Seven lessons from 40 years of change in training

Posted by Martin Addison in Learning technologies on Wed, 02/15/2012 – 09:30

In the last of three articles to commemorate the ruby anniversary of Video Arts, Martin Addison looks at seven lessons that organisations have learned from the changes in learning technology over the past 40 years.

The first two articles in this series looked at the fundamental changes that have taken place in three key areas of training, over the past 40 years: the way that learning is delivered, the role of the trainer and the nature of training itself. They also charted the evolution of how technology has been used to support training, from 16mm film to m-learning.

While many lessons will have been learned from these changes, I’d like to focus on seven that I think are of particular interest. These are:

Technology is merely an enabler in the learning process

Over the past 40 years, several technology-led developments – such as computer-based training, elearning and online learning – resulted in an over-emphasis on technology and an under-emphasis on the realities of learning and the learner in organisations. The key lesson here is that technology is only an enabler in the process; the real focus should always be on the learning. To construct a worthwhile experience for learners, the important questions to ask are: What skills do people need to learn in the organisation? What are their preferences for learning? What are the circumstances under which they will willingly wish to acquire the necessary skills and how can technology assist in that process?

Technology will continue to advance

Technological shifts are inevitable both in society and in business. The lesson here is that it’s impossible to ‘future-proof’ your learning. Anyone involved in learning and development will have to get used to technological change. However, one way to ‘protect’ yourself against technological shifts in the future is to open up lines of communication with the people who are responsible for your organisation’s IT. Ask them what they are working towards and what technology platforms are likely to be in place in the coming years. You’ll then have an idea about what technology you’ll be able to utilise for learning. However, even the techies can be taken by surprise. Who would have guessed we’d be talking about mobile learning apps or augmented reality simulations five years ago.

“Anyone involved in learning and development will have to get used to technological change. However, one way to ‘protect’ yourself against technological shifts in the future is to open up lines of communication with the people who are responsible for your organisation’s IT.”

The underlying truths of management haven’t changed

Although technology has evolved over the past 40 years, it is interesting to note that the essential management skills – such as how to run meetings, make sales and give presentations – haven’t changed that much. Every year, new managers need to learn these skills. However, there have been cultural and other changes. For example, organisational leadership models used to be based on military command and control, whereas today’s leaders need to facilitate networks of people. Increasingly, they also need to be adept at virtual working, which is becoming increasingly prevalent. The day-to-day aspects of management may be different but, fundamentally, the skills are same.

Learning has to be engaging

The basic principle here is that people learn nothing when they’re asleep and very little when they’re bored. To learn, we have to be engaged. When learning is fun and interesting, we become emotionally involved. As you’d expect from a company co-founded by John Cleese, we believe that learning ought to have some humour and some personality to it. Humour helps learners to see the impact of their behaviour in a light-hearted way and, as such, it can make learning much more memorable. However, the humour has to support the learning. You can’t just shoe-horn gags in, for the sake of it.

Video remains a popular and effective means of training

Although training technologies have come and gone over the past 40 years, one common denominator that they have all utilised is video. Video has a central role in storytelling. It allows complex ideas, particularly ones around soft skills behaviour, to be put across in a short space of time. It stimulates and entertains people, triggering them to think, feel and do things differently. The lesson here is that video and stories are proven ways to engage learners. Video can highlight behaviour, impart knowledge and act as a catalyst for discussion. It gets people thinking and it makes the learning points more palatable for learners and more memorable. A video clip won’t change someone’s personality but it may influence them to change their behaviour and video can certainly develop knowledge, attitude and skills.

Content may be king but context is the kingdom

Today’s learning content often comprises short, bite-sized resources that can be pieced together to make the learning better suited to an individual’s needs. This enables organisations to create differentiated, personalised learning experiences. Having the right content is, of course, fundamental to effective learning. However, a key lesson is that learners will always need to understand ‘why’ they are doing whatever they’re doing (ie the context of the learning) as well as ‘how’ they should do it. The right approach will always be very context-specific.

Learning needs to be supported

40 years ago, training was primarily delivered face-to-face by trainers, often in structured, residential training courses. Computer-based training and elearning courses saw the trainer’s role change from ‘the sage on the stage’ to ‘the guide on the side’. With the advent of online learning, the role became less about providing learning at specific times and more about pushing out content to people and enabling them to access and use it on-demand. The shift from seeing ‘training as an event’ to ‘learning as a journey’ has made the title ‘Trainer’ almost obsolete.

It has been superseded by ‘Learning and Development Professional’, in recognition of the fact that the role involves helping individuals to take responsibility for their own ‘lifelong learning’. However, a key lesson here is that even with the adoption of talent and learning management platforms to manage and control organisational learning, it will always be necessary to appropriately present and adequately resource the learning. In other words, there will always be a role for L&D. Simply making learning available to unprepared and unsupported learners will not work.

Conclusion

Today’s L&D professionals, who are in the business of changing knowledge, attitudes and skills, have to find new ways of maximising the level of engagement and the memorability of organisational learning. It will be interesting to see what developments lie in store over the next 40 years.

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