The Online Educa interview: Josh Bersin

Jon Kennard
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Ahead of the Online Educa conference next week, TrainingZone interviewed Josh Bersin, one of the keynote speakers at the Berlin-based event, about recent changes in the world of L&D and training.

  • It's more important than ever to hang onto the talent within your organisation, given the continuing focus on more with less. Do you believe the methods for achieving this have changed at all in the last 12 months?
Yes, absolutely. There's an emerging war for talent taking place in a lot of parts of the world where there are still shortages - despite emerging from the recession - and what companies have been focussing on for the last 12 months and will be even more next year is programmes to re-engage employees who felt put off or disrupted by lay-offs or restructuring.
Right now there are really two big things going on, one is employee engagement programmes and the second thing is employment branding. Part of engaging people and keeping your high-potential talent is to also make sure people are actually proud of the company that they work for; if you work for a company that's been through a tough time, like one of the big banks that has been constantly beaten up in the press, then you're almost embarrassed to work there. With employment branding most companies are building new websites, they're getting out on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to promote their company in a positive way; a lot of this is being driven by HR to create a more attractive place to work.
  • To consider the conference's focus on practical outcomes rather than just discussion, do you believe that we theorise too much about the qualitative output of informal learning?
At Educa there's an educational theme to it, but in corporate training it's not education at all. The purpose of corporate training is to give people better skills in those jobs, whatever those skills are, and I think there's a big difference between education and training. I think what companies are realising is that what we call formal training which is structure-led designed training where, typically, somebody stands up in front of a classroom or teaches over a web conference, is limiting for several reasons:
 
"I think [informal learning] has been facilitated by technology and the recession and it is absolutely sweeping across this industry. It's truly a renaissance of the training industry, it's really been reborn in a new way."
One is that it's expensive, because you have to schedule people and schedule instructors, the second thing is it's time-limiting because it has to take place at a time when people are available, and the third is it doesn't really engage people in the active process of learning. Formal training is a good tool to get you started but you really don't learn anything until you do it. That's why we have homework, assignments, laboratories, because people don't remember until they do it.
Think about something simple like sales training. Every company has sales training of some kind; you stick them in a room for two days you tell them everything they need to know, here's the product, here's how much it costs, here's how you open a conversation with somebody. Now go and do it. But the first time they get out there and make a phone call, they don't know what they're doing! They need somebody working with them on the job for the first year to get good. That's informal learning. That's coaching. So the ideas of informal learning are really to redefine the training department to be involved in the continuous process of learning in your job, so it's actually a very exciting time for HR professionals because they get to be much more involved in the business rather than just sitting around running corporate training and teaching classes. I think it's been facilitated by technology and the recession and it is absolutely sweeping across this industry. It's truly a renaissance of the training industry, it's really been reborn in a new way.
  • When do you think the renaissance started?
I got involved in training in 1998, but around 2000 when the internet became big, elearning was the term that was hot, so companies developed content on the web but nobody really knew that we could replace the classroom experience with the web experience; so for the last six or seven years the concept of blended learning developed, with a whole variety of experiences developed for employees to use at different points in their job. I think the word 'informal' came on the scene about two years ago when people looked at tools like blogs and wikis and tools like that and said 'if we use this in training what do we call it?' so then the term social learning and informal learning started, but the concepts aren't new at all. When I was at IBM in the 80s, we did training in the office, online and so on, and it was really just a blended programme but we didn't call it that, so I think it's a classification thing. I think even though the concepts aren't that new, the urgency with which we do it is new. There are a lot of new tools - KMSs, company directories, activity streaming etc. These are all technologies that you can throw into an informal learning programme; they're informal in the way they work but they're new ways that people can communicate with each other.  
  • It's difficult to determine which learning technologies will embed themselves and become truly innovative. Do you have any advice or predictions for what's going to stick?
Some of the things that people thought were going to be big and still is, is video. Ten years ago people started playing with it but it was too expensive. Now you can capture it so quickly and so easily it's everywhere. One of the things that has not worked out very well is wikis. The idea where everyone in the company can contribute and type in info at the same time, turned out to be a disaster. There's too much information and not enough context to it, and one of the things I think companies now understand is that too much content doesn't teach anybody anything.
In the early days of elearning the problem was developing content, now the problem is about developing context around the content. It's really easy now to develop content; you can sit down with some blog software and create content for next to nothing. The problem now is information architecture. Tagging and organising content, so that an individual can find what they need and use it, because if they start browsing around and they find 1000 different things they're not going to use any of it.
 
"It's really easy now to develop content; you can sit down with some blog software and create content for next to nothing. The problem now is information architecture."
The other transition is that the role of traditional elearning has changed. Most companies thought they could assemble a little team of developers and start building extensive content online, and really deliver a huge amount of training. Now that everyone knows how to use google, myspace, facebook, etc, they have less tolerance for long instructionally-heavy online content. So elearning has become much more game like, it has much more video in it.
  • Serious gaming. Do companies still see it as foreign territory?
If your company is a relatively local company where people are quite physically close then that's true, but if you're a global company that's hard to get together then it's very widely used. But I think it does tend to vary by the organisation.
  • Are you looking forward to Online educa?
I'm very excited about coming for a bunch of reasons. What I often find is that there's a bit of a time gap between technology adoption between the US and Europe so I'm also looking to see if that's still the case. I know there's a lot of interest in social issues at the moment, the way that training and education is affecting social issues; I'm interested to hear about that so I'm going to a whole session on public policy too.
Josh Bersin is CEO and president of Bersin & Associates. Bersin & Associates specialise in enterprise learning, talent management and talent acquisition. They have worked with hundreds of companies delivering high-impact employee learning and leadership development.
Josh is also a keynote speaker at Online Educa 2010, which this year will focus on market intelligence. Online Educa is the world's largest global elearning conference for the corporate, education and public service sector and will be presenting analysis and reports on emerging technologies that are driving the corporate learning marketplace as well as higher education. The event will take place from 1-3 December in Berlin

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