The paradox of the Learning Technologies Conference 2016



The Learning Technologies Conference is a paradox. One the one hand as a delegate you are offered a glimpse of the future and on the other you are presented with reminders of how little corporate learning has shifted in recent years.

For  example, conference chairman Don Taylor, who is also chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute, posed the question, Who is in charge of learning? This is 2016. Why has it taken until now for the profession to ask this question?

And asked about challenges in the organisation, one delegate responded, “To move away from face to face formal training.” That person had managed to reduce it from 97% reliance to 94% reliance on face to face training in the previous year. Face to face, for many, remains the default delivery mode. And this despite the fact has advanced hugely over the last 10 years. Plenty of research bears this out, that face to face is in slow decline and also remains popular.

Meanwhile, delegates were being shown a future in which artificial intelligence will fundamentally change how we work. This future is not years away. In fact it is already here. And, as futurist Ben Hammersley, warned, if the technology exists now then once Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law take effect the technology will become all pervasive (in about twenty years’ time).

IMG_0600Hammersley reminded delegates that Kodak, the inventor of digital photography, took 30 years to go bankrupt after it had invented it, highlighting the time lag for technological innovation to become dominant. Ironically, according to Hammersley, Kodak filed for bankruptcy on the same day Facebook bought photo sharing network Instagram for $800m.

No doubt the future looks exciting. Industry zeitgeist, and many conference speakers, says that social and collaborative learning are the way forward, as is personalised content, video, mobile and so on. If you follow some industry commentators you would think that social is the only game in town. But it isn’t. According to research carried out by HR analyst Fosway Group and Learning Technologies, the learning management system will continue to be the bedrock technology for corporate learning. This suggests that organisations continue to have a need to be able to manage learning content and to track and measure its use.

Fosway Group’s David Wilson reminded me that elearning created the need for LMSs. That need is still there but as the desire to develop more social, mobile and video experiences grow so LMSs will adapt.

So, back to the future . . . the conference was full of sessions looking at future state L&D. Which is fitting because Hammersley invited delegates to be the “pioneers of tomorrow, today”. He urged them to step back from business as usual and imagine how they could design and deliver corporate learning with the technology that is currently available, not what has gone before.

Jane Hart’s session on enterprise social networks provided some ideas on the roles L&D can play in using social networks. In particular, the role of facilitator and community manager appear to be particularly important. These roles position L&D as enablers, as content curators, as  guides. This represents a big shift from the traditional content producer/owner role.

I liked the phrase ‘bring your own learning’ from Pfizer’s head of training in India Sunder Ramachandran. His team had to reinvent itself to deliver learning as a part of a performance support tool. Field sales colleagues were given ipads that provided them with all they needed to do their job – CRM, marketing content and also learning content.

To deliver the right experience, the L&D team had to take on  a number of new roles – facilitators, curators of content, they had to understand reward and how to use gameified environments.

Industry commentator Donald Clark made the case for artificial intelligence, echoing Hammersley’s keynote. This technology really could make L&D superheros as Hammersley suggested. Teachers for example could leave the marking of papers to technology. The technology is just effective as humans and more importantly it helps teachers save a huge amount of time – Clark made the point teachers like to complain about marking.

Just think about how technology could help relieve L&D of its more mundane, process tasks (accreditation/compliance) so that it could get on with the really exciting work.

I often see L&D professionals caution against ‘the new shiny’, trying to use technology for technology’s sake. I wonder if this has got in the way of really exploring the potential of the technology we now have at our fingertips. The message from the conference seemed to be to go out and figure out what technology can do for you and your organisation.

The flip side of that is that if L&D doesn’t do this the rest of the business probably will. Coming back to Taylor’s question about who is in control of learning, if you believe that learners, L&D and the business control learning then you can see where that threat will come from.

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