Back to Basics in ’10


The year is winding down, and it’s time to start thinking about 2010. 

I have attended three learning industry conferences over the past month: one each targeted to a different level of learning professional – from practitioner to CLO.  I have had the privilege of interacting with a wide range of people across the industry, listening to what’s on your mind – what you are worried about and what you are excited about for next year.  And so with these conversations still fresh in my head, I want to share with you some thoughts on our industry for the coming year.

First, I am pleased to report that, despite the challenging economy and the cut-backs that have come with it, there remains a remarkable amount of energy and enthusiasm in our industry and for what we do.  That energy shows up time and again in all of the amazing projects and initiatives that I have seen over the past few weeks.  We know that just about everyone that reads this blog has been affected by the recession, either directly or through someone you know well.  But the L&D department within today’s organizations is like Spring after Winter.  Your focus is ever on growth.  Cut-backs or not, you are charged with helping your organization to pick up the pieces and move forward.  You may have fewer resources, but the task is no less critical in importance.

Out of this time of transition and painful renewal I sense an industry-wide desire, carried over from this year, to get “back to basics.”  But before I put too much of a picture in your head of traditional instructional design leading to classroom lectures, I should qualify my use of the word “basics.”  I am not referring to how we do what we do.  In my travels over the last few weeks, I have frequently encountered the steadfast belief that there will be no return to business as usual (or what was previously understood as usual) once we truly come out of this downturn.  I agree.  The learning industry as a whole seems to get that it has reached a point in its history where it must evolve or face rapid obsolescence.  Evolution means – for instance – expanding our toolbox to include formalized informal learning, adding new skills sets to our teams, and a applying a thoughtful use of new technologies.  Let me come back to that topic a bit later.

Instead, what I mean by basics is a renewed, laser-like focus on two questions:

·         Are we truly working on the right things to help the business get where it needs to go?

·         And, are we as good at the business of learning as we must be in order to succeed? 

Getting back to the basics means cutting through the distractions, asking ourselves hard questions about where and how we can add the most value to the organization, and optimizing our processes to leave no possible question of underutilization or inefficiency.

I want to spend more time on the first question, so I will briefly address the second question first.  Of course a very natural and very healthy side effect of economic trouble is some amount of belt-tightening.  And we see this effect within every learning organization we meet.  We’ve talked about the need to run L&D like a business before, focusing most directly on high-level spending decisions and need to manage learning programs like a financial portfolio.  What we are seeing now are organizations extending this perspective throughout the system.  Continuing this back-to-basics theme, learning organizations around the world are looking at their structures, their processes, and their roles & skills sets, all with an eye towards improving the overall performance of the L&D machine.  In one recent example, Boeing, in the course of rolling out a learning program to support the use of LEAN within the organization, used principles of LEAN to improve its content development processes. 

This performance improvement is not just coming through increased efficiency, but also through a renewed focus on mastery of learning disciplines and tools.  For instance, we are seeing a decided uptick in organizations looking to benchmark the time it takes to develop formal course content or the costs required to purchase such content from a third party.  Organizations want to know if their developers are as good as their peer companies in the use of content development tools; or perhaps, if choosing a different tool with a different learning curve might have strategic benefit for the organization. 

Coming back to our two questions, the first question is all about alignment and attention.  At a strategic level, are we spending our time and resources on exactly what the business needs and nothing else.  On the ground, are we focused on outcomes above all else. 

At the risk of going off on a tangent, I will take the rest of this space to spend a moment on a topic that is high on many learning professions’ minds right now and for many is probably the exact opposite of getting back to basics: social learning.  Many organizations are already well on their way to driving real business value from social learning; many more are experimenting.  But most are still on the sidelines, either unconvinced as to the efficacy or unsure as to the first step.  Or – in most cases – both. 

Yes, many raise questions of risk and potential lost productivity or lost control.  But, our research bears out that those sorts of questions, while important for securing stakeholder support, are easily answered and often just red herrings.  However, at the various events I have been to recently, I’ve heard another strain of questions that speaks to the back-to-basics mentality – a more deep seated worry on the part of many learning professionals as to whether or not we can know that learning is taking place in these initiatives.  And not just any learning, can we know that the intended learning – the learning we are tasked with supporting – is happening at the breadth and depth required by the organization.  I am very glad to see this instinctual skepticism, this attempt to bring the conversation back to one of outcomes. 

Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge advocate for the role that informal learning in organizations can and must play.  But I think the conversations across organizations are too dominated by a focus on tools and technologies right now, not on the behaviors and dynamics that are the real story.   Get rid of the hype and hyperbole; amazing things happen when groups of employees get together in a room with a flip chart or a whiteboard, including a great deal of knowledge transfer and learning.  Can a wiki or a forum support the same dynamics?  Yes.  Can a wiki or forum bring the added benefit of spreading the wealth of knowledge generated by that group over time and distance?  Most definitely.  Do wikis or forums require some different skills and approaches to use effectively?  Absolutely.  But are wikis or forums the components of this group learning process deserving of most attention and care? Not by a long shot. 

Instead the focus should be on the degree to which the individual share knowledge and encourage reflection on past and process.  In other words, the most interesting part of social learning is the culture of organizational learning required to make it successful.  And, not coincidentally, our research finds that the behaviors that reflect organizational learning culture are most responsible for successful learning initiatives – all learning initiatives, formal or informal.  What you as a learning organization must do to encourage social learning to happen in that in-person room with the flip chart is the same thing you must do support it happening in a wiki or as part of an expertise matching program: you must cultivate the behaviors of organizational learning.  Get way back to the basics.  Do the individuals in your organization value learning and value teaching others?

Coming back to the discussion at hand, I see this focus on “back-to-basics”, including a hard look at alignment and outcomes as exactly what we need right now to take informal learning to the next level.  If informal learning is going to be a successful part of your learning strategy, you have to formalize it.  By formalizing, I don’t mean try to place arbitrary controls on it that kill the dynamics of what can happen inside that conference room.  I mean approach it with diligence (set objectives, encourage desired behaviors, etc) and with an eye towards outcomes – business outcomes.  Organizations that have seen success with social learning (from SUN to British Telecom and including many others) would say that desired learning can and does happen; but, social learning forces monitoring and evaluation efforts to focus on business metrics (# of sales, speed, etc.) more than learning metrics.  And it encourages L&D to measure its own effectiveness through organizational learning culture measures such as knowledge sharing and reflection. 

So, wrapping up, the learning industry in 2010 looks towards a intensified focus on alignment and efficiency – which just so happen to be the Bersin & Associates measures of a High Impact Learning Organization.  So perhaps next year is not so different from the past.  But I think it is fair to say that we are all a lot less patient with spending our time and resources on things which are not driving business impact.  And that’s a good thing. 

For other takes on next year, Josh will be publishing his usual predictions for learning and talent, so look out for that.  And you can find my anticipated trends in learning technology in the next issue of Training Industry Quarterly.  Look for our Enterprise Learning research to focus on many of the themes in this post, especially organizational learning culture and optimizing learning processes.  And we have recently launched a workshop and set of associated service offerings designed to help your organization formalize informal learning.  If you plan to go down that road in 2010, we can help.  Come talk to us.  

If you have any comments or suggestions, please share.  I’d love to hear your opinion.

As we enter this holiday season, I wish all the best to you and yours.  And – of course – here’s to a High Impact 2010.


Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

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