eLA Podcast | Ep. 1 | State of the Industry (Part 1)

Welcome to the eLearning Alchemist Podcast. Thank you so much for listening today. I am your host Clint Clarkson and this is our very first episode. In this episode, I will set the stage for future episodes and then address the current state of the learning and development industry.

Let’s begin. First off, this podcast is not just about learning. While my primary professional focus is e-learning the work that I do is continually intersecting with other aspects of learning and development. Addressing the challenges of learning and development and conceptualizing how we can improve the practices of our industry requires a deeper reflection than analyzing just one component of our work. So, it’s not enough to speak strictly of e-learning without excluding some really important pieces of a multi-dimensional puzzle.

The goal of these podcasts is really simple. We’re going to dive into a variety of L&D topics to give you quick doses of L&D thoughts and opinions aiming for 15 to 20 minutes in length. The type of thing that you can listen to a couple of times per week on your drive to work or on your breaks or whenever is convenient for you.

What you’re not going to get from this podcast is a regurgitation of blogs like “The 6 Keys to Success in Micro-learning.” Instead, I’ll look to identify challenges in the status quo and present ideas for consideration to help improve our industry. Not all of these ideas will be fully fleshed out; so, feel free to get in touch challenged these ideas and share your own perspective.

As a component of this podcast I plan to host a series of interviews with functional leaders from industry. While I may on occasion interview an L&D practitioner that won’t be the norm and there’s two reasons for this:

  1. First there are already a bunch of grea L&D podcasts like: TLDCast in the US, the learning hook in Australia, the PodLearn Adventure based in the UK and they’re already doing great work in this area.
  2. Second, I want to get away from preaching to the choir. There are lots of great L&D practitioners out there and they’re not that hard to find. Digging up the perspectives on our customers however the businesses and organizations we serve tends to be a bit more challenging.

So, I’ll set out to ask the customer about their perspectives of learning and development.

  • What do they see their needs ask and are we meeting them?
  • Did they want to see more of and what do they believe there is value in?
  • What are they frustrated about?
  • What isn’t L&D doing enough of or what do we need to stop doing?

Fundamentally, these types of perspectives are incredibly valuable in an effort to increase L&D’s actual and perceived value. So, with the scene set let’s dive in to the State of the L&D industry.

Part 1: It’s Time for Change

My sense is that our industry is in a bit of a funk. For all the fantastic technologies that have hit mainstream in the past 10 years like smartphones tablets rapid authoring tools and drip release elements as – even the advances in VR and AR tech and 360 video – despite all of these, our customers the businesses and organizations we serve are still struggling to see the value we can bring. They still question making investments in learning and development.

When our customers struggled to see our value – after years and years of research and adult learning and the truly incredible advancements in technology that improve our work – when that happens, we are doing something wrong.

But, in spite of this serious challenge what we don’t lack in this industry are dedicated hard working people doing the absolute best they can with what they’ve got. It would be hard to find a group of professionals more absorbed in or passionate about their work than the L&D community. It’s a bit of a paradox though isn’t it. On the one hand we have professionals with a tremendous desire to create value while on the other hand we have customers who can’t see that value. How is it possible that there is such a tremendous difference between our perceived value in the eyes of our customers and our desire to create value?

While there are certainly more 5 Key Challenges come to mind for me:

  1. We want to create stuff not produce results;
  2. We don’t reality test well enough;
  3. We continue to perpetuate the learner-focused axiom;
  4. We Don’t have a strong enough certification brand; and
  5. We spent too much time in our own echo chamber.

In this first part of my state of the industry I’ll try to cover each of these challenges beginning with…

Challenge #1: We want to create stuff not produce results

If you’ve worked in L&D long enough you’ve undoubtedly heard of Kirkpatrick’s 4 Levels of Learning Evaluation. If you’re unfamiliar with Kirkpatrick’s model do a quick Google search and you will find lots of information. Kirkpatrick’s levels of evaluation are crucial for any learning professional to understand.

