When I joined Kaplan seven years ago, I had one directive from the operational senior vice president who oversaw the training function: modernize our approach to learning. That sounds like an exciting and enviable challenge, right? I walked through the door during a period of historic growth for the world’s largest education company. Meanwhile, the learning and development (L&D) function had not yet been fully defined and provided me with the opportunity to make a real impact.

However, I was quick to notice three problems with his mandate:

  1. I didn’t know what he meant by “modernize learning.”
  2. He couldn’t tell me what he meant by “modernize learning.”
  3. The rest of the company—including L&D—wasn’t asking for radical change in learning.

Since then, the call to evolve the role of L&D has become downright deafening. If you haven’t heard it, you just aren’t listening. The workplace has changed, but we have not kept pace with the ways we support it. Many L&D thought leaders, including Jane Hart and Clark Quinn, are sharing great ideas on how to shift the L&D mindset. If I had a nickel for every time I saw Bersin’s “Meet the Modern Learner” infographic (Figure 1) in a conference presentation, I’d have A LOT of nickels. Our industry has acknowledged our impending irrelevance and wants to take action to modernize our approach. But ...


Figure 1: The iconic Bersin “Meet the Modern Learner” graphic

The message doesn’t seem to be penetrating many organizations. Our objective is ambitious: to enable employees and curate learning experiences while operating more like performance consultants and less like trainers. I agree wholeheartedly with the need for this shift, and my writings and presentations support this mindset. However, while we want to become more valuable within our companies and make a more meaningful impact on the bottom line, not everyone is on board with “training” coming off the sidelines. In real life, most employees have grown up with a certain understanding of the role the training team plays, and they aren’t ready to embrace the radical change L&D knows they need.

As Deloitte points out in its Global Human Capital Trends 2016 report, “Despite the strong shift toward employee-centric learning, many learning and development organizations are still struggling with internally focused and outdated platforms and static learning approaches.” If we know something is wrong, and stakeholders aren’t getting what they need, and employees want something better, what do we have to do to get this evolution started?

Begin with L&D

Most L&D people have never been judged by their ability to impact the business. That sounds ridiculous, but it’s true! Instead, we’ve been measured by the size of our course catalogs, number of training hours delivered, and how much people “like” what we do. This makes a radical mindset shift scary, especially for those who aren’t making the decisions. To use a sports analogy, it would be like practicing to play your position a certain way all season only to have the rules of the game change just before kickoff.

Before we introduce new strategies to our stakeholders, we must help each member of our L&D team understand the role they will play in our evolution. This will likely require dedicating time and effort to both communication and skills development. For example, as we made the shift to a more holistic approach at Kaplan, I spent considerable time with our writers, who were afraid they would lose relevance as we shifted away from content creation in favor of curation. Overall, we must be consistent and united in our effort to change the role of L&D in the modern workplace.

Focus your message on impact, not theory

Learning theory is super interesting, and I spend plenty of time reading about it. But I’m a learning geek! Most operational stakeholders aren’t familiar with learning theory. They don’t know what brain science is, and they probably don’t care. So, rather than trying to sell them on a modern approach, we should communicate our ideas based on potential business impact.

Let’s use microlearning as an example. We could tell managers that we want their employees to spend five minutes every day focused on learning because it better aligns to how the brain works (spaced repetition, retrieval practice, etc.). It sounds like a solid idea, but many managers are likely to balk at the proposition of five minutes of “unproductive time.” After all, they’re already short-staffed, and employees “don’t have enough time” to get their work done. They do their own math and determine five minutes every day for the 20 employees on their team is more than eight hours of lost production in a five-day work week. This is exactly what happened to me when I launched Axonify’s microlearning platform at Kaplan.

How could we better sell managers on the value of microlearning? Let’s say they currently send employees to a two-hour training session once every month to learn about new products. It’s only once per month as opposed to every day, which sounds like less of a commitment. However, let’s do the math. Sending 20 employees for two hours of training results in 40 hours per month spent away from the operation (in addition to logistics to schedule them for the event). Five minutes of daily microlearning results in 34 hours per month for the same team (plus less hassle given that they don’t have to move away from their workspace to engage). Add some basic knowledge assessment into the mix to show improved retention with a science-based approach, and you can easily justify the new idea for right-fit topics using language that managers already understand—just like I did.

Bring in outside voices

They hired you as their corporate learning person. You’d think that would make you the default expert in all things learning and performance, right? Unfortunately, people naturally pigeonhole one another based on past experience. Several people who worked with me at Disney still think of me as the “PowerPoint guy” because I built some memorable presentations 10 years ago. I’ve grown my skill set considerably since then, but I know it would take some effort to get them to trust my expertise in non-media topics.

Your professional value may be directly attached to your legacy ideas in the minds of your stakeholders. So, while you may be perfectly qualified to introduce a modern approach on your own, bringing in an outside expert for validation can get you past potential roadblocks. There are plenty of learning pros out there—like me—with deep backgrounds and practical experience in modern learning concepts who are willing to help move the needle. They may also be able to bring stories and case studies to further bolster the real-world value of your new idea. If you can’t bring in an outside thought leader, you can at least refer to recognized experts in the field whose work helped you develop the concept you’re recommending.

For example, every event The eLearning Guild sponsors—including the online events and Summit events, as well as the face-to-face events—presents sessions by recognized experts. Every week, Learning Solutions Magazine gives you the ideas and suggestions of multiple practitioners who have solved the problems you face in introducing modern learning concepts, or who can make good referrals. Have you ever contacted any of these folks for help?

Integrate modern with traditional

Many people still think learning looks like school. This perspective has been furthered by the event-based mentality present in most corporate learning environments. So, when you introduce a modern approach that doesn’t align to people’s past experience, you also must consider ways to help them understand the value and help shift their mindset. Otherwise, they may outright reject it because they can’t see beyond the surface. You know how you sometimes have to hide children’s medicine in food they like? It’s kinda like that.

Let’s use microlearning as an example one more time. When I introduced microlearning at Kaplan, many employees didn’t appreciate that you could use questions to deliver new knowledge without formal training. In their minds, questions equaled testing, so they were afraid to get the answers wrong for fear of retribution. Rather than just push this new idea onto the employees, we found a way to align our modern approach with their traditional mentality toward training. We integrated microlearning as the reinforcement component of existing training initiatives. Employees attended events and completed eLearning modules, approaches with which they were familiar, followed by the opportunity to answer three related questions per day in Axonify. We also supported this with messaging to remind employees that the questions were designed to help them remember information and would not be used as a formal assessment of knowledge (aka, a test). Employees quickly became so comfortable with the experience that we were able to leverage microlearning without the traditional introduction.

Like most important and lasting changes, the evolution of workplace learning is going to feel slow and possibly painful. Changing people’s mentality on the role learning plays in today’s workplace is a difficult task. After all, if it were easy, everyone would have done it by now. It took me seven years at Kaplan to drive meaningful change, and I still wasn’t finished when I left the company. We must understand our workplace context and build our strategies to meet people where they really are—not where we wish they were. L&D doesn’t own workplace learning. We never did. We’re now realizing that, and we’re finding new ways to enable and support the real owners—our employees.

What about you? Are you leading the charge to evolve L&D within your organization? How is your message being received? What steps have you taken to justify your new ideas and show the value of a modern approach to workplace learning? Share your experience in the comments!