Home > Continuous Learning, Rants & Ramblings > The Future of Learning is NOT Now!

The Future of Learning is NOT Now!

I realize this may stretch the pretext of a cute catchphrase, but it seems appropriate this afternoon. The future of learning truly is NOT now because we are not ready for it…nor are we at a state of readiness even if it were now. The catalyst for making this statement about the future of learning stems from my good fortune and honor to participate in a virtual discussion yesterday as a panelist in, “The Future of the Business of Learning”, sponsored by Learn Trends, ISA and Training Magazine Network. The program hosted by Tony Karrer with support from Jay Cross, Harold Jarche, and Ray Jimenez, all recognized names in the learning industry, was a successful effort. Over a five-hour period there were as many panels that focused on topics ranging from industry-wide perspective, to internal training organizations, to vendors of training, software, and services. I found it to be an awesome mix of perspectives from an international audience and walked away sensing a common (global) feeling of foreboding for the future.

The sense of foreboding (and this represents only my opinion at this point) came from the panelists not really knowing what the future held – regardless of their learning discipline or perspectives represented on the panels. While there were strategies in place to attack the future as it unfolded, I saw little consensus as to specific destinations. Consensus seemed to surface in the discussion that our current approaches to learning were not sustainable. I could not agree more. One thing I am sure of is how pleased I am that my job is not in the business of selling training content right now.

I cannot speak for all the disciplines represented on the panel or their perspectives, but I can feel their pain of not knowing. I am tempted to ask, “Why figure out what is next when we are failing on what is right now?” We have some “now” problems to address. Declining training budgets, classroom utilization & attendance, and increases in incomplete e-learning courses are but a few indicators we all see today. I suppose we could (and do) blame a tough economy for these declines, but I believe we saw these trends beginning well before the economy went bust. Tough times have simply turned up the brightness of the light already shining on diminishing returns on training.

It is my opinion that these declines are symptomatic of training departments delivering less value to the organization. This may not be fact for all, but if your training budget decreased for next year, somebody with the purse strings simply did not see the value. Real or implied, these symptoms are today’s issues, not tomorrow’s, yet the “fix” for today’s shortfalls could – if we do it with forethought, prepare us to meet the uncertainty of the future of learning.

We are all ready for a different future, but what I see as our greatest challenge is our readiness for the future. “Our” challenge, in this post, refers to the domain of internal training organizations. The aggregate audience and the panelists yesterday seemed to be searching for that silver bullet to “fix” what is broken. My fear is that the economy is going to rebound only to exacerbate training’s existing shortfall. We are already struggling to handle the velocity of learning requirements effectively to survive today’s demands. What scares me are the prospects of a rapidly expanding economy and surging changes through innovation catching us in our limited state of readiness. I am serious, it truly scares me, and it should scare every training organization that is not in a position to support a continuous learning environment.

Josh Bersin, one of the Industry Perspective panelists described a dramatic shift toward the integration of more informal learning. He also referenced a favorite term of mine when he said we needed to shift our training mindset to the creation of learning environments.

Creating a continuous learning environment demands that our methodology – our design theology – embraces the learner’s work context. This is where the subject of readiness is so critical. I do not see most training departments at a state of readiness to create a sustainable learning environment where learning is continuously available. Some are closer than others, but some are so stuck in traditional linear design methodologies that the jump to readiness demands a great competency leap. I feel one of our greatest challenges to reaching readiness is – holistic discovery. E-Learning Guild will publish my white paper “The Continuous Learning Environment: Surviving Learning Solution Discovery”, in their July 27th issue of Learning Solutions E-Zine that focuses on the expanded scope of discovery necessary to sustain continuous learning.

Until our scope of discovery expands to embrace the work context of the learner, we will never be able to position learning assets close enough to their most critical moments of learning need. As training organizations, we have mastered the art of classroom and on-line design, development and delivery. Mastery, however, is a conditional relationship that remains relevant as long as there is alignment with the need that requires it. That need has shifted. The need demands we provide an increasing percentage of learning solutions in the context of our work, not as a separate, disconnected transaction.

Does that mean classroom training is dead? No, it does not, but classroom instruction will likely become relegated to compliance-related or other mandatory training that requires old-school delivery as a function of demonstrating completion. In the context of a learning continuum though, classroom training plays a radically different role where emphasis is on job emulation and demonstrating proficiency using performer support tools. This becomes critical when we anticipate the learner experiencing more learning moments of need surfacing in the middle of their workflows. Meeting the demands of this work environment changes our approach to design methods – to our development choices – and to our delivery venues. Before any of those implications to change are considered, we must implement a holistic approach to discovery – specific to the work context. Without an expanded discovery model, our hopes of sustaining a continuous learning environment are greatly limited.

I mentioned that I do not see many training organizations equipped with the competencies or, in some cases, the desire to integrate this methodology. Interestingly, however, I witness internal business clients hungry for a more business and performance-centric approach to building a sustained capability in their people. The target has shifted from knowledge and skills to delivery of a sustained capability. Now our job emphasis has shifted to a hybrid sales and performance consulting model. To me, THAT is the future of learning. We may be ready to do something different, but I cannot agree that we are at a state of readiness to go there.

