Dear L&D professional, start disrupting your own work!

Like any other industry or line of business, learning and development has its fair share of practices that tend to go unquestioned. Once you do something for long enough, it’s easy to become oblivious to change. “The way it has always been done” is comfortable and doesn’t really require a whole lot of thinking, creativity or original ideas. Just repeat what everyone else is doing to keep the status quo intact. But in today’s era of change, if you’re not moving, you’re in fact moving backward. And the reality nowadays is that if you don’t find the new ways of working by yourself, someone else will likely do it for you and you might soon be needing a new job. If there’s one thing common to the group of companies and people dubbed as “disruptors,” it’s their ability to disregard existing practices to do things better.

So, what can L&D professionals bring to the table to avoid being taken by surprise? Here are a couple of ideas that challenge some of the old, prevalent mental models in the industry, and that I believe could provide a lot of value.

First, let’s look at the way organizations determine the type of learning activities they offer. Whenever I talk to corporate learning professionals, I try to gauge what determines the direction of L&D in their organizations. Usually there’s training needs analysis involved, but for many that seems to be just going through the motions. Fundamentally, the whole process still remains a top-down one. Managers and executives – who are often far away from the “action” – think they have the better knowledge to set the standards and determine the right type of learning.

Designing learning experiences

But how could they? Business is changing so fast nowadays that people are having a hard time keeping up with their own jobs – let alone someone else’s! So, wouldn’t it make sense to take a play out of the UX playbook and start involving the people actually doing the jobs? They know the day-to-day better than anyone and are the first to witness external changes and internal problems in the business. By being a bit more learner-centric in your learning design, you could already go a long way. Add to that and empower yourself by embracing data and you’ll be able to deliver something truly great.

But the needs analysis part is not the only area of L&D that could benefit from letting loose a bit. Naturally, once you’ve come up with the learning needs, you need to design the actual learning experiences. But designing relevant, efficient, engaging, and personalized learning is not an easy task by any measure. I meet many learning professionals who struggle not only in that, area but in sheer output as well. Thanks to diminishing budgets and the sheer speed of change, the demand for learning often far exceeds the supply.

Yet, in the era of Youtube, Facebook, and all things social media, it seems crazy that organisations are not leveraging the greatest content creator in history – the user. Again, it’s the employees who should be at the center of things. There’s a lot of tacit knowledge in any organisation. Wouldn’t it make sense to tap into that? Enabling user-generated content and peer-to-peer learning can improve relevance and reduce time to competence (as well as the L&D department’s workload!).   Furthermore, an open culture of sharing can help eliminate unproductive practices, promote continuous improvement, and drive process innovation – all things that should garner interest even outside the traditional L&D silo.

Overall, we learning professionals tend to jump to conclusions and fail to see learning in its entirety. Our answer to business or learning problems is far too often a classroom session or an eLearning course, both of which represent the very narrow definition of learning we’ve been exposed to. The fact remains that most learning doesn’t happen in classrooms or within an eLearning course hosted on an LMS. Yet, they are usually the only contexts of learning organisations even attempt to properly understand. But the real value is probably somewhere else.


Unfortunately, this thinking is deeply ingrained. For our first 20-something years, we’re sat in classrooms or asked to use “the learning portal”. The resulting mental models are hard to shake and frankly make learning professionals seem a bit simple. But as we are increasingly moving towards learning in the workflow, it’s imperative that we open our eyes wider and find the ways of adding value to the business without inconveniencing it.

There are enormous opportunities for those who succeed in getting rid of this type of thinking and embrace learning in its infinity. What excites me as a learning technologist is that we can get there already today. Whether it’s the hidden knowledge, analytical powers, or new ways of designing learning, or something totally different that you’re looking to leverage, there’s a lot of technology out there that will help you. But to really make an impact with the use of ideas and technologies such as these, you must stop holding onto “the way it has always been done” and start disrupting your own work.

About the author: Lauri Sulanto is the director of Learning Crafters.