21st Century L&D Skills

I was recently involved in a discussion about 21st Century learning skills in one of the LinkedIn Groups. It got me thinking about a piece I’d written for TrainingZone a few months ago titled ‘What does your ideal L&D team look like in 2010?’ I’ve posted that article here, with some changes and updates.

If we’re to believe the experts rather than the man-in the-street, the 21stCentury started on 1st January


2001 rather than on 1st January 2000. Subsequently, we’re now in the second half of the last year of the first decade of the millennium. That being the case, it’s probably worthwhile reflecting on the changes that have impacted our training/learning departments over the past 10 years. It’s also worthwhile thinking forward to the world we’re likely to be facing over the next 10 and considering what an ideal learning and development team might look like if it is to effectively navigate the future.

So, what’s changed?

In the years BW (before the web) it was enough for training and learning professionals to have an understanding of instructional design and development processes (usually embedded in some ADDIE-like methodology), to be adequate writers and developers of content, and to be good performers in front of a group. This was due to the fact that the role was almost entirely focused on designing, developing and delivering training or learning events in face-to-face workshops and classes. Even if you didn’t understand the theoretical base of adult learning, so long as you could apply the ‘recipe’ you were likely to get by reasonably well.

You may have joined the training/learning profession because you were a subject expert and wanted to (or were recruited to) share your expertise. You may have fallen into L&D from an HR generalist role. Or you may have entered the learning world through a professional qualification from the CIPD, ASTD or some other national or regional awarding body, or through a College or University diploma or degree.

Once in the profession you lived and died by your participant feedback sheets. So long as the people attending your classes liked you and the catering, you were probably OK. Your Chief Learning Officer (although of course they were not known by that name then) reviewed the feedback on your classes and workshops, thought that you were doing a good job, and all was right with the world.

Then two things happened.

Change 1: The web – changing things for ever

Berners-Lee_and_CailliauFirstly, in 1990 Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau changed our world forever with their invention of the World Wide Web. In the wake of that innovation the concept of information and knowledge being held by the few and dispensed in structured learning events to the many collapsed. Information became ubiquitous, access became much, much easier, and the concept that ‘knowledge is power’ gave way to one of ‘access is power’.

At the same time the rate of change in many organisations increased. People moved through roles more quickly or moved off to other organisations in shorter periods, organisational strategies started to evolve in almost real-time (the idea of a 5-year or 10-year strategy/plan died about the same time the Berlin wall fell), and the ‘truth’ in terms of information and knowledge became a moving target.

All these changes threw further challenges at the model of one-off ‘knowledge transfer’ and heralded the emergence of an understanding of the need for a culture of continuous learning.

Change 2: Informal and workplace learning – a challenge for L&D

learning_informallyThe second thing that happened was that most people came to realise that the majority of learning doesn’t occur in workshops and classrooms. Classrooms may be good places to support change initiatives and some high-level concept development and, in some cases, help the development of skills, but if learning professionals focus solely, or even primarily, on formal learning we know now that they’re missing a very big trick. There’s lots of evidence to support the fact that informal and workplace learning should be learning professionals’ prime focus. ‘Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance’ by Jay Cross my colleague in theInternet Time Alliance is a great starting point if you need one to back this up.

Added to this we’re finding that organisational structures are changing. Formal training and learning may have been adequate for the structured hierarchies of the 20th century (although this is arguable). It certainly isn’t for the 21st century ‘wirearchy’. Jon Husband, an expert business analyst and long-standing HR/L&D professional, explains Wirearchy as: “a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology.

Husband sees the Wirearchy model continuing to emerge and have impact, with “generations coming into the workplace with interactive games, ICQ, Napster, chat rooms, MySpace, Facebook, and ubiquitous mobility under their skin.. They’re equipped with smarter software, and they take interconnectedness for granted – it’s second nature to them” (it’s easy to see the challenge, with some of these tools and technologies already having been superseded by newer generations of smarter ‘gadgets’). Husband’s views on this are well documented in ‘The Future of Workplace Dynamics’ published by the World Future Society. This change is yet another challenge for L&D departments.

Social learning: The next game-changing tool for L&D

It is almost 20 years since Berners-Lee and Cailliau thrust the Web into an unsuspecting world and about 10 years since the birth of ‘e-learning’ and the widespread acknowledgement that informal learning is vital.

More recently, the social learning revolution has built on these to offer a new world of learning and development. Harold Jarche discusses some of the issues concerning the value that social learning brings in the ‘The value of social media for learning’ piece on his blog.

Jarche also challenges one of the basic tenets of L&D departments – that they should focus on developing the skills of individuals in their organisation. Jarche says: “Individual learning in organisations is irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Therefore, social networks are the conduit for effective organisational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organisation.”

A quick look at an enlightened approach to the use of social media in organisations (from my former employer, Thomson Reuters) should be enough to tell us the sensible way to encourage the best use of social networks as part of both work and learning.

