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 G. Wise
Workforce Performance Advocate, Coach, Speaker 
(317) 437-2555
Web: Living In Learning