After the storm. In Response to Jane Hart’s “The L&D world is splitting in two”

Sometimes, a good rumpus can be very productive. Like a thunderstorm, it clears the air thus making us see things afresh, maybe with sharper outlines, maybe from a different angle. Recently, a blog post by Social Learning expert and Modern Workplace Learning consultant Jane Hart has stirred one such heated debate about the role of L&D and what learning in today’s organisations actually means.

Gusts of Wind

According to Jane Hart, the world of L&D is splitting in two: on one side of the abyss the Traditionalists:

“[Traditionalists] believe they know what is best for their people; they think that an understanding of pedagogy and instructional design skills is enough. They disregard the fact that most people are bored to tears sitting in a classroom or studying an e-learning course at their desktop – and don’t realise that many are working around L&D to sort out their own learning and performance problems rather than have to endure an L&D-designed initiative.”

Those on the other side of the abyss are what Jane Hart calls Modern Workplace Learning (MWL) practitioners. While Traditionalists consider themselves as gatekeepers of learning, managing and controlling content, the MWL practitioners understand that learning happens continuously as a natural part of people’s work. They consider their role as facilitators and curators, and (I would add concluding from Jane Hart’s article) as coaches and change agents in organisations.

So far so good, I would argue, since conceptions of L&D as curators and facilitators have been around for quite some time. With concepts such as the learning organisation, communities of practice and the (questionable) 70:20:10 model, the fact that people learn quite a lot outside of formal training has been acknowledged sufficiently. And still, Jane Hart’s article has created what Clark Quinn in a response to Jane Hart called “quite the stir”. Why?

I recommend reading the entire post yourself to make up your own mind. It is a wonderful piece of passionate writing by someone who is an expert, cares deeply of what she does and wants to make a change in her field. I read Jane Hart’s blog posts regularly. They have taught me a lot and inspired my work. And yet, I shared Will Thalheimer’s impression that, this time, she was doing too much of a good thing. Her article is written rather provocatively, drawing a clear line between those living in the past and those attuned to our times, those in the know. It may be this strict division that is the cause for such a heated debate.

Clearing the Air

I think, as so often, it’s neither the one nor the other approach alone but a synthesis of the two, the middle ground. For instance, Jane Hart is certainly right that out there are many boring e-learning courses. Yet, e-learning is boring because we make it boring. Instead of blaming the technology and method we should rather think about when e-learning is really appropriate and how to design it so that it is enjoyable and effective.

Another point are LMSs. Jane Hart says:

Traditionalists “believe they must track and manage it all in their LMS. They don’t realise this is an impossible and irrelevant task because it’s not about recording activity – it’s about understanding its impact on individual, team and business performance.”

True. However, the LMS can also be used for providing practical resources and a space for social learning. Whether you track what’s happening there is up to you. Data from the LMS, however, can give insights into which resources are popular among learners, what method works, which does not etc. So, the LMS might be an instrument for quality improvement as Rick Russell commented in Jane Hart’s blog.

Sharper Vision

Drawing up divisions between traditionalists and modernists does not really help. What is modern now, will be dated in ten years, at the latest (Seth Godin wrote a beautiful piece on the end of the future the other day). Instead of arguing about who is in which camp and who has got it right, we should focus our energies on doing great work and asking the right questions, such as: How can we assist people find the right resources and mentors in moments of need? How can we foster the sharing of information? How can we improve performance? How can we help people (and thus organisations) grow? How can we make work easier for people – and more inspiring, more fulfilling, and maybe even more fun? Hence, I really agree with Jane Hart’s understanding of the new role of L&D as facilitators and coaches. Yet, I believe that we should build on and integrate experiences from the past. E-learning and LMSs alone are certainly not the solution – but they may be important factors in the equation of learning today.

I’m glad Jane Hart created this storm. It made some of us think and see more clearly why we’re doing this job and what this is all about. Thank you, Jane Hart & everyone who contributed to the discussion!