This model provides the learning professional with multiple data points that can be used to improve learning programs. What’s not to love about that? Unfortunately, this model is frequently misused and acts as a hindrance to the L&D team instead of helping them prove their worth.

So, how is it misused? Well, it starts with this fundamental fact: the L&D team’s responsibility is not to create learning results; instead, it is to produce performance results. To be clear this is not an exercise in semantics. Learning results particularly those collected at Level 1 (learner reaction) and Level 2 (learning – that is increased knowledge or skill) mean absolutely nothing to your organization. They mean a lot to you as a learning professional but their face value is zero. A learning program can produce fantastic Level 1 and Level 2 data and still have absolutely no impact on the organization… and, your business leaders know this. The mistake L&D is making so often is not the collection of Level 1 and Level 2 data. – I believe we need this data – but we shouldn’t be sharing the data unless it is explicitly requested why do we share it anyways. More often than not it’s because we don’t have anything else to show and that is the real problem. If we could show a definitive increase in behaviors associated with positive customer service we show that instead. And, if we could show a 27.8% increase in sales we showed that instead. This is where our problem lies. We’re so dedicated to creating great learning experiences – which we absolutely should be – but not at the expense of losing sight of the whole point that training exists: to improve organizational performance.

The L&D team’s responsibility is not to create learning results; instead, it is to produce performance results.

The mental shift from creating training programs to producing performance results is perhaps the most important shift learning practitioners need to make right now. That’s a call to action for you.

When a customer buys a bulldozer it’s because they want to knock something over or move something around. Not because they want to own a bulldozer – as cool as that may be. The same can be said for training. When an organization buys a training product from a vendor or from their internal team they don’t want training. They want the result that training is supposed to produce. We need to stop selling bulldozers and start knocking things over.

Challenge #2: We don’t reality test well enough

If we shift our focus towards performance results, we’ll be more inclined to reality test more intensely. When our focus is results, we often get a harsh dose of reality when the results aren’t there. And, that’s OK. Knowing that what we’re creating isn’t producing results – if that is the case – is a tremendously valuable piece of information. The term reality testing comes from psychology and refers to the objective evaluation of something against real life. In other words, it’s asking the world if they see things the same way that we see things. It’s the reason that I want to interview business leaders not L&D people because we need to test our reality against the world outside of learning and development.

Reality testing starts by honestly asking yourself: “Does the project I’m pursuing directly align with an organizational goal.” If no, it’s time to reconsider the project. If yes, the next step is to test that reality on other people in your business. Do they believe the project is directly aligned with an organizational goal? Your job here is to listen to other people not try to convince them that the project you want to take on or have been requested to take on is of value.

If the people of your organization agree that the proposed program is in alignment the next question is: “How will we measure success?” You may want to come up with your own proposal for measuring success but ultimately your business leaders need to agree to how success will be measured before the project starts. Too often L&D hides in its corner of the building making stuff and doesn’t spend enough time soliciting the reality of business leaders. For many L&D teams closing this gap would on its own significantly improve L&Ds perception within your business.

Reality testing however, goes beyond the initial launch of a project. And, it will often need to go outside your business because, while we need to produce results instead of stuff, the stuff we produce needs to be pretty darn good. Or, your learners are going to revolt because you’re not as exciting as an iPhone and that’s their alternative. It’s not hard to ask another trainer or instructional designer to critique our work. What’s far more difficult is getting anyone to be honest about it. To reality test effectively, we need the world to tell us the truth; and because we’re generally such a positive bunch in L&D – which is fantastic I don’t want that to change – we’re often apprehensive about providing critical constructive feedback. We need to get away from soft touch feedback and start being honest.

