eLA Podcast | Ep. 2 | State of the Industry (Part 2)

Hello L&D friends and welcome back to the e-learning alchemists podcast. I am your host Clint Clarkson, and in this episode, we’ll continue our examination of the current state of the learning and development industry.

In the first episode, I presented my belief that our industry is in a bit of a rut, a funk if you will. And, I proposed five key reasons for this:

  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 episode, I will take a look at a few significant developments that are affecting our industry and what they might mean to you. It’s broken down into three parts.

  1. Rebranding/Marketing;
  2. The Gig Economy; and
  3. Outsourcing.

Let’s start with:

Rebranding and Marketing

There’s been a shift in our industry toward terms like “Talent Development,” “Performance Support,” “Performance and Learning,” and other references of this ilk. It’s significant enough that we’ve seen both the Canadian Society for Training and Development (CSTD) and the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) rebrand as the Institute for Performance and Learning (IPL) and the Association for Talent Development(ATD), respectively. But, what’s the reason for this pivot? There are a couple of reasons that I’m thinking right now.

Growing Recognition

The first is a positive shift in that it is a growing recognition that learning and development professionals do more than build PowerPoints and run training classes. In certain businesses – and even certain industries – we’ve been hampered by the notion that we don’t do much more than that. Both IPL and ATD have gone so far as enhancing their respective certification programs to better alliance or vacation with the myriad of different roles that L&D practitioners play.

Now, has this rebrand improved recognition of L&D’s broader role. I’m not sure really. I can say fairly confidently that I’m not hearing business leaders using “performance support” as a term more regularly. In fact, use of that term which spiked in the late ’80s stabilized around 2004, and we haven’t seen much growth since.

On the other hand usage of the term “talent development” began escalating quickly in 1999 and is continuing to rise. That said, my experience with this term has been that it is frequently used in a slightly different context, where L&D is seen as a really minor component of overall talent development. In a recent experience, an HR manager actually used the 70:20:10 ratio as justification for why L&D wasn’t a significant element of their talent development process for their leadership.

So, I guess the jury’s still out on this one; but, certainly making a move towards terminology that recognizes the broader work and impact of L&D practitioners is a positive move… even if those within the industry are the only ones noticing it.

Out of Necessity

There is however a second reason I believe we’re seeing adjustments to our terminology and this one is a bit more frustrating. A major element of the shift is rebranding out of necessity. To be clear, I’m not directing this comment at the industry association that I just mentioned. This broader rebranding is occurring within the L&D community not being led by a top-level organization.

So, what is the necessity causing this rebrand? Why would we want to change the name of something when we’re still doing basically the exact same thing we did before? In a word: Marketing.

So, what is the necessity causing this rebrand? Why would we want to change the name of something when we’re still doing basically the exact same thing we did before? In a word: Marketing. But, before we get into that let’s set the stage with a bit of history.

Discerning Leaders

L&D saw an initial growth spurt in the early ’70s, which leveled off between about ’75 and ’78, before it absolutely took off as a recognized element of developing people within organizations. While this boom ushered in what we know as L&D today, over the past decade discerning leaders realized that, for all the hype, L&D hasn’t been producing the results they were expected to.

In the mid ’80s and through the ’90s, as digital learning tools began to enter the marketplace, many organizations had an “If we build it, results will come” approach to learning and development. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. But, that didn’t stop the would be trainers and opportunistic vendors from jumping at the opportunity. Naturally, most business leaders knew very little about training employees and entrusted the task to vendors who knew little about their businesses or HR generalists who knew very little about adult learning… and probably very little about the business.

But, back to the point. In the boom era of L&D, businesses didn’t know what they were doing and anyone who could sell an idea was making hay. Then the sub-prime mortgage crisis, that led to the collapse of the US housing market, changed all that. In desperation to survive, organizations began looking at every aspect of their business and L&D was suddenly in the cross-hairs.

In the mid ’80s and through the ’90s, as digital learning tools began to enter the marketplace, many organizations had an ” If we build it, results will come” approach to learning and development.

