World of Learning report: the end of binary thinking?

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Last month I was privileged to have been the Chair of the World of Learning Conference at the NEC in Birmingham. As Chair I get to participate in a whole raft of different sessions and think about these inputs from three perspectives:

  1. Does this work for the audience? When planning the conference I always emphasise that, for many of the people who attend, they are seeking immediate value from this kind of investment.  They want pragmatic insights, not sales pitches and assertions low on evidence. The most important question for conference delegates is ‘How’. I want people to be able to implement ideas and insights within their own practice as soon as they get back to their workplace.
  2. Does this chime with my own practice? Like many of those who make inputs to World of Learning, I have a job alongside the role of conference speaker and, in the words of a Liverpudlian who once heard me speak at an event, being “a gob on a stick”. I have clients and organisations with which I work and I want to reflect good practice and lessons from other organisations in my own thinking. Being challenged is always positive and having a chance to reflect on what I do and why and how it could be better is one of the great benefits of being involved in this kind of conference.
  3. What does this suggest for future trends? I know it may seem odd, but the planning for World of Learning 2018 is already underway. Reflecting on what resonated with the audience, what raised questions and debate and what triggered conversation is the start point for planning for next year’s event.

So I thought I’d share some of my reflections on the event a week or so after the final session closed. This is when the dust has settled and initial enthusiasm has been tempered by reflection and the chance for more considered thought about what really shone through.

Although we have an agenda for World of Learning, there is no desire to push one. The team involved and I don’t think about how we can create some kind of unanimity of input or progress a certain strand of L&D thinking.

We are interested in all strands of L&D thought so long as it is based on some evidence and contains lessons which are capable of being applied (which cuts out a lot of stuff heard on L&D conference floors!)

Despite this free ranging and inclusive brief, the serendipity of this year’s event ensured that certain connected themes arose.

1. User centric design

There was a lot of talk about putting users/learners front and centre of the design process.

Where inputs were a requirement (classroom, online, performance support) the focus was on ensuring that those whose performance the L&D team sought to influence were involved at all stages of the design process.

For Nick Shackleton Jones this meant removing the requirement for learning within work activities - using technology where possible and then providing resources where learners were sufficiently motivated to drive their own learning. For Keith Myers of JPMorgan this involved user-generated content – in their case using video.

For Geoff Stead of Cambridge English this meant L&D practitioners moving from a role akin to a Film Director – constructing every user and learner experience – to being more like festival organisers – providing choice, resources and allowing a certain level of serendipitous stumbling to support individual performance improvement.

2. Workflow learning

Once you get into user-centric design, most employees want to solve problems at the point of need.  This was a theme returned to throughout the conference. A panel discussion involving Paul Matthews of People Alchemy; the CIPD’s Andy Lancaster and Lorna Leeson of global logistics organisation XPO focused on this topic.

Ben Betts of HT2, Nigel Paine and Jane Daly from Towards Maturity specifically made recommendations about integrating learning alongside work rather than learning being exclusively a separate activity. In fact, the role of L&D as a facilitator of a continuum of development activities, bridging formal and informal inputs was also a theme covered by Barry Sansom, Emily O’Mahony and Louise Brownhill of PWC.

But each of these speakers also tipped their hat to opening keynote speaker, Fons Trompenaars. His lively session gave strong messages about changing culture and that continual learning was a precursor to survival for organisations. In common with other speakers, Fons was adamant about the need for evidence, the need to reject faddish thinking and above all…

3.The death of binary thinking

The big message from everyone at the conference was that we have entered a world in which traditional either/or thinking has been found wanting. Wherever we are required to make a choice between two apparent contrasting ideas, we seem to end up in a worse positon than where we started from. This affects more than just L&D. After all, the Trump/Hilary binary choice turned out well, didn’t it? Nearly as well as the Leave/Remain choice.

But as Fons Trompenaars was eager to point out in colourful terms – and other speakers echoed in their own way – L&D has been infected by a simplistic thinking which says “you must reject this and start doing the other thing”.

The strong message was it is usually this and this, not that or that which leads to success. One model rarely meets all situations and one size does not fit all, whether the size we have chosen is all 'bells and whistles' new thinking or includes approaches which are neither novel nor cutting edge. 

In my humble opinion (it’s OK, I get the irony) this is because over recent years we have given up ‘thought leadership’ (inverted commas intentional) to vendors of products who want us to instantly stop doing one thing and start doing another.  Many of these so-called thought leaders have come from a technology background rather than a people, organisational development or psychology background.

In the world of 1 and 0s inhabited by the technophiles there has long been a desire for certainty.  It sometimes seems that they can’t really handle the messiness and complexity of meet-ware (or people as we know them) and prefer the rigid certainty of absolute choices. They have urged us to:

  • Reject formal, embrace informal learning
  • Learn at work, ban the course
  • Banish content, welcome social
  • Kill the classroom, use e-Learning
  • Kill e-learning, use collaboration.

These are the arguments of the Learning branch of the People’s Front of Judea and, wary of I am of being denounced as a running dog revisionist, I am going to keep on saying …

  • It’s and - not instead of.
  • You can’t solve complex problems with simplistic solutions.
  • The tried and tested does not become wrong just because it is both tried and tested.
  • Something which has been around for a while isn’t necessarily out of touch because it was invented before the internet nor because ‘millennials’ don’t like it (urrgh! Oh and before I forget, people born in the mid 1980s don’t automatically share a common set of values or preferences - #justsayin).

So for me, the good thing about the World of Learning Conference 2017 was that L&D seemed to come to its senses and start to recognise that we have an unimaginable tool set available to us.  This is a toolkit which far exceeds that available to any previous generation of performance and people development folk.

We have a terrific train set and I’m going to play with every bit of it to help people and their organisations achieve to the extent of their potential.

About Robin Hoyle

Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world.

He is currently working as Head of Learning Innovation for global sales training company, Huthwaite International.

He chairs the World of Learning Conference and speaks at many events. He is regularly published as a writer and commentator on training related issues. His book, Complete Training - from recruitment to retirement, is published by Kogan Page and can be ordered here. His most recent book: Informal Learning in Organizations: how to create a continuous learning culture was published by Kogan Page in September 2015 and is available from all good retailers.

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