I’m stood in the foyer of Learning Technologies 2016 (LT), on Wednesday 3rd February, taking a break from the madness. On my right is a LT notepad with my scribbles, on my left is something that might be a bogey, but is most probably mashed pastry from lunch.
I find it difficult to create anything worthwhile when I attend one conference talk after another. My reflections from one session get pushed out of my brain by the next. The result is a hodgepodge of feelings without any output or benefit. So, I’m taking the time to blog, in the hope that I can derive real value from this experience.
Learning Technologies 2016 is what I’d describe as a mature experience. Not only through the observation that the majority of delegates are in their middling years, rather you can see the years of practice, refining and investment that goes into it. There is one serious problem though, the conference philosophy is built on sand.
What I’ve learned over the last 3 years of attending this conference is that Learning and Development (L&D) professionals are still clinging to old models. With all the discussions around social learning, future technologies and learning’s arch enemy – access to almost infinite information, aka the internet – we are still sitting in lecture halls, sitting idol, remembering and applying very little. As they say, “talk is cheap”.
My contention is that L&D as a profession is dead. It needs a rebrand or to be killed. Learning professionals need to be less worried about whether people are learning, and more concerned with whether people can do things better. People not in HR, don’t care about anything that doesn’t make their lives easier. Despite all the well-meaning people in L&D looking to make a positive difference, the reality is that the foundation of the profession is financial.
Walking through the exhibition stands showing hundreds of eLearning companies and learning management systems, it’s apparent that L&D is big business. There are a lot of people, making a lot of money based on the incorrect formula of Employee + Content = Learning, + Tracking = Performance = ROI.
The fact that no-one has worked out whether L&D actually improves performance really bugs me. Measurement is the “holy grail” but a question that we phase out, and ignore. Nobody knows if any of this stuff makes a difference, but people still buy it, and that’s the ROI.
All this intangibility and futility is evidenced in the keynote speech by Marshall Goldsmith who focused on the importance of redefining success. The upshot of his amusing talk was that we are all competing, all the time, to be right. The end goal being to look back from our deathbeds, at the age of 95 years, with no regrets. Real change comes from overcoming our egos and need to win, accepting that we’re human and need help. “I’m a Buddhist so I believe we will all be equally dead”, Marshall says.
This is a powerful assertion from one perspective; our last moments define our lives. I’ve had the very same philosophy for some years, but this is perhaps a pessimistic view. I think Marshall’s talk highlights the role of L&D needs to be a supportive one, mature enough to accept that learning isn’t the point. The point of it, if there is one, is to make people happier. This doesn’t mean making them perform better or even receive rewards for their work. It means helping people redefine what’s important, and coming to an inner contentment that can’t be taught through a traditional “learning intervention”.
The flipside of this, and the case in most organisations, is learning used as a tool to change people’s behaviour. There are lots of examples of this throughout history, from the Nazi regime to much more benevolent ones. L&D are facilitators of the vision held by a small collection of powerful individuals; CEOs and their executive minions. The aim is not to develop people, but to get people to conform to a world view. In this light Diversity and Inclusion initiatives seem more akin to programmes by George Orwell’s Thought Police.
Friends I speak to about work, hate HR. It’s becoming clear to me why that is. Generally L&D gets in the way and has become a method for businesses to control people. There is value in giving people the tools they need to do their jobs, but these tools are neutral, void of corporate values. Stephen Thoma (Google) and Jeff Turner (Facebook) assert that most organisations use “values” to create drones. People’s individual values are positioned in conflict.
I think the problems in L&D come down to a deficiency of empathy, it could also be described as ego. We can only ever observe people’s behaviour and guess that they are “learning”, conversely we are terrible at self-assessing our performance. How many times have L&D created things we’d never use ourselves?
There is a feedback vacuum and ultimately we are butting heads trying to understand who we are, in relation to each others. The media perpetuates this problem by providing a biased running commentary and shaping our value perceptions. It’s an extrinsic chaos and, as I believe Marshall Goldsmith was saying, the answer lies in intrinsic fulfilment. The future of L&D is for us to be less concerned with what’s going on outside, and more concerned with what’s happening on the inside.