The future of Learning & Development: Discovering the magic of L&D, learning cultures and learning organizations

The future of Learning & Development

Paul Jocelyn, Professional Coaching & Training Director and Pascal Guderian discuss the changes taking place within Learning & Development in the digital era. During this interview, they answer many interesting questions resulting from our “Learning culture – how to start (and never stop)” webinar with Paul.

Since the term doesn’t seem to be as familiar outside our own industry, what essentially is L&D and why the distinction between L&D and HR? 

Paul Jocelyn: I think the L&D (Learning & Development) team name and job role titles are part of the challenge today for sure. L&D is often a “shorthand” for “training” in the minds of managers and employees, and this language barrier inevitably gets passed on over time. It’s worth reflecting on how splitting L&D off into a separate team or department might have actually created the barrier between learning and “the real work” in the minds of workers and managers. 

I also think that the idea of HR is going through the same identity challenge – is it fit for purpose as an enabler and accelerator of organizations that create value and ensure people fulfil their potential?

Is L&D at all needed if a given organization already has a great learning culture? 

Well, every organization already has its own unique learning culture, that’s for sure. Often, the overriding norms and social structures ensure the organization stays the same – instead of serving as an accelerator for looking ahead and creating new value in new ways. 

Isn’t the sheer fact that we have something like L&D already causing the tendency to exert control when it comes to workplace learning? Wouldn’t we be better off without L&D? 

I think that’s clear! The whole learning industry is still fundamentally built on the industrial premise of “we know what we need people to do in order to execute our chosen business model”. Everything flows from that (creating content, providing access to the content, measuring engagement with the content). I think organizations could choose to be more open-minded as to how dependent their future success will be on a learning mindset or whether they are betting on efficiency and standardization in order to thrive. I believe the balance will be different in every organization – but there does have to be a balance! 

You were talking about the disengagement of people in respect to their work. What do you think are the primary reasons for this disengagement? What are your thoughts?

I think there are of course many factors at play. The “perfect storm” I described in the webinar is a huge factor in my experience; traditional cost and efficiency-led businesses “squeezing” their people in order to maximize “efficiency” means that those closest to the front line are carrying the productivity burden. This pressure is being met head-on with rapidly shifting expectations from workers themselves with regard to more meaningful work opportunities, more supportive leaders and more autonomy.  

You elaborated on the difference between “productive learning”, which relates to learning to improve efficiency/quality/compliance, and “generative learning”, which makes it possible to solve problems and identify new possibilities. Do you see the ratio between productive and generative learning changing? 

I still see the overriding focus on productive learning – this is the traditional landscape where L&D is expected to contribute. Interestingly, I think L&D choosing to try to align itself to known business problems and business plans has, in practice, compounded the problem, as its success measures have to fit in with the existing thinking in the organization. In my experience, there are always “pockets” of generative learning happening in every organization. The new opportunity for L&D is to identify them, understand the benefits and help the wider organization to see the opportunity. Start small, but start somewhere!

What is your stance on the learning tools we have in place? To what degree are they also responsible for the exertion of control? 

If by learning tools you mean learning technologies, then I would agree that many of them are still letting the old “control” mindset prevail. Many of these technology tools are based on the idea of “learning means content”. Content storage, content organization, content sorting, providing central access and reporting on engagement are therefore the key features. If you are a leader who thinks you know what your people need and that you are ensuring they find it  – because this will result in the level of “performance” you think you need – this sounds very attractive! 

Do you think it has to be L&D’s objective to not just think about the “learning” stuff, but also about changing the modes of work altogether and to establish a partnership in this regard? So, ideas like agility, design thinking, etc. spring to mind – which don’t necessarily have “learning” as the main objective, but more as a by-product of an overall more integrated, collaborative, and iterative way of doing work. 

Absolutely. I think in the industrial model, compliance was the work – the factory system created more value through control. In this system, standardization, efficiency and error reduction made the difference between a successful business and a business that failed. We undoubtedly have a lot to thank the industrial, bureaucratic system for – but the old scarcity-based model is no longer at play.  

From an L&D perspective (or, however you decide to call the people engaged in this type of work), the new challenge in a world where the answer is only ever two clicks away is: “How do I encourage and reward our people to ask better questions that solve our customers’ problems?”. The new, differentiating opportunity (which is hard in the way that standardizing processes used to be hard for factory owners) is to create the conditions within which everyone in an organization can reflect and learn better. 

I have experienced that lots of people at the top, but also at the “bottom”, are already put off just by the term “learning”. Either because they think that learning is unproductive or because they are reminded of school. What are your thoughts? Do we as learning professionals have to stop talking about learning altogether, being aware that what really pushes learning is facing new challenges, solving new problems collaboratively or, put simply, doing the work? Again, learning can only happen as a by-product, right? 

I agree that the words don’t help in practice. Again, there’s a tendency for L&D professionals to revert to the safe “shorthand” that they believe helps them to find a way in with people. In reality, learning isn’t a “thing” that you can “do” to people. For example, you can help by facilitating new introductions across teams that would benefit from working more closely, you can role model “reflection”, you can provide guidance where and when people need it most, you can encourage mentoring relationships and use many other ways to enable work to change for the better. But you can’t force people to engage in learning.