I’ve worked in the field of Learning and Development (L&D) now for nearly two decades. I’ve been fortunate to have seen and work through some pretty big changes in approaches to workplace learning. A lot of these changes were brought about by the evolution of technology, but there’s also been a substantial change in the nature of jobs and, more recently, the changing nature of work itself.

29295303_sThree decades ago, learning in the workplace was predominantly face-to-face. Just as now, even then most of this learning wasn’t formal. People learned how to do their jobs and went through a series of learning experiences that loosely followed, without deliberate action, something resembling the 70:20:10 framework. Some learning resulted from workplace training, but more learning occurred from working with others, and the largest part of the learning resulted from doing the job. It’s a natural way of learning that largely happens often in spite of the L&D organization.

When it came to formal training in the workplace, L&D knew how to do its job well. Perhaps because the format was virtually given, there was tremendous emphasis on methods of engagement, scaffolding experiences, and devising countless ways to entice workers to learn. Shannon Tipton recently shared how she had come into possession of a Training and Development Handbook from 1976 that detailed many good practices for the traditional training format to ensure learner-centered development.

Even as the nature of work and jobs began to change with the introduction of business computers, the formal part of the workplace learning process remained largely the same as it had for decades, and the methods that worked continued to be useful. Sure enough, there were efforts to move formal learning to distance learning, largely through television technology, but that was nothing compared to the changes that were about to come.

7579824_sSweeping changes in formal learning initiatives began about twenty years ago. Windows had just become an operating system and began to replace DOS on IBM-inspired personal computers. The L&D field scrambled to take advantage of the new graphical platform, as well as the developing World Wide Web, and new tools were abundant. Products were initially called Computer-Based Training, which quickly yielded to Web-based training. Eventually everything sort of became e-learning at a time when virtually every sector of the economy added an “e” in front of whatever services they provided. Of course that was only the beginning. New tools emerged, social platforms exploded onto the scene, and mobile technologies changed where, when, and how workplace learning occurs. Each new development offered yet more ways for L&D to design formal learning interventions.

The trouble–and I do see it as trouble–is that a great many who work in this field of Learning and Development tend to stick with one technique or approach to the exclusion of others. Perhaps we know how to produce elearning products, and have developed a reputation for creating innovative products using incrementally more powerful tools. Or perhaps we have become known for our innovative instructor-led training designs that keep audiences engaged. Maybe we know how to do both reasonably well and can blend the two as we consider new learning initiatives. It’s no different that what Abraham Maslow’s observed in The Psychology of Science: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Perhaps this is a natural aspect of human nature to take the safe path rather than to explore uncharted territory to find better, more effective paths. Especially when performance expectations, deadlines, and budgets are set by others, it can be downright frightening to attempt something new with uncertain success. Haven’t we all abandoned proven and effective work styles for ineffective patterns of behavior when under stress?

And yet there are those in the L&D field who have apparently transitioned from one-approach practitioners to a much more holistic practice of workplace Learning and Development. They have come to realize that formal learning interventions are but a small part of employee learning and need to be devised in a rapidly evolving context. They know most employees now carry the all-knowing Internet search in their pockets. They recognize that a formal response to a performance need is often not an effective approach, and they respond with less formal and more effective alternatives. They understand that learning is an inherently social activity and enthusiastically explore ways to leverage workplace technology to span time, place, and distance to stimulate social learning. They flex their approaches as each is put into action, modifying rules when needed and abandoning what’s not working and replacing parts with what does work. They seemingly have a firm grasp on what others see as an exponentially expanding range of options.

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 2.04.23 PMIn short, they are critical thinkers who appear to have an uncanny grasp on just about every aspect of learning in the modern workplace. Jane Hart calls them, “Modern Workplace Learning practitioners.” I have called them Learning Catalysts, which Lisa Minogue-White turned into Performance Catalysts. I’ll use that name for now, but what’s important is that they deftly navigate a very complex landscape to optimally impact workplace performance.

So is it bad that some have made this transition while others haven’t? In short, is the L&D world splitting in two?

I don’t see it that way at all. What has actually emerged over the last several decades is an L&D career path from single-approach practitioner to multiple approach practitioner to Performance Catalyst. Some will specialize in a single approach and become better at that approach to the point of mastery. Others will branch out and learn other approaches. An even smaller number will evolve into the role of Performance Catalyst. To me, this is akin to asking if everyone involved in building a house needs to be a general contractor or whether it’s appropriate for some to specialize in other areas, such as framing, plumbing, and electrical. There will always be a need for formal learning experiences that work best in a classroom environment. There may always be formal learning needs that are best met by traditional elearning approaches. Formal learning needs might also be best met by some combination of emergent technologies and approaches.

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The challenge for L&D is not for everyone to become a Performance Catalyst or whatever that role is called. The challenge is to ensure that someone with that mindset is involved when evaluating workplace performance needs, someone who speaks with authority to ensure that a solution is not put in place just because it’s easy or comfortable. That’s a key role in the modern workplace, and organizations need to take note of it. We should encourage others in L&D to understand the emergent career path, recognize where each of us is along that career path, and make deliberate choices whether to specialize or to generalize amid an ever-expanding landscape of options.

In a future article, I’ll discuss more about what I think it takes to progress along this new L&D career path. Until then…

Thanks for reading!


Emergence of the Performance Catalyst — 5 Comments

  1. Nice post Tom and as you may suspect, I agree. Especially here. “There may always be formal learning needs that are best met by traditional elearning approaches. Formal learning needs might also be best met by some combination of emergent technologies and approaches.”

    It’s about recognizing when to use the hammer. When to dial up the plumber. This is what sets apart those with a “performance support” mentality and those still in a mindset of formal approaches. It’s how we chose to augment the different modallities that surround us, choosing the one that best fits the organizational culture and the end-user needs that will make the greatest difference. One modality does not fit all, nor should it. Perhaps a bullet under the job description of “Performance Catalyst” is “learning advocate”. Someone has to defend those poor souls stuck in the churn of bad classes, whether they be elearning or face to face.

    The more we talk about augmenting modality to fit the end-user (and business) need the better educated we all become and thus the fear erodes.

  2. Tom, nice thoughtful post! I’m in agreement! And I love the term performance catalyst! I’ve been using the term performance assistance (because performance support is too constricting in its used connotation), but I think performance catalyst is probably better! Let me noodle on it! And thanks!

    By the way, here is my response to Jane Hart’s idea about L&D splitting into two worlds. Warning to delicate eyes–it’s a bit snarky… http://www.willatworklearning.com/2015/11/the-two-world-theory-of-workplace-learning-critiqued.html.

    Again, thanks for the great insights!

    = Will

  3. I see it more as a spectrum that exists for many reasons. I happen to be a trainer, who is also a librarian, and we see the same “traditional vs. modern (or innovative, or new)” split in our profession as well. Folks who are comfortable with libraries = books, and those who see libraries as so much more. Maybe with the speed of change in our world today every profession is seeing a similar range of skills, and comfort levels.

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