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ATD Blog

My Commencement Address for the Workforce Learning Class of 2012


Mon May 14 2012


I admit it. I love when people seek my opinion. That happened a lot in Denver, at ASTD 2012:

I am entering the field. What do I do to make a success of it?


Let’s pretend that somebody asked me to deliver a commencement speech in response to that question, preferably on a lush, ivy covered campus, near amiable watering holes.

Thank you for inviting me to share this wonderful occasion with the workforce learning graduates of 2012....

Let me begin by congratulating you on your career choice. I am sure you and your family are delighted—after all you could have chosen to go to law school. 

After years of clamoring for a seat at the table, C-levels are increasingly intrigued by what we can do for them. Pressure for growth, technology, and a competitive landscape create abundance and opportunity for workplace learning people. Every sector, from higher ed to pharma, is seeking candidates whose heads are screwed on right. What do I mean by right? I am talking about heads with an unrelenting focus on performance and results.

Everything I say then is from the vantage point of celebration. I think this is a bountiful time to be in our field. I think you can get in the door. That's not the primary challenge. What's difficult is to make the most of it once you are in place.


My advice to you as you commence this tasty career….

·        It’s not about how. It’s about why. Several years ago, I served on a committee to review submissions for awards at an international conference. We considered a four-day course for engineers soon to be tasked with serving as instructors. The course devoted itself to teaching them Instructional Design 101, with half of the first day spent writing letter-perfect, four-part objectives. And so on and so forth. My eyes glazed over. The engineers’ eyes would close entirely. Wrong stuff.

A more recent example came from online compliance training I was dragooned into taking. The topic was information security. Screen 3 listed the objectives. Only three of the eight had anything to do with my work and life. How would I endure the next 73 screens? Even animated pandas could not make this e-learning successful. Wrong stuff.

In our business, we begin with the end in mind. Heaven help us when those ends are wrong-headed.

·        It’s not about us. It’s about them. Sounds obvious, I know. But I can’t tell you how often I hear people say they want to put the program in the classroom because they themselves like to learn in the classroom. Or they are going to try out avatars because they are engaging. (Are they?)


One twenty-something told me that she intended to do coaching for supervisors and managers. I asked why. She said she thought she would be good at it and that coaching was a good way to help people. While eloquent about her preferences and capabilities, she never mentioned evidence. Would coaching work in this case? Shouldn’t she review the literature on that matter? And what of her lack of experience as a supervisor and manager? The fact that she likes people is good but by no means sufficient.

It isn’t what you want to do. It’s what the work, worker and workplace demand. There’s the challenge and the opportunity.

·        It’s not any one thing. It’s many things, aligned, in systems. Forget shiny pennies. Mobile learning is an example of just such a penny. ASTD’s chief Tony Bingham loves it. I love it too. I’ve written about it. I see ample potential. But it is no slam dunk in and of itself. No single solution, not mobile or webinars or games or even gamification, is the answer. The value of each emerges within systems. Our goal is strategic benefit, such as making information available on demand, tracking performance, reminding of expectations, enabling tons of practice, or helping new customer service reps communicate with peers or coaches.

Take the job of retirement specialist. Consider the stress the topic provokes in customers. Think about how much there is to know to do this job, and then extend your vision to the attention that regulators pay to it. If you are tasked with developing and supporting these professionals, best not throw a single solution at it, no matter how nifty that solution is. Your program must involve intense and graduated lessons, lots of practice with diverse cases, coaching and feedback, assessments and self-assessment—and that’s the development part of it. Surely you would want to provide human and automated resources available on demand to deal with infrequent questions, lengthy procedures and updates.

Mobile? Games? Perhaps. Why not? What’s for sure is that there must be a concerted system. There’s the challenge and the opportunity.

·        The soft stuff is the hard stuff. A few weeks ago I visited Deloitte University with 75 learning leaders. Our focus was leader development. Eric Paul from Dell said to nods all around, "The soft stuff is the hard stuff."

And not just for leader development. The retirement specialist can’t just know about retirement, she must want to help. Same for the USPS. My postal deliverers know their job and then they do it with gusto. They stop back, wait a moment or two to get a signature, or brighten my day with a howdy. It’s knowing and doing and caring to exert effort. How do we influence that through training and development?

How will you systematize the development of minds AND hearts and bellies? There’s the challenge and the opportunity.

·         No matter how much you know today, success depends on your ability to learn continuously, forever . In the opening keynote at ASTD 2012, Jim Collins reminded us of the importance of humility.

Now, as you launch your career, it’s time to weigh the value of humility. If you are humble, you know that you do not know it all. Your humility opens you up to lessons, messages, ideas and surprises. You seek them.

Don’t just nod at me, graduates. What are you going to do to systematically assess and develop? How will you push yourself beyond your comfort zone? For starters, let me suggest that you join a local professional association, and an international too. ASTD is a great choice, but not the only one. Consider ISPI and eLearning Guild. Find one I don’t know about.

Take advantage of the idea of a personal learning network. Tour regularly in domains with which you are not familiar, where you will encounter approaches that are not old hat to you. I did it yesterday. This morning I contemplated all that went into the development and mobile support that enabled a British tree surgeon to save a tiny finch.

As you refresh your skills and perspectives, you will also inoculate yourself against burn out. There’s the challenge and the opportunity.

I think commencement addresses are supposed to conclude with an inspirational quote from someone like John Kennedy or Martin Luther King.   

Instead, I’ll turn to baseball. First, Pete Rose: “You owe it to yourself to be the best you can possible be—in baseball and in life.” Then there’s the speedy Lou Brock: “No one wants to hear about the labor pains, they just want to see the baby.” And finally, Yogi Berra, “I wish I had an answer to that because I'm tired of answering that question.”  

Actually, I’m glad I got to answer a question about advice for new grads-- and I hope my thoughts will also be useful for the old grads who stumble upon these words. That’s what I hope you will be in your career—useful. Just a word, and within it is both the challenge and the opportunity.

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