We need to be able to say:

  • “Look you’re not adhering to the Principles of Multimedia Learning… Oh you don’t know what those are. Here’s a link to The Science of E-Learning and Instruction. Go buy it and read it.” Or to say:
  • “Visually this is a disaster. You need to start using a graphic designer or get on Lydna.com and develop some of those skills yourself.”
  • “Why are the next buttons in different positions on every slide.”
  • “Why are you using six different fonts.”
  • “What’s with the pixilated skewed photos.”
  • “Why the hell did you get Ben Stein to do the voiceover.”

If you are a leader in our industry you have got to start giving honest constructive and actionable feedback. And, if you’re a developer or trainer you have got to start soliciting more feedback.

My wish for our industry would be a “No-holds-barred” Review Forum. A place where trainers could upload videos of their sessions to get honest feedback on their facilitation and the program if they designed it. A place where instructional designers could upload their work, their facilitator guides and participant guides and ask for honest constructive feedback. A place where e-learning developers could share their courses and get timely honest feedback. What do you think? Would you use a forum like that?

Challenge #3: We continue to perpetuate the learner focused axiom

I’ve gotten some heat for this one in the past but I’m sticking to my guns because I believe in it so strongly. There’s an axiom that’s been floating around L&D for years that essentially says to create great training it needs to be learner-focused. I’m calling bullshit.

It’s not that being learner focused is wrong. It’s completely right, but it’s sending the absolute wrong message to new learning professionals. Yes, your eLearning design should engage the learner and that’s engage with their brain not click with their mouse. And, yes you’re in class training should be about the learner not the facilitator. But, that is unequivocally not what makes great corporate training. Corporate training is only great when it produces performance results and that is the message we should be giving to every learning professional. The biggest mistake we make as an industry is believing that our work matters. It doesn’t. The results we produce matter. Everything else is just part of the process. Our focus needs to be on the gaps in performance we’re trying to close not on how we close them. When we get down to the nitty-gritty of creating a learning product YES! it should be learner focused, but that is not the starting point.

The biggest mistake we make as an industry is believing that our work matters. It doesn’t. The results we produce matter.

Challenge #4: We don’t have a strong enough certification brand

All right, this one’s gonna be short. In North America we have two popular training certifications:

  1. CTDP in Canada
  2. CPLP in the US

And, they each have a lower tier certification as well. One of the challenges with these certifications is that they aren’t well recognized outside of our industry. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that you didn’t know what one or both of these acronyms stand for.

I believe L&D is a far more difficult craft than project management but the project management institute has a globally recognized certification in the Project Management Professional or PMP designation. There are other project management certifications but the PMP is the standard and it is well recognized outside of people working in project management. Why doesn’t L&D have that.

Admittedly, I’ve never tried to promote a certification globally or tried to build its brand and reputation but it’s something that our industry needs. The CPLP is probably the right certification to do this with… Your move ATD.

Challenge #5: We spend too much time in our own echo chamber

We have some fantastic conferences in the L&D industry headlined by:

I love these events. They are chock full of some of the most talented presenters and knowledgeable people from the learning and development industry. Have you ever seen Bob Mosher speak? What about Jane BozarthChris Van WingerdenDaniel Wallace? They’re all fantastic. I also love presenting at these events sharing my learning and experiences with my L&D peers. But, as L&D professionals we’re spending way too much time stuck in our own echo chamber. L&D people, telling L&D people:

  • How great we are;
  • How are crucial to companies success;
  • How we are the linchpin to employee retention or engagement; and
  • How we’re a strategic differentiator.

Then we all lament the same challenges:.

  • Managers that won’t buy in;.
  • Not being able to reasonably measure the success of customer service or leadership programs; or
  • Budgets being cut while expectations are being raised (that’s everyone’s problem, just for the record).

And, few of us have truly overcome these problems. We have fleeting flashes of success but not a lot of sustained momentum. Even fewer of us yet are creating massive results for our organizations.

