The eLearning Guild named Dr. Jane Bozarth a Guild Master at DevLearn 2013. In presenting the award to Dr. Bozarth, Guild co-founder and CEO David Holcombe said, “Jane, over the last four years, has written many articles for Learning Solutions Magazine, delivered dozens of sessions at our conferences (both online and face-to-face events), and contributed to our research reports. Her contributions go beyond what she’s done for the eLearning Guild, to contributions for the entire industry. She has written more than a half-dozen books that we all buy and read and learn from. She speaks at many other conferences and shares her ideas through many channels. She is an absolute social media maven, all day, every day, sharing ideas on social media so other people can learn and grow and prosper in this field.”
I interviewed Jane on April 8, 2016, about her favorite topics for articles and presentations, and her thoughts on a couple of the questions that Guild members often ask.
Bill Brandon (BB): Jane, since 2010, you’ve written 77 articles for Learning Solutions Magazine and you’ve delivered dozens of conference sessions. What topic stands out as the one you most enjoy addressing?
Jane Bozarth (JB): I have two answers to that, with regard to the column and to conference presentations. It’s not so much a particular single topic—it is more when I hit on something that I realize will be genuinely useful, particularly to the newer practitioners.
There are an awful lot of people in this business who came to it through informal means, through a back door, through a side door, through getting recruited. You don’t see that happening with lawyers and accountants. [Laughs.]
So when I hit on something that I realize will be really helpful, that’s going to help somebody improve their practice, and that they really probably didn’t get from anybody else, I find that just delightful. And we see that spark hit with the column pretty often—not every time, but a lot of times. I get, you know, “light bulb” responses to that. It’s funny, though: The responses are usually in the form of tweets back to me, not so much in the comments below the column.
Often I would say that my favorite topics may be about design, but sometimes it’s how you can enact your work better. It’s how you can have conversations with management that get listened to. It’s how you can find new resources, or where there’s research or authors that can help you articulate what you’re trying to do, or can help you explain why a course of action isn’t the right one and why we don’t want to have dancing cats on every screen “because it’s engaging.”
I do really enjoy talking about the possibilities of social learning and the possibilities of seeing learning and development evolve into more of a partner and facilitator. Because I’ve been with government my whole career, I have spent an awful lot of time in the compliance trench and the mandatory training trench. I just think that when I have opportunities to facilitate conversations that are already happening, that we can support people who are figuring it out as they go, that we can extend our reach beyond what might have been traditional means. I find that kind of topic very exciting. The social stuff has more potential. Sometimes audiences want me to say, “Open the PowerPoint slide and insert this thing and you’ll have a fabulous interaction slide,” but that’s not really the best.
BB: Is there something that you think nobody is addressing but that someone ought to be?
JB: I think what we’re not addressing is the situation that I started off with: that we have an awful lot of people in this business who have come to this through very informal means, or non-structured means. While I don’t think everyone needs to go off and get a doctorate in this business, I worry now, especially since we’re developing things with such large scale, that we are not developing or vetting practitioners very well.
Anybody who wanders into this business can set up a blog, and suddenly, they’re regarded as an expert. People tend to take that too much at face value. While I don’t think what we do is rocket science most of the time, I do think that bad advice can do harm. It can make a performer’s life harder, it can hurt job performance, or it could create a problem for the practitioner, maybe get them fired. We need to make sure we are seeing them through to the end of the road.
I worry sometimes in this business, and this is especially true with eLearning, that we have a lot of people designing instruction now who are never actually, physically near their learners. I work in a building with classroom trainers, and training is going on around me. There are real humans coming to take these classes. Even though my work is primarily online, my location gives me the sense of the human beings at the other end of the rope. I worry sometimes that a lot of the folks who are designing instruction have lost sight of the human at the end. There is a real performer and a real system out there.
Maybe it doesn’t matter if their stress isn’t managed tomorrow. Maybe it doesn’t matter if they don’t delegate something well per some leadership course. But it does matter if they don’t disclose a performance problem correctly, or they don’t alert management to a harassment issue when they should, or they don’t know how to use the brake on the forklift. I don’t know that we always recognize (for all our lofty talk about performance support) that there is a real human at the other end of our instruction—and the performance can have repercussions, either for someone else or for that performer or for the organization. The “brain tumor” piece I wrote [Nuts and Bolts: Performance Matters, or, Guy Walks into a Brain-tumor Clinic] was largely meant to reflect that—it’s not just one guy taking a course, it’s a whole lot of people, a whole lot of actors, and a system, all of whom are taking different courses and have to come together at that one moment and not kill this guy.
BB: What should we call the profession we’re in today? Is it still “learning and development”? Is it changing to something else?
