Nothing like an economic crisis to get us thinking about our future.  The Learning Circuits Blog big question for March is “What will Workplace Learning look like in ten years?”  Harold Jarche and Jay Cross have questioned the value of the training department in their article “The Future of the Training Department”. Predicting the future is a sucker’s game but always fun because it is actually a visioning exercise.  As Peter Drucker once said “the best way to predict the future is to create it” .  So with that in mind here are some thoughts on the future of training and learning in the workplace.

The best way to predict the future is to create it- Peter Drucker

Back to the future: The last 10 years.

If you believe that the best predictor of the future is the past, then your view of the workplace learning in ten years would be dismal indeed.  Little of the essence of the training function has changed in the last ten years. The big questions remain– how to link to business strategy, how to measure impact and ROI, how to develop the right skills, how to create and use organizational knowledge.

The biggest change has been in technology (LMS, e-learning, authoring, collaborative tools).  Learning applications have allowed us to develop and deliver more training, more efficiently that ever before.  But more training is not necessarily better training.  A pretty good argument can be made that e-learning has actually reduced the quality and effectiveness of the learning function in organizations.  There are many notable exceptions and current developments in simulations and scenario based approaches are promising.  Rapid development tools (again with exceptions) have resulted in perpetuating the content driven information dump. However our tracking, record keeping, reporting, content management, self service and ease of access are better than ever!!!  Again to quote Drucker “There is nothing as useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”.

The next ten years

Predicting the future is a bit like picking Oscar winners.  There are those you think will win vs. those you think should win.  A lot of factors are at play that may keep training in the same box as the last ten years–same back end and an ever changing skin.    To keep from exposing that cynical view too dearly, here is a list of some of my hopeful winners over the next ten years.  I don’t believe, as Harold does, that training function should be put out of it’s misery but I do hope that we can change it’s mission and methods and shape technology to meet our purposes rather than visa versa.

One mission

There are a lot of staff and line groups that compete for the performance improvement pie. This includes organizational development, operational training, knowledge management, Quality and process redesign, change management and others.  I hope in ten years we have one organization that works tightly with management to improve performance and add value to the organization.  This would allow the unit to both develop knowledge and skills and shape the environment in which the skills are to be used…resulting in much greater performance results.  Organization Effectiveness anyone?

Less training, more learning

Old news you say. Maybe, but I think “learning” has simply replaced “training” as a softer label for the same old, same old.  Informal learning methods like coaching, mentorship etc will play a role but I’d really like to see consulting services targeted at developing “ways of working” built around a natural learning cycle of  a) try something, b) collecting and chart results, c) receiving visual feedback and d) making informed adjustments. This habit of team problem solving and continuous improvement is learning.  See my posts on Let Learning Lead and Learning in Action.

Merging work and learning

With the right workflow, tools and methods, learning can be built directly into work and have far greater impact than formally structured programs.  The organizational effectiveness function should be directly involved in helping management re-design process and workflow to optimize learning, building performance support tools, and track continuous improvement.

Better “training”

I hope we’ll be doing less structured training but get better at the training we do.  Even as organizations move to knowledge based work there are many jobs that still require procedural tasks that are most efficiently learned through well designed and executed formal training.  We used to call it skills training.  Even in knowledge work there are patterns, processes and systems that need to be learned to be effective.  Knowledge workers can be left to their own devices, informal chats and all the informal learning tools they desire but maybe a more efficient way is to compress this experience into  well modeled simulation. I hope the next tens years brings some real advances and tools for learning simulation development.

Focus on knowledge work

I think there will be a large movement towards improving the productivity of knowledge workers and knowledge work in the next ten years.  Knowledge and service sector productivity trails manufacturing by a wide margin.  To stay competitive knowledge based companies are already looking to re-purpose proven manufacturing management systems like the Toyota Production System for knowledge work environments–See this article for example.  I think this can and should shape learning approaches, content and consulting over the next ten years.

Learning as management consulting

The organizational effectiveness (nee Training) organization  in ten years should evolve to something more akin to an internal management consulting group.  It should have the formal charter and mission to improve organizational performance, not provide training solutions, although that would be part of the solution set.  Consulting skills should be paramount.  Management will approach the unit for their performance improvement abilities rather than training programs.

Less measurement myopia, more learning from process data

When learning and organization effectiveness consultants are connected to their client’s business,  the persistent “can you prove it?”, “what’s the ROI?” questions will diminish because the proof will be in the measurement systems built into the workflow of the organizations they support.  Business measures will be learning measures.


I leave it to last because i hope we can begin to lead it instead of visa versa.  There is no doubt technology is going to evolve dramatically in ten years.  I hope it has more of an influence on how we learn than on what we learn. I’d like to see more simulations that model and compress work processes for rapid learning.  I’d especially like “rapid learning”  come to mean how fast we can cause learning rather than how fast we can develop it.  I’d like to see it used to improve the quality of learning as much as the efficiency of managing it.  I’d like e-learning to be a quaint term from the past.

Human capital and LMS systems will become one and the same (more mergers to come).  Web 2.0 will feature in these systems but will not be dominant.  Free form use of Web 2.0 will thrive and morph in the public (consumer) sphere.  In business, as the drive to improve knowledge work gets more tightly focused on producing results, web 2.0 apps will be harnessed for knowledge sharing and creation around specific projects and teams.    I hope that future learning consultants will be right inside the workflow, using whatever technology emerges to help employees rapidly and efficiently add value for customers.  The “next” technology will always capture our imagination but I hope that we get better at learning from the past to not let our enthusiasm distort effective application.

In some ways all of the above are what performance consulting and organizational development camps within our profession have been trying to encourage for many years.  Maybe, the current miasma in Training will be just the medicine to get us moving.

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This blog contains perspectives on the issues that matter most in workplace learning and performance improvement.  It’s written by Tom Gram.

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