All of our chatter, all of our self promoting and little to show for it. How are we supposed to get better listening to others who think just like us, have the same problems as us, and in many cases are failing just like us?

The problem here is that the wrong people are at our conferences. S,should go to L&D conferences. But, if you’re an L&D practitioner and your organization will only send you to, or you can only afford to go to, one conference per year an L&D conference is the wrong one. If you want to make a tangible difference in your organization and want to be seen as a credible person in your business, you should be making a proposal to attend a conference for the industry you work in.

  • If you work at a regional hospital go to a health care conference.
  • If you work for a fiberglass composites company go to a manufacturing conference.
  • If you work for a trucking company go to a supply chain conference.

You must learn more about your business and understand its operation and moneymaking model if you want to make a really outstanding contribution through learning and development. I know that an L&D professional can develop great products without knowing a business inside and out. The thing is you’re not trying to create a training event or one great course. You’re trying to create a culture of learning where you and your team is seen as an important contributor to organizational success. Perception is a big part of success inside an organization. So it’s critical to be perceived as a person who’s using your unique skill set in a way that creates value.

You must learn more about your business and understand its operation and moneymaking model if you want to make a really outstanding contribution through learning and development.

Am I saying don’t ever go to L&D conferences. Heck, no! There are lots of great reasons to attend L&D conferences. If you can and if you’re going to industry specific conferences with your functional leaders shouldn’t they be coming to our conferences? Honestly, who’s going to get more value out of a conference that focuses on adult learning and people development: A.) the person who does that all of the time and all of the training and personal development is in that area or B.) the leader who desperately needs to buy into your initiatives in order to make them successful. Take. Them. With. You.

You might think that it would be a hard sell to get a functional leader – perhaps the customer service leader, the dispatch leader, the flight plan leader, whatever happens to be – you may think that it would be difficult to get them to go to one of these conferences. But, you have an easy sales point: Leaders are responsible for their people’s performance (as much as they may want to delegate it to L&D or HR). They own that responsibility and understanding how to get the most out of their people using techniques from adult learning is tremendously valuable. So, find a leader you know believes in your work and take them with you. Turn them into your champion inside the organization. Making L&D great again isn’t going to happen through L&D people doing L&D things with other L&D people. It’s going to happen when we commit to our businesses and our businesses commit to us.

Leaders are responsible for their people’s performance (as much as they may want to delegate it to L&D or HR).

All right. Let’s do a quick recap before wrapping this up.

Despite the dedicated passionate and hardworking people in L&D our industry is in a bit of a funk. Our customers are struggling to see the value we can bring. I believe we’re here because of five key challenges:

  1. We want to create stuff not produce results. We spend too much time trying to create great learning experiences instead of getting to behavior change and performance results that actually drive business performance (the things our customers are actually interested in).
  2. We don’t reality test well enough. We need to seek the opinions of those outside L&D and inside our own business before proceeding with projects. And, we need to get other L&D professionals to give us feedback on our work that is critical and constructive.
  3. We continue to perpetuate the learner focused axiom. Yes, training should be learner focused but this is not what makes great training. Training is only great when it produces measurable performance results. There is no other way to define great training.
  4. We don’t have a strong enough certification brand. Our industry lacks a globally recognized certification. We have a great one in the CPLP. We need to figure out how to market it beyond the L&D community.
  5. We spent too much time in our own echo chamber. We should network connect and learn from other L&D professionals; but, not at the exclusion of people outside our industry. Go to a conference specific to your industry and learn more about it. You’ll become a more valuable member of your organization if you do.

So, what do you think? Do you agree? Is our industry in a funk? If not, how come? If so, what do you think of the five challenges that I’ve laid out here? Are these the right ones? Would you eliminate or replace any? Would you add to the list?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts put them in the comments section or email me at [email protected]

That’s all for today folks. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you listen again next week as we continue this state of the industry address and discuss re-branding/marketing the gig economy and outsourcing.

Take care until then,

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