For some time now, a number of us in the Learning and Development (L&D) field have predicted and/or feared the obsolescence of our role in workplace learning. Formal training has never represented the preponderance of workplace learning, far surpassed by informal social learning and mentoring. More recently, however, individuals have become empowered to self-learn whenever they have the need and wherever they are, thanks to an ever-expanding array of options, from the ubiquitous Google search to YouTube videos to social networks.
Jane Hart recently posed the question, “What would happen if there were no L&D department?” Many of the responses reflected the thinking many of us have been sharing for years now, essentially that people would naturally learn on their own. Some took that to an extreme, arguing the L&D function presents a barrier to learners. I encourage you to read her entire summary here.
While only a few defended the L&D department as being necessary, Jane also included the thoughts of her Internet Time Alliance colleagues who took a more moderate view. I interpreted their collective comments as reflecting the need for substantial change, but that the function would likely continue to exist in some form, or devolve and then reemerge with a different purpose, focusing on removing workplace barriers and directly facilitating improved performance.
I agree with this thinking. Many workplaces, especially in large organizations, face a challenge of ensuring the consistency of processes across geographically separated locations, and that’s a clear role for a centralized performance function of some kind. There’s also an ongoing need in most organizations to develop and retain employees, as well as to encourage sharing unique institutional knowledge. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. It might be a bit naive to think that every employee will self-learn everything they need to know.
But getting to the substantial change that’s needed in L&D will be painful. We don’t want to change. We want things to remain the same, even as we integrate new technologies and capability. And self-learning options like YouTube or social channels never truly threatened much of workplace learning since many organizations don’t allow details of work to be discussed in public.
Now the threat is real. Change is coming, and it’s coming fast. A great many organizations are moving or have moved to the cloud. Microsoft’s Office 365 is the bread and butter of getting work done in large corporations around the world, and it encourages collaboration across entire organizations. Collaboration directly leads to informal social learning, and it’s inevitable. The L&D role of catalyzing the sharing and documentation of unique institutional knowledge will evaporate along with the need for much of formal learning.
But the real threat to the status quo of L&D is video. Today, virtually anyone can produce educational videos, and many of the applications to edit video are inexpensive or free. As I often point out about YouTube, just because an educational video wasn’t produced with the help of an instructional designer doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Those in organizations may not have actively made videos to share their work in the past because YouTube, even using a private channel, wasn’t an option. That changes with video services such as the Office 365 video app that hosts and shares video across organizations. I predict a virtual explosion of content on these corporate channels. When it happens, the accessible content from L&D will be dwarfed by content from others. As people learn from their earlier efforts, their content will also improve in both quality and effectiveness over time. I hope L&D isn’t left wondering what happened.
Thanks for reading!
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