Jarche and Cross argue, and I certainly agree, that training is inadequate in developing the emergent practices necessary to operate in complex networked environments. The future training/L&D department needs to understand this and respond. Social learning approaches offer one important route to adapt in this new environment. Performance support and business process guidance offer other successful strategies. All of these require new L&D operating models.

L&D Capabilities for 2010 and beyond

hands_0633_smallSo, how does all this impact what the L&D department of 2010 and beyond looks like?

What are the implications for the skills and capabilities that an effective L&D team needs to possess in order to face this new digitally-enhanced and just-in-time learning future?

Capability 1 – fachidiot’ to polymath

Initially, there is a clear need for the learning professional to move from being a content expert to being an expert facilitator of learning – from ‘fachidiot’ (narrow specialist) to polymath. My colleague Clark Quinn puts this very well in his blog posting ‘Future of the Training Department’. Clark says: “And this, to me, defines the future of the training department. It can no longer be just about courses. It’s got to include performance support, and informal learning. It’s got to be about culture, and learning together skills, and facilitating productive information interchange and productive interactions. We have technologies now to empower user-generated content, collaboration and more, but the associated skills are being assumed, which is a mistake. The ability to use these tools will continually need updating and support.”

This requires a change in mindset. If this change is to be achieved then the CLO and senior learning managers, as well as every learning professional working with them, need to adopt an open, communicative and experimental mindset. Innovation should be at the forefront of their minds. Always asking “how can we make it easier for our stakeholders to do their jobs better?” “What can we do to help them improve performance and productivity as fast and as simply and easily as possible”.

Capability 2 – technology-savvy

Technology will certainly play a major role in the L&D toolkit going forward. So every learning professional needs to understand the learning technology landscape and be able to assess new technical developments for applicability and usefulness. This means learning professionals need to become efficient researchers and learners. Keeping up-to-date with leading-edge thinking and practice is a core capability for everyone. L&D people should be allocating some of their time each day to scan publications, read blogs (even if they’re writing one themselves) and build their professional network to enhance their own capabilities. Tools such as Twitter are excellent for this. This article titled ‘Twitter as a PLN’ sums it up: “I have found more resources and got more useful advice for professional development in 3 months on Twitter than in the previous five years without it.”

There are other ways. Jane Hart maintains a tremendous resource of tools and technologies at her world-class Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies site. Resources such as this on the Internet help learning professionals become and stay technology-savvy much more easily.

Capability 3 – performance consultancy

All learning professionals need consulting and coaching acumen (as well as learning acumen). This needs to be focused on performance problems and outcomes rather than on ‘learning’ input. We all need the ability to engage with senior (and not-so-senior) line managers to identify the root cause of performance problems, and not simply focus on learning.

There are a number of performance consulting methodologies, but I have found the 7-step approach developed by UK business psychologist Nigel Harrison to be robust and straightforward. Hal Richman’s methodology is another that offers great value and stresses the importance of evaluating any learning activity in terms of business impact.

Capability 4 – business-savvy

Every learning professional needs to be able to ‘speak business’ to business people or managers in the organisation. An understanding of organisational goals is the ‘so what’ in learning. Every learning professional in the corporate world, at least, should be able to read and draw conclusions from a balance sheet and P&L account or income statement, and understand the business drivers that business leaders and line managers are focused on. Even those working in government and not-for-profit agencies should regularly check their understanding and the alignment of their work with current organisational strategy, if not the financial drivers of the organisation.

Capability 5 – adult learning-savvy

Understanding how adults learn should be meat-and-drink for every learning professional. How can we possibly provide a service without having at least a basic knowledge of adult learning, an understanding of how adults learn in the workplace, and ‘what works’ in organisational learning? The answer is, we can’t. Every learning professional also needs to understand and appreciate the four principle ways adults learn – [a] through the experiences they have; [b] through practice; [c] through conversations with colleagues and experts; and, [d] through reflecting on a, b, and c.

It also helps if the learning team as a whole has some deep expertise in the psychology of learning and some of the main current learning theories, if only to be able to take a reasoned view of any specific approaches being suggested or proposed.

Other important capabilities/attributes

Along with the capabilities above, other attributes such as ‘empathy, ‘listening’, ‘tolerance for ambiguity’, ‘basic communication ability’ have been identified as essential for effective L&D activity.

New roles

New roles will emerge in the L&D department. Roles such as Community Manager and Learning Facilitation Guru will appear, along with whole teams of L&D professionals focused on learning innovation. Every L&D practitioner needs to have the ability and, even more importantly, the desire to innovate. Innovation in designing new approaches and solutions to solve performance problems is the oxygen for L&D. It’s not important whether the innovation involves technology in all cases or not – although technology offers some huge opportunities for solving business problems and we’re just plain stupid if we ignore them – but an L&D department that fails to demonstrate an innovative mindset is one that’s quickly becoming irrelevant as a strategic business tool. Such L&D departments deserve to have their funding redirected elsewhere.

The final nail – attitude trumps skills

With the right attitude you and your L&D department will be able to be proactive and have a significant impact on organisational performance. Without the right attitude, no matter what skills your team has in the kitbag, it’s likely to fall short.

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