My opinions and performance consulting biases flavor my momentum and promote my passion on this subject, but…I am respectful that other paths lead to this future as well. I welcome any thoughts on this rant because active dialog is essential to our collective learning and defining our respective paths forward. Each organization will have a different map to follow, but regardless of path taken, readiness – defined by a requisite set of competencies – will determine our ability to sustain a future continuous learning capability.

Gary Wise
Learning & Performance Solutions Strategist
LinkedIn Profile
Twitter: Gdogwise


  1. e.w.
    July 29, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    I was fortunate enough to work within a cutting-edge training department for a major pharmaceutical company having received several awards for innovative achievements. We did this with a staff of less than ten. Using our combined expertise, and extremely limited budget – even by 2002 standards, we delivered solutions at an alarming rate. Red tape was practically non-existent and discussions were productive rather than argumentative. I emphasize, ‘we delivered’ – we were in the Now – in the future of learning.

    Too often I see now, both within learning and not, we like to discuss possibilities and review technologies without leaving ourselves to actually TRY something. Why we can’t step into the future of learning is because we can’t stop TALKING about it. Today companies are too quick to pull out the checkbooks and purchase a shelved solution as their ‘silver bullet’ rather than invest in their talent and harness something truly unique. We corner ourselves and grow only where our vendors permit us. We’re left with applications that don’t apply, with tools that don’t fit and with engaged learning that isn’t.

    I just get burnt out listening to some of today’s ‘experts’. Many, it seems, speak just to hear their own voice. Others jump on every trail they find regardless of the scent as if it’s a race to introduce something first opposed to actually accomplishing something with it. Yet others are open to admitting they simply deliver these as prospects for us, the trenchmen, to arm ourselves with and run off guns-a-blazing. We run back to them, the ‘experts’, like dogs to show what we’ve accomplished with their idea. Are we as driven for glory as they are? How are we really measuring effectiveness – success vs. failure?

    How can we expect to push any significant change? Like, why aren’t learners required to adjust to our methods rather us to theirs? As experts we should know the effectiveness of our various options and, perhaps by force, require our learners to accept it. It’s our due diligence to understand – not know – the objectives and with that information, the real golden egg here, design/develop/deliver the training they never knew they wanted – no, NEEDED. They need nothing more than knowing it’s the ‘right’ way, no? If no, then what do we really bring to table as learning experts? Are we simply there to flip the lights? What’s the fear anyway – is it really an option to NOT utilize the training? I think not… and if it is you have bigger issues as an organization rather than a department.

    I want to push the limits – test the learner. I want achievements to be measurable, not by a test but by performance. I want to tell vendors where their product is lacking and why waiting for a release is unacceptable. Why we DO have options. I want to stop massaging data just to deliver numbers that keep our tails out of the sling – who are we kidding?

    It is our chosen method to achieve discovery – while swallowing our pride, perhaps – where our challenge lies.

    • September 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm

      Eddy, great comments. Glad to see the passion is still there too. I both agree and disagree with parts of your thoughts. I truly agree that “we are the experts” when it comes to design, development and delivery of training. In that regard, we are not in the business of catering to the learner, and we DO have to establish some rules and protocols for the formal aspects of learning. Also, in that context, we decide best ways to deliver with technology or other methodology. I’m not so sure how much “force” we can apply beyond the implications of non-compliance issues to both learner and manager.

      Regarding what they need…or know what they need…I wonder if it really is a question of them not knowing what they need…or understanding the context in which they need it? I know several designers who lack technology awareness, and are not comfortable with how to get it into their hands. Not their fault, but it is their knowledge gap. That’s where I think we, as training professionals, are not ready for the future. Our designers are steeped in traditional approaches and lack comfortable levels of knowledge of availalbe technology options. Using social media is a perfect example. Informal learning is exploding, and we follow an instructional design model – ADDIE – that does not support a holistic approach to learning. It is perfect for training, but learning is bigger than that.

      The learner’s work context is the focal point of their learning environment. Work context ends up becoming a driver or a restrainer during the learner’s moments of learning need. Did the ISD process compensate for the attributes of the work context? Risk? Urgency? Access to content? Mobility? That is my main point of emphasis in this post. We have to control what we can, and understand the work context of the learner. The initial discovery and design efforts should have handled that on the front end.

      “Testing the learner” is a good thing, as in “making them stretch”, especially if we can do it in the context of their work. And if we are not measuring by performance, we can only demonstrate how busy we are as trainers as opposed to how effective we’ve been. Our problem with vendors is trusting too early. If we have not defined the work contexts that manifest in our learning environment, how in the world can we buy a technology solution? It’s a case of being ready to buy…but not at a state of readiness to implement. We’ve both in the same boat…here’s a LMS…make it fit. “Fit” should be determined and be the driver for evaluating vendor solutions through Use Case scenarios versus something you do after the purchase. We tend to be easily distracted by bright shiny objects and promises of solutions that turn out not be be the “fit” we needed. I can’t blame the vendors though, they have to feed a family too. I have to blame myself for not being in a state of readiness. Of course, you never really know all the implications of something as complex as a continuous learning environment, but holistic definition of need would minimize the misfits.

      I agree “we” have to choose our method of discovery, and I’m convinced there are more ways than my chosen method to skin this cat. Whatever the path taken, expanding the scope to include the work context is a critical component. If ADDIE is your choice, use ADDIE, but make sure to iterate across the PDR phases of the learning continuum.

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