The End of Training is Near:

What's Next for L&D Professionals?

Published on: November 2017

Written by: Megan Lambert

By Megan Lambert, Senior Consultant

Imagine Jane, a talented individual contributor in a large software company who just got promoted to people leadership. Jane attends a 2 day in-person training experience where an instructor provides her key information and skills like how to give feedback, a framework for coaching, legal considerations in performance management, etc. She reads through the participant guide she was given, probably listens passively as the instructor clicks through many PowerPoint slides, and if she is lucky, she may get a video or an interactive exercise. She absorbs this information over the two days then goes back into her role and tries to lead her team. When the time comes to use this information – say, in a high stress conversation around a performance issue – she is desperately trying to remember the tools the instructor mentioned.

The above scenario with Jane is just as likely to have occurred in 1990 as in 2017. Technology has changed rapidly, and yet the way we teach leaders has seen only incremental innovations. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Put yourself in Jane’s shoes for a minute. What was the last skill you learned? How did you learn it?

Consider, for example, that you are learning to bake banana bread to bring to a family dinner – most likely you Google a recipe, or watch a YouTube video of Martha Stewart, or maybe read a Reddit thread on banana bread baking tips. It is unlikely you decide to go to a formal baking class, at least not as a first step. Instead of having someone “push” content out to you, it is more likely that you “pulled” the content you needed for the given situation. With Google, YouTube, Coursera, Khan Academy, Podcasts, Kindle, and more at our fingertips, we no longer need training to “push” out information. We don’t need an instructor to give us knowledge, filling up our brains with their content or frameworks. A client of mine predicted that formal corporate training will be dead within 18 months. While that may be a bit ambitious, there is no doubt that training as we know it is on its way out the door.

In the place of formal corporate training, learning can become on-demand and real-time. Learning & development (L&D) professionals can integrate learning into the daily function of their leaders. Imagine for example, Jane opens her calendar and a notice pops up to say, “You have a 1:1 with Tim today! Want to watch a video on how to have great 1:1s?” Or perhaps an application takes data from her calendar, emails, Chatter, Slack channel, LinkedIn, etc. to create a map of her network, then suggests additional people (internal and external) she may want to meet to help her career. Along with the suggested list of people could be a short infographic on “Networking Best Practice Tips” or an introduction template email.

This seamless integration of learning and the daily work creates what Jennifer Dudeck, Global Leader & Team Development at Cisco calls “The Invisible L&D.” The concept of “The Invisible L&D” can be threatening for L&D professionals who have built their career around dispensing knowledge and information. If the role of L&D is no longer to spread knowledge, what is it?

Moving forward, I see four main roles for L&D professionals:

  1. Knowledge architects: L&D professionals can move from the role of “sage on the stage” to that of a behind-the-scenes knowledge architect, who finds ways to weave knowledge seamlessly into the work. This person helps design the systems and platforms to get people access to the knowledge they need. For example, imagine Jane needs help to do budget planning for the first time. L&D could create a platform to predict her need using data on who she is and the business rhythms, and then automatically pair her with a budget planning veteran inside the company, compare calendars, and insert a good time for them to meet. It could be like a for professional expertise. The knowledge architect designs the systems to crowd-source the knowledge and skills needed, matching the learner with the teacher.
  2. Personalized consultants: With knowledge sharing being largely automated, the role of L&D becomes much more personalized and consultative. They can help leaders make sense of the vast information at their fingertips, using personalized recommendations of what to learn next, the same way Amazon uses your customer data to create personalized recommendations for what to buy next. The personal trainer (or L&D consultative coach) knows your strengths and they partner to help you navigate your own development. In their article “Human Learning is About to Change Forever,” Cisco and Singularity University say that the number one human change in L&D will be personalized learning.
  3. Network builders: The future requires complex connections between different departments, external partners, clients, customers, and supply chain. It is likely that an organization’s walls will substantially dissolve with the rise of gig workers, independent consultants, part-time employees, rotational work, and more. People will want to affiliate with companies, but on their terms, in a way that works for their personal lifestyle. L&D can play a role in connecting the right people with each other to form strategic networks and affiliations. Participants often say one of the most valuable aspects of the in-person training is the networking; they love meeting people across the company. Moving forward, catalyzing that networking internally and externally could be a primary role for L&D.
  4. Meaning-makers: Skills and knowledge represent “horizontal development”. When those become easy to acquire online, the real value will come from growing the wisdom and maturity of their leaders, also known as “vertical development”.

Horizontal development is about adding skills and knowledge; vertical development is about “upgrading the operating system” so that the leader can have a broader perspective and make sense of conflicting information. For example, imagine trying to explain algebra to a 6-year-old vs. a 12-year old – it will be much easier for a 12-year-old to learn because they have a broader base of knowledge and a more mature brain, and therefore can make sense of more complex information. For my favorite article on vertical development, see Nick Petrie’s post.

Learning & Development can play a critical role in creating opportunities for leaders to develop vertically. They do this by designing experiences that combine intense mind-opening experiences, expose different perspectives, and facilitate meaning making. The goal of vertical development is to stretch the perspective of the individual so they can hold more and more complex, conflicting information.

In summary, organizational learning is at a major pivot point. The nature of how we learn, teach, and share knowledge is changing, and that change requires the very identity of Learning & Development professionals to evolve, from being the expert or “sage on stage” to being a knowledge architect, personalized consultant, network builder, or meaning-maker. These four roles require L&D professionals to expand their own perspectives and skill-set as they keep up with the pace of technology and change.