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ATD Blog

Helping Leaders Help Themselves


Thu Apr 25 2019

Helping Leaders Help Themselves

Online learning has come a long way in a short amount of time, but most tools for facilitating workplace training are still typically centered around the top-down administration of learning—creating courses, granting enrollments, scheduling, certification, reporting—the digitized versions of what we’ve needed since the 1970s. For nearly 50 years training professionals have been the gatekeepers to learning in our organizations.

But today the training and development function is struggling to keep pace with the internal environment it serves. How can we write learning objectives for technology we’ve never used or create a course around a problem we’ve never solved? Today’s workplace learning professional is faced with a new challenge: understanding what happens when learners need to move beyond check-box exercises and into true professional development. Do the old tools and techniques help us develop the modern workplace?


Many new executives find themselves thrust into situations of leadership and management with little formal training and no real guidance on how to develop themselves or their direct reports. There is no checklist for flying the modern workplace. Oftentimes online learning can seem like a backwater to these needs. Our legacy of putting first the dull, “gotta do it” mandatory training has given us a huge image problem when it comes to e-learning. People hate it, especially ones who believe they have more important things to do. You can’t search it, you can’t skip to the bit you need—in fact, the bit you need is rarely even there.

Collectively we’ve been trying out new ways to engage people in the same basic learning activities—most often taking a course in some form—for a decade or more. We’ve used design thinking, gamification, social learning, and many other techniques to bring these experiences to life and make them “more engaging.” And yet, for all too many businesses, these changes haven’t solved core problems in the business, like keeping up with the pace of change or getting buy-in that e-learning can be more than mandatory training.

While we’re busy figuring out what’s next, our audiences are increasingly working it out for themselves using tools and technologies from outside of learning and development. We know that the majority of workplace learning happens through informal conversations with peers, learning while working, and using available online tools. We’ve been coming to terms with this over the last few years with phrases like “informal learning” and the 70-20-10 framework. Now it feels like a wholesale change away from courses and toward more self-directed learning is taking place.

New technologies, often under the banner of “learning experience platforms,” are coming to the fore. These technologies center on the learners’ individual needs; they don’t often “do” courses and instead focus much more on learning in the flow of work. Previously, training activities would happen as an interruption to the normal working day; the next step in the evolution of workplace learning must center on technology integration within the working day. At least, that’s the theory.

Imagine the potential impact on performance support when intelligent listening devices, like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home, are always on, just waiting for a question to answer. Consider wearable devices’ ability to give contextual feedback on new hardware in the workplace without needing to Google anything. And think about AI-driven chat bots that allow for personalized coaching conversations through all levels of the organization, not just the C-suite. These technologies and more will help people perform in the context of work without ever stepping foot in a classroom—virtual or otherwise.


Perhaps the true evolution of online learning will be in helping people to help themselves—a solid technique when you can no longer keep up with the pace of change. Giving the guidance, frameworks, and support to help our audiences redefine their expectations for what e-learning really is will become a fundamental part of our role as modern workplace training professionals in the next few years. We are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge but this role will evolve as well. Good self-directed learning practice is not evenly distributed, and it’s not always formally recognized. It’s up to the training and development department to evolve to meet these needs.

Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2019 International Conference & Exposition. During my session, “Help Leaders Help Themselves: Engaging Senior Professionals in Self-Directed Learning,” we will explore how to capture the imagination of leaders by facilitating more self-directed learning experiences outside of a standard course design.

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