JB: What we do is about learning everywhere. I don’t know that we need a new name for learning and development. I think we need to define ourselves differently and it needs to be more than lip service. We went through a phase a while back where we were “performance consultants,” and what that meant was, we would have meetings and then tell people what class they needed. [Laughs.] We didn’t really change what we were doing. Now we’d like to think that we are “performance support,” that we are “knowledge management facilitators.” I was in a chat online yesterday, and someone used a phrase like “knowledge connector.” I would like to see learning and development departments move more towards enabling and connecting than teaching and directing. Whether that means we get a new name, I don’t know.
Now, it is true that there are a lot of organizations that don’t have a “learning and development” department. You know, your local coffee shop doesn’t have one. The local guy who owns a storage facility that also does UPS shipping probably doesn’t have one. It’s when an organization gets to be of a certain size that somebody says, “Oh, we need to get all the new hires together and talk to them about their insurance.” Suddenly, L&D emerges from the mist. I don’t think anybody gets up in the morning and says, “Gee, I want to start a business and we have to have a training department.” I don’t think that’s how it happens.
I think we could, in fact, change the paradigm, but there is a need for orientation, and there is compliance stuff. You’ve got truck drivers and you’ve got people operating equipment. When it’s not just your wife and your kids helping you, suddenly you do have workers’ comp issues and you do have safety considerations. It seems like we could look at the roots of that and change it at the root rather than worry about what to call the specialists who know how to teach employees about these things.
I would like to see the training department mature beyond “we gotta have compliance and we gotta hurry up.” I would like to see that paradigm shift begin. I really think we could do that. At the same time, I think it is unrealistic to think that management is going to let go of the idea of having a training department. I work in HR, and I will promise you, as long as management—the people who hire and pay L&D—as long as management thinks learning looks like school, it’s not really going to change very much. They think that it’s like college. They think that people come to a room and they sit in chairs and they are talked to for hours on end and then they have learned. That will have to change before the paradigm shifts much. I also think it’s unrealistic to believe that we’re headed to a world where all these ultra-competent employees are going to sit around helping each other figure out the health plan. I don’t really see L&D going away entirely, especially in sizable organizations, no matter what the name gets changed to.
There’s something else that we need to pay attention to, and that’s the value of the human connection. I saw something change 10 years ago, a big change. I was a classroom trainer then. When we started seeing the learning management system [LMS] and the reports and metrics associated with it, all of a sudden, I heard a bunch of trainers start talking about needing to get credit for everything. “We need credit for this,” and “I trained this many hours and I trained this many people.” We always had a little of that, but it got exponentially worse when the software arrived. Now, when you say you need to help people facilitate conversations, it’s, “How will we track that, how will we record that, how will we document that?” If I say you need to find out where the conversations are happening, you need to help organizations help connect talent, to help people find each other, it’s, “Well, how do l get credit for that, how do we track that?” It’s putting the cart before the horse. I have seen this emerge, and get much, much worse, in the last decade.
BB: How can a practitioner or a manager in this profession remain relevant in the face of constant change?
JB: I think that people need to be explorers. They need to be willing, especially in our business, to try new technology. The best way to stay relevant that way is to belong to groups. I belong to any number of conversations, for instance, that involve Chad Udell—partly because we see each other constantly, partly because we’re in Twitter conversations and I just see him around in the online community.
I don’t see Chad in person very often, but people like Chad are talking about new stuff, emerging stuff. Tools I’ve never heard of, apps that they’re building. You need to put yourself in the path of those conversations. You never know what’s going to be next or what’s going to emerge. Find people in whatever social channels you like, whatever proximity you have to them. You need to be in their path. Magazines of course are great, but you need to read beyond your own scope. John Seely Brown calls it “expanding your surface area.” You need to read, not just CLO magazine, TD, or whatever you happen to subscribe to—read beyond. lf you’re interested in social stuff, you need to be reading some sociology, you need to be doing some organizational psychology, reading beyond just the walls of L&D.
Given the way the future is looking, you would be well advised to read up on artificial intelligence, on automation of jobs and what’s going to be left after all those jobs are automated, and what our workforce is going to look like in 10 years or 20 years! Some of the jobs we’re training people for, we just aren’t going to need those jobs anymore. What are we going to be doing? Mostly, you should be keeping your mind open to new conversations. Keep an ear to the ground; don’t let yourself get so dug in to your own little silo. Be willing to experiment. Be willing to fail. People say they are overwhelmed by what is “out there.” I say, pick some things that are of interest to you, and keep an eye out for where those things are going to go.
BB: Jane, thanks for sharing your thoughts on these important topics!