Friday, April 19, 2024

Is L&D being flipped?

Learning Technologies 2024. Great to see some people, have a hot and sweaty browse round the exhibition and chew the cud over a few bottles of beer in The Fox, that’s always fun. But the best time to ask questions about the future is not during the euphoria of the party, but after. What is actually happening? Where are we going?

AI headlines

It is the Learning TECHNOLOGIES Conference. We are in the most important technology transition since the invention of writing, an existential technology that is literally changing what we are as a species, therefore what we learn, why we learn and how we learn. AI was headlining at our Glastonbury. But as Ben Betts said, and I agree, it was all content production and add ons. The real AI in learning was like the Sex Pistols battering it out down the Thames, completely ignoring the Establishment in the Exel. It is so disruptive a force that no one knows how to deal with it, so they try to package it, contain it, get it to create courses, use it as a signal – look we’re down with this new tech! But no one is buying it - metaphorically or literally. It is bypassing L&D.

L&D folk playing little role when Copilot is introduced and may play a diminishing role in these choices. This is now an enterprise level decision as it leads to increases in productivity. Training may not be the best lever here - productivity tools and performance support seem more powerful and the evidence suggests they're working. I have a whole rack of research papers and data on this. As productivity rises through performance support, the need for courses will diminish. AI is being adopted by everyone and organisations are seeing hte benefits but like water it is a rising tide, with no ebb that may be dissolving old methods of training See my analysis here.

This very point was well made by Egle Vinauskaite and her recent report. This should be turned on its head, as the business is seeing massive uplift through productivity and performance support using AI outside of L&D, yet still thinks AI is about course production.

I suspect that footfall and stand space were down this year. I know one large company who spent half what they spent last year. Others, who I know are not making money, were still spending large. But there was just this general commentary and feeling that it was same old, same old.

Freelancers certainly finding it tough. This was confirmed in this fascinating study where dramatic falls in freelance jobs in hte very sweet spots where instructional designers sit - writing, coding, image generation. This is marked after the introduction of GenAI.

What was on show were old, not new, technologies. Where was the real meat around agentic workflow, the real impact that Sora and other tools will have on video in learning, how sophisticated RAG, large context windows and open-source models are in AI, it's real power in performance support. How often did you see those two words 'Performance support'? 

Loss of direction

There were good people saying the same thing we’ve heard for decades about our lack of business alignment and our failure to look outside of our bubble to what is happening in the real world. Donald Taylor always teases this out nicely and Heather Stefanski and Chara Balasubramaniam said what had to be said. But our failure on this front has been gargantuan. We are now a supply, not demand-led industry . We decide what people want – yes it’s DEI and Leadership and resilience – and hose it out. There is no attention paid to evaluation and we wilfully ignore the evidence showing that all of this spend could be a waste of time and money. The evidence is frightening – so we turn our head away. All of those people in those horrible Fred Perry type tops, with their embroidered logos, selling you renewal licences on their LMS, more content and compliance training. All of those little companies on the fringes, spending money they don't have but desperate to be noticed. We are not at the forefront of organisations leading the charge. This is a ship that has lost direction.

Flipped L&D

We may even have a flipped L&D, where we are serving some abstract notion of what we want organisations to be rather than supporting hte development of individuals within organisations. Our focus on Leadership has left the rest somewhat abandoned. Our focus on compliance is all about protecting the organisation from its own employees, the focus on DEI is about splitting organisations into groups and often setting them against each other. In all of this personal agency has been lost. We are being told what to do.

Speaking to investors they’re struggling to identify anything other than old-school companies, flat on ideas, low on revenues. In general, I spoke to business owners who are seeing revenues falter. They see what Microsoft, Google, and OpenAI are doing and want to see how this will make companies grow. In truth we have failed to tie learning to productivity and growth. We have tied it to the mast of old solutions and old technology. I genuinely don't see how we are now contributing to increasing productivity, bringing employees with us and generally improving organisations.

More courses

Few love what we do. They tend to roll their eyes at the mention of yet another several hours of e-learning from your LMS. They really don’t like that cartoony, page turning stuff, peppered with multiple choice questions and speech bubbles. We carpet bomb employees with compliance, DEI and other courses they don’t see a real need for – there’s always another abstract noun to cover – ‘resilience’ whatever…. We know that most learning takes place informally and that performance support really matters and that AI does this wonderfully – yet what do we see – wall to wall LMS and course content vendors. Even there, note that Skillsoft had a tiny stand - sign of the times!

Inward looking

Joan Keevill, Niall Gavin and a few others did a good job on reporting but notice how L&D do so little reporting now on social media. What there was often just puffery – who was speaking, how great they were, silly pics, not what they said, when what we needed was discussion and debate. I think that’s a sign of this inward -looking culture. We no longer share as much substance as we did. However, it was good to see John Helmer and Rob Clarke there doing their thing and hopefully we’ll get more from those great sources when its all over.


These shows have to happen but they tend to become rituals. A chance to meet your mates, have some fun, get out of the office. But how many are actually counting the cost, wondering where all the leads are? Facing tough financial times? Did we challenge or backslap ourselves? I see little evidence, apart from Daniel Susskind, of real, honest challenge. To be fair I have found it at other conferences – the smaller events, OEB with its Big Debate, on social media, live podcasts on contentious subjects at the conference. Exel is such a soulless place. At least Olympia had some soul and you could pop out to the real London.


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