instead three questions of the business: what are the immediate performance needs, what are the longer term capability needs, and what foundations are needed to support both of these?
All of this is summed up by the experience of Andrew Jacobs. Andrew ran the L&D department for a London borough, a local authority employing about 3,000 people. When his team was cut from eight to two (including himself), he shifted his approach entirely away from producing and delivering courses and spent his time instead talking to managers about their performance and capability needs and putting in place the infrastructure that helped them meet those needs. The result: employees spent more time learning—and felt the results to be more effective—than under the previous course-driven approach. Of course, Andrew still does produce and deliver courses—but only where they are the best possible solution to the performance issue.
He sums this up in one phrase: “We have behaved too much like shop keepers. We need to become engineers.”
Andrew’s right, and it was a thought I heard repeated by the Lectora users in Nashville. The good news is that the community of users—fostered by Trivantis—is supporting each other in making the transition to demand-side thinking. As I say, we learn best when we learn together. Having met many of them, I’m confident this group of smart eLearning specialists will keep on learning as it changes itself to meet the rigours of 21st century workplace learning.