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Disruption Debate with Nigel Paine: Controlling your journey

Welcome to the next instalment in our Disruption Debate series. This time, Lars Hyland speaks to Nigel Paine, author of The Learning Challenge and Building Leadership Development Programmes That Work. He has been involved in corporate learning for over 20 years, producing learning software and award-winning multimedia materials for public and private sector organisations.

Experimenting for success 

“There’s an overwhelming trend for personalisation at the moment,” said Nigel. “Learning environments learn about individuals and their needs. This is revolutionary - once you go down this track you’ll never go back.”

Nigel describes himself as a ‘tech geek’, and says that in the past, he loved to pursue multiple potential learning projects at the same time.. However, he now advises people not to do this. “Now, I tend to move forward on a small number of focused experiments. And that is what I advise others to do.Everyone in learning should have two or three experiments on the go at any time. I no longer use the word ‘pilot’, as this implies success, whereas ‘experiment’ suggests it can succeed or fail. You don’t want all experiments to succeed, but you want to learn from them to help shape the learning of the future.”And choose experiments that matter and make a difference, not just bright shiny new things.

This is becoming particularly important with the emergence of technologies like artificial intelligence and virtual reality, believes Nigel. “Organisations today move so fast. We can’t move people in lockstep, or waste their time, or teach them irrelevant material. Technology can pinpoint the moment of need and the need itself, which is much more efficient. We need to help people build their own learning journeys so that they feel in charge of their own learning destiny. Ultimately, the goal must be to wean people off too great a dependence on L&D.  Individuals need to take control of their own learning and define their own learning destiny. This  is the only route to success both for organisations and for the workforce. In order to achieve this, we should experiment with ways to make it happen.”

“There are no longer passengers in L&D - everyone must take control of their own learning journey and this is a huge and inescapable challenge.”

Thriving within technical limitations

Lars asked Nigel what infrastructure an organisation needs to be responsive and agile in terms of learning, and Nigel acknowledged quickly that not every L&D team will have the luxury of choosing its own platforms. “I’m very pragmatic - if you have an organisation that tells you to use a specific system and nothing else, you need to find a way to work with this system for as long as you can.”

This is where the importance of a flexible, extensible platform comes in. “Look at apps and add-ons - get what you’ve built on the side to be plugged into the main system.” The key to success with any technical infrastructure, said Nigel, is flexible, connectable software. Some large key systems may underpin this infrastructure, but ensuring the various systems and processes talk to one another effectively is essential.

Stick with what they know

One of the main ways L&D teams go wrong is by trying to force people to use technology they’re unfamiliar with, said Nigel. “If learners are very familiar with one piece of software, go with it and make it work for you. Going with a system people are familiar with, will give you a much greater chance of succeeding, rather than going with an L&D-led choice with all the bells and whistles you think they need that no one is prepared to use very much, and certainly not delve to explore its full potential.” If people are already using a system, it suggests they’re comfortable with it, so this may well be the best way to reach them with learning materials too. “Speak to your COO and the learners themselves - it’s better to move forward two steps than to imagine you can move forward 10 and actually move forward none.”

So what’s the problem with not moving forward? “It’s a much more significant problem today than ever before,” said Nigel, “and what seems secure now can collapse very quickly. Organisations are getting more and more impatient with failure to deliver at the pace and speed needed, meaning learning has to step up to the plate.”

Getting hold of the right tools can sometimes be challenging, especially where procurement is concerned. Nigel believes it is vital to foster a good relationship with the procurement team to ensure they’re not rejecting the best tools for the job for seemingly arbitrary reasons, such as vendors being relatively young companies. “We need to knock that on the head! Smaller, newer organisations might add a lot to your organisation because they’re providing the right tools at the right time.”

When long-term views become short sighted

“Don’t get wedded to an idea or become heartbroken when something doesn’t work out. Keep a pragmatic viewpoint, and constantly scan the horizon - you’ve always got an option.”

Nigel is a strong advocate of flexible learning software, because it puts the organisation in control and allows them to do more with their tools. “I’ve spoken to companies locking into an LMS for five years, and it’s just not working. Instead of breaking their contract or staying put with an unsatisfactory solution, they argued for a second, smaller-scale LMS to run in parallel with the bigger system. This way, they can run certain elements of the learning programme in the smaller LMS, and show their IT team that there could be a very good reason to move away from the original contract early.”

“The idea that you can choose any big vendor with all the answers you need for the foreseeable future is crazy. L&D teams get frustrated over the limitations of their software, because they’re locked into all-inclusive systems which don’t integrate with anything else. Imagine the world as it’s going to be, not as it is today - and that means just 18 months away, not five years as was once the case.”

Learning how to learn

One thing L&D professionals should be doing is ensuring learners know how to learn. Nigel says that this should be happening in schools, but as this is so rarely the case, it’s up to employers to step in and provide people with the skills they need to curate content, manage information and filter out fake news, particularly when there are so many contradictory sources available to them.

“There is already massive disruption in our industry,” said Nigel, “which we must embrace or die. We can’t ignore it. Imagine having the equivalent of Siri or Alexa for learning, and having it tell you how to perform a difficult task at the time or need or telling you what to learn next. This will happen - we just need to pull the pieces together.”

But in the absence of this technology right now, we must encourage learners to manage their own learning. “The people you want in your workforce are those who are tuned in to the learning opportunities out there in the world. More people are expecting to work for a large number of organisations, so they’re focusing on their own skills rather than what their employer tells them to learn. This will help with retention - people are growing and learning rather than getting stuck in a rut.”

Doing more for less

To finish up the conversation, Nigel shared a great anecdote about an organisation he previously spoke to. They asked ‘How much budget should we set aside for this project?’, and his response was to ask them how they’d approach the challenge if they had no budget whatsoever. “Businesses should ask themselves what the first thing they’d do if they had no budget for L&D. You’d look outside the organisation at all the amazing free tools and resources out there - white papers, podcasts, TED Talks - and harvest and curate them. You would look inside and see what existed there. This is a great way to build collective learning into the organisation’s culture. Individuals will take control of their own learning, but the net impact is a collective growth based on the fresh insights of those individuals.”

What do you think of Nigel’s take on our Disruption Debate? As always, we’d love for you to let us know what you think and get involved using #DisruptionDebate on social media, or you can follow Nigel on Twitter here.

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