“Look how much we’re spending on training!” CFOs cried from their corner offices. “What do we have to show for it?” And, there stood the L&D team with no results to show. We were building stuff not focused on business results.

Now, in all fairness, this story is certainly a generalization. Not all organizations reacted this way and not all L&D teams were caught holding the bag. But, for the first time since its massive boom in 1985, L&D was under tremendous pressure to produce results. This isn’t to say that no L&D team ever had this pressure before or that none had been producing fantastic results. They certainly were. It just seems that this was the pinch point where it became an issue that was discussed more broadly. So, with L&D under immense pressure to prove its worth and restore its former glory, we did what anyone would do: We immediately began focusing on measurable business results and only producing content that could be directly linked to business objectives…

Buzzword Factory

NO, WE DIDN’T! We just changed the name of everything and tried to call it something new. We became the quintessential buzzword factory. We’re calling eLearning by at least 20 different names that I can think of off the top of my head. And, while I wholeheartedly support distinctions like game-based learning, micro-learning, and blended-learning, none of the rebrandings is going to work if we can’t figure out how to consistently produce results. Then, running parallel to this evolution in our industry North America and perhaps the globe has been seeing a massive shift towards our next topic…

The Gig Economy

The Gig Economy is a wonderful boon for the L&D industry which I’ll talk about momentarily. But, it has also contributed to some negative perceptions of learning and development.

An Accessible Career

I absolutely love that there are so many people stepping out of frustrating corporate structures and making their side hustle their full-time jobs, and eLearning is right at the forefront of this revolution. Rapid authoring tools like Storyline and Captivate have made eLearning development and extremely accessible career. Bu,t it has also ushered in more low-quality deliverables that don’t produce business results. Individuals with the best of intentions no doubt selling services that they are not fully equipped to produce, developing outputs that create little or no value, and ultimately contributing negatively to our industry’s already fragile reputation.

This comes back to my commentary in the first part of this podcast when I discussed our need for a more strongly recognized certification for our industry. At least then we could say to a business: “You should have hired someone with the CPLP.” And, those individuals would know if they wanted to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, the CPLP would be their option.

It’s Time for Guilds

Anyways, if the gig economy is going to be successful in L&D long term we have got to get away from trying to be all things to all people. I believe we’d be far better served establishing guilds of eLearning developers, instructional designers, graphic designers, and others that work cooperatively, share work, and combine individual knowledge and experience in a variety of fields. In this model, individuals would utilize their best skills on a variety of projects rather than trying to piece together the parts they don’t know or aren’t that strong in.

Now, that’s certainly not to propose that individuals shouldn’t be developing new skills and learning on the fly. I spend a lot of time on Lynda.com building new skills or mastering old ones. And, frankly, it’s a fantastic way to learn; with a real project, real problems, and a real deadline right in front of you. But, at the end of the day, when we have paying clients, we have to ensure that the end product is masterful and that it aligns with their goals. A guild structure would give us the security to ensure our work is high quality and a resource for continued learning.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the eLearning Guild that already exists as an industry association. They are fantastic by the way, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.

I’m a firm believer in the gig economy for learning and development and believe it works best when we build a network of partners to create marvelous results.

Tremendously Beneficial

The gig economy is tremendously beneficial for contractors for the lifestyle it can create an even more beneficial for businesses seeking L&D work because it gives them:

  • enhanced flexibility;
  • more options;
  • a stronger pool of performers; and, in many cases,
  • cost certainty.

That said it doesn’t come without risk to those of us already entrenched in the industry. And that brings us to the final piece. The biggest threat to L&D practitioners:


Pakistan, Vietnam, Ukraine, and so many other parts of the globe are hot on our heels for production ability and quality. Language barriers are dissipating and bandwidth issues are gone. Entire developing nations are hungry for opportunity, while India has more honors students than the US has students in total. As those children have started to enter the workforce – the Millennials and Gen-Zs if that’s what you want to call them – they are coming with tremendous skill and determination. There are still barriers no doubt, but they are quickly coming down. These are motivated people willing to work hard for long hours to earn the type of life we often take for granted.

