Traditional approaches to training are facing disruption. When I say “traditional,” I mean more than instructor-led training located in classrooms. I include e-Learning in most of the forms that have prevailed for the last 15 years or longer. Disruptive innovation, in the form of social software, is sparking new philosophies about formal and informal use of collaboration to support learning. But why are these ideas finding support among business leaders and e-Learning experts?

The basic reason is simple. Information moves too fast. The speed of commerce is faster than ever. Today, product releases happen every three months instead of every three years. Customers define your brand through online communities faster than you can think about creating a branding campaign. The pace at which workers must learn outstrips anything we have seen before. The influx of Millennials (gen Y), who will comprise 50% of our workforce in the next five years, brings with it new entry-level technology skills and new expectations. And that, in a few sentences, is your disruption.

Traditional training programs will not be able to supply the large pipeline of knowledge, skills, and information that your workers will need. The traditional hierarchical knowledge structure creates a bottleneck. (See Figure 1.)


screenshot of dolls and a diagram of the Pool of Knowledge versus Traditional

Figure 1: Traditional hierarchical structures are a bottleneck between learners and the knowledge pool.

Any astute training manager will tell you that they can feel this in their bones. I get to talk with training managers across hundreds of great organizations each year. There is a very common story that usually surfaces. It goes something like this:

“Josh, I need to create about 15 new programs this year. With classroom training, logistics, meetings, and other stuff we only have the time to create about 10 of them. We only have the budget to create three of them. Not to mention updating the 85 programs that are collecting dust. I can’t keep up. The list of needs keeps growing longer, and our bandwidth isn’t increasing.”

I can empathize with this. As training manager at two different Fortune 500 healthcare companies, I worked my tail off to build great training programs. I was working 70+ hours per week, managing million-dollar training budgets, hiring and equipping a team of trainers, on two to three planes per week, eating Marriott points for lunch, running over 40 live training events, and building an e-Learning program.

Even doing all of this, I still felt like I was only scratching the surface. I knew in my core that I was barely addressing the tip of the iceberg of what my learners needed to know to perform in their job. I worked harder, hired more trainers, spent more money, but I never got ahead. I felt like I was trying to wiggle my way out of quicksand.

For these reasons I am completely energized by the revolution that is taking place. Savvy organizations are catching on to the idea that they can’t possibly provide all of the training every employee needs. So they don’t. They give the tools to the learners and get out of their way. This is called collaborative learning.

So what is this all about? It’s about a change in thinking. Don’t build a pipeline to the pool of knowledge — just let your learners swim in the pool. Here are some strong core beliefs that people leading in this area hold.

  • Learn or die – It’s the truth. You’re either growing or being left behind. We as individuals and organizations have no other options.
  • We all teach and learn every day – Learning and teaching are the basic dual-natured functions of our existence. Everyone knows or does something that others would like to know or do.
  • Great teachers rule – Teaching isn’t a job, an assignment, or a title. Inside of every great leader, parent, salesperson, grandmother, and manager is a great teacher.
  • Learning is about sharing and collaboration – How much can you learn in solitary confinement? How much can you learn from one person? How much can you learn from 100 people? Exactly.
  • Gd enuf is good enough – The world wants mp3, not CD. We take vacation photos with our cell phone. We choose quick-and-dirty over slow-and-polished. We jst wnt rslts.
  • Great learning experiences — These have nothing to do with budget, titles, projectors, conference rooms or graphics. Great learning experiences have everything to do with passion, creativity, humor, collaboration, and diversity.
  • Pull, not push – People learn when they’re ready to learn, not when we’re ready to teach them. Create an environment where learners can pull when they have an appetite.
  • There is energy and potential in the crowd – The crowd is more powerful, smart, and capable than any individual or team.

So does this mean that we should cancel our LMS subscription, take a hammer to our laser pointer, and bury our Webcams?  By all means, NO! Formal learning is needed in most organizations.

What I propose is to think of yourself as a learning construction expert. Use the right tool for the right purpose. You can pound a nail with a saw, but why not just use the hammer? Take inventory. What does your organization need? What kind of experience do your learners need to meet the organizational need? The answer lies behind those two questions, and I will share my thoughts on that answer in my next column, the week of April 4.