One of the preceding events at the recent DevLearn conference was the Executive Forum, a special one-day event for executive learning leaders. David Kelly, executive director for The eLearning Guild, opened the session by asking the audience to share what keeps them up at night. Quite a few topics were mentioned, but there were overarching recurrent themes. Here are some of the L&D pain points that keep executives up at night.


One theme had to do with strategy. Participants were concerned about people management; how to connect communities; and whether they were making a difference. Strategy is about figuring where you want to be and how to get there.

There are two top-level issues L&D should be shooting for: a performance ecosystem and a learning culture. The ecosystem is about more than the LMS…it’s about providing findability for learning and performance resources, and connecting and collaborating. You need the tools, but they alone aren’t enough.

The latter brings in culture. You can create a social media platform for people to connect but if you don’t have the right environment, no one will use it. It takes more work but if you create an environment where people are willing to work together, contribute, and collaborate, you will tap into the power of your people.

Amy Edmondson talks about two dimensions: accountability and safety. Either one alone (or neither) has problems, but together you get the productive creativity that drives innovation. The point is that these two elements are mutually reinforcing. The whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts.


Another repeated theme was technology. While there are a number of base platforms to consider, one concern was defining the core technology platform. And the answer is not an LMS. Why? If optimal execution is only the cost of entry as I’ve suggested, then something else is the true differentiator. I suggest that’s innovation. And, as has now been shown, that’s social. Should formal learning be at the core, or should informal learning? And is that self-learning through a portal or is it social learning?

When you’re doing problem-solving, research, design, and so on, you don’t know the answer when you start. It’s learning, but informal learning. And that’s the quick type of learning. There’s also a steady background percolation of ideas that fuels innovation. That again comes from creative friction, as well as access to outside ideas and some time for experimentation. In short, it’s social. And that suggests that the core technology—the one in the workflow and that also supplements formal learning—is a social platform.

I suggest that the social infrastructure in an organization is going to be the prime source of advantage. And, while IT may own the social technology, a different organization should be the employee-facing vision using it to succeed. Someone needs to be responsible for ensuring that the culture is right; that people know how to work and play well together. And that should be L&D.

Social media is not the only solution, but it’s arguably the core. I don’t want to say that you don’t need an LMS, because I still see a value for courses. But even a social-enabled LMS is bolting on functionality instead of having social at the core. Similarly with portals; you want to have federated search and a user and use-case focused approach instead of the silos, but is that core? In other words, you don’t want an all-singing, all-dancing, all-in-one tool—you want to be building the ecosystem from the right components. A social perspective, and then the associated technology, should be in the foreground. There could be separate communication and collaboration tools, for instance, but they should be seen as the place where the organizational learning lives.

User-generated content

A side benefit of this is the possibility to solve another recurrent concern. An issue that surfaced several times among the executives was resources—securing the time and people to meet the needs. To put it bluntly, L&D quite simply can’t meet all the needs. An engagement with a large manufacturer showed how more and more software was required, and all that software continually got more complex. The group responsible for providing software training couldn’t keep up. Their solution was to outsource the support to the people using it. The lesson here is that there are more needs, and unique ones, and situations where things are changing too fast.

Which gives us a different answer. Don’t try to do it all! Another benefit of creating a culture where folks can collaborate and communicate is that they can create resources and share them. L&D then becomes a learning facilitator, instead of the source of all learning. And as folks are increasingly self-learning, making sure those efforts are well done is a meaningful role, and ultimately more valuable to the organization.

Such innovation requires experimentation, along with measurement. You’ll be asking learners to experiment with curating and creating resources. It won’t always go well. There’ll be problems. Some you can anticipate and you should be prepared, but you must also have some margin for the unexpected. This is innovation, and that’s a sign of a growing, learning organization.

Model it

L&D has to walk the walk and make it work internally. You’ll get better buy-in if you demonstrate with your own team. You’ll also develop the skills you need to use with other folks. Change the nature of L&D practices internally; then sell them outward to the organization. Become innovative and share the innovations. Work, and learn, out loud. Turn L&D into a core contributor

If you are an executive, something will always keep you up at night. But while you’ll still have concerns, they won’t be existential (“will we continue to exist?”) as much as operational (“how do we add more value?”), Sleep tight!