India vs. Indiana | Fiji vs. Fargo

As the gig economy continues to grow, it will become just as common to hire a developer in India as it is to hire one in Indiana. Adding to this momentum is that many businesses are only seeing basic rote, mono-directional learning experiences and, as a result, more and more of our work is going elsewhere. Somewhere cheaper.

There is no point lamenting or complaining about it. It’s happening to our industry for the same reason you buy a vacuum at Wal-Mart, Costco, or Amazon instead of going to a local vacuum shop. Yes, those still exist. There’s one down the street from me. We should probably just stop calling it outsourcing. If you’re in Vancouver how is getting your course from Fiji any different than getting it from Fargo.

Many businesses are only seeing basic rote mono-directional learning experiences…

Let me be clear about this though: Offshoring, outsourcing, whatever you want to call it, it is great for our industry. It means that only extremely capable performers will survive. Anyone else will be too expensive by comparison to the international alternative. It will look a lot like what has happened to the graphic design industry. There was a boom in the graphic design industry when Photoshop and Illustrator were unique specialized skill. But, that changed as the tools have become more user friendly easier to find training on and as skill sets in developing countries have grown. As a result, only those who are very good…. scratch that… Only those who are exceptional at graphic design and visual communication are thriving.

Offshoring/outsourcing… is great for our industry. It means that only extremely capable performers will survive.

I know at least a half dozen individuals, schooled in graphic design, who are working in positions about as creative as white rice. This happens because basic straightforward work is being outsourced. If you can’t produce at an outstanding level you can’t survive very long in that industry. And, when it’s not being outsourced is being moved in-house to low paying fresh-out-of-school positions or, even worse, to unpaid interns. Or, it’s being sent for tender where competing on price might be your only option. And, competing on price is a death sentence for an individual contractor. If organizations believe they’re getting the same results from these cheaper options they’re going to keep using them.

In-Class IDs – You’re Not Safe

This same effect hasn’t hit in class developers quite as hard as the eLearning developers, but it’s coming. If you’re an in-class instructional designer, I bet you believe that you can build a course for a company in L.A., Boston, or Dublin just as well. Some Skype calls, emails, and maybe an onsite visit – although even that seems less and less necessary – and chances are you can build a quality course, right? So, why can’t the young woman in Kyrgyzstan do the same?

Competing on price is a death sentence for an individual contractor.

Great for Our Industry

Before I wrap this up, I want to reiterate that the gig economy and outsourcing are great for our industry. Competition creates ingenuity and determination. It might be exactly what we need. And, while international competition is coming with technical skill sets, will they be able to consult with clients to fully understand their performance gap? Will they carry the business acumen required to interpret different organization’s unique culture and organizational norms? I suppose that only time can tell.

Wrap Up

All right folks let’s wrap this up. Here’s a rapid fire recap for your pleasure:

Building on Episode 1, today presented three more big ideas:

  1. Rebranding/Marketing. Our industry is using a lot of new terms or old terms in new ways. We’re doing this in part to better articulate what we do in L&D, but we’re also doing it to remarket things we’ve been doing for a long time, but with which we have not produced adequate results for our clients. Unfortunately, the rebranding will only work in so far as we can produce the results our clients desire.
  2. The Gig Economy is here. Let’s make sure we don’t find ourselves as individual contributors isolated and producing below quality work because we don’t have the requisite skills to do all the work of a project. Let’s form guilds and build partnerships, so we’re delivering on the promise we make to businesses.
  3. Outsourcing. Yep it’s a thing. And, only the strong will survive. If you’re a top performer you will thrive. So, keep upskilling, keep getting better, keep building relationships, and by all means necessary, keep listening to this podcast (just thought I’d try to slip that in there).

What do you think?

  • Do you agree with my assessment of our industry rebranding?
  • Are the gig economy and outsourcing good for our industry? Or, will they damage it?

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’ll listen again next week. Well we discussed the importance of speaking the language of your business.

Take care until then,

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