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Disruption Debate with Ryan Tracey: A game of inches

Welcome to the third in our new Disruption Debate series, where we speak to leading industry experts to discover more about disruption in the L&D industry. In this post, Lars Hyland speaks to Ryan Tracey. Ryan is an E‑Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry, a Council Member for the Australian Institute of Training and Development, and a former Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine. Ryan has worked in corporate e-learning for over 14 years, following several years in the higher education market. He also writes a blog about learning technologies.

Breaking out of the training mindset

We opened our conversation with a big question - what can senior leaders in L&D and HR do right now to avoid falling behind in today’s rapidly changing business world? Ryan was quick to admit the shortcomings of L&D leaders to date:

“We’re not applying best practice, whatever that is, but I know what best practice isn’t, and it’s what we’re doing at the moment.” So what are we getting wrong? Ryan said that traditional face-to-face training is actually his preferred approach for both training others and being trained himself, but he recognises the issues with this method of training.

“A lot of senior L&D people are still stuck in the training mindset - turn up to class, have everyone in the same place at the same time… but with the current speed of change and other disruptive forces like globalisation and flexible working, we can’t expect this approach to meet our needs now or in the future. It’s unsustainable.”

Ryan believes that the solution to help L&D and learning leaders keep up is to break out of the training mindset and instead to shift to a performance support approach. Instead of expecting employees to learn a huge stack of content at once, we should make it freely accessible when they need it. So how should we use technology to do this? “In most organisations, the intranet is very underused. It’s notoriously clunky and full of useless information, but it needn’t be. If structured correctly and kept up to date, it’s the perfect vehicle for learning in your own time or just in time.”

Leading by example

Ryan also rightly pointed out that too few L&D leaders are currently leading by example. “L&D leaders should be participating actively in social forums and making it known that they’re making use of this technology. If all the important people in the organisation are developing their skills informally and other people know this, everyone else will be more likely to do so as well. People tend not to bother doing anything they don’t need to do, so it’s up to L&D leaders to set the norm and show that these are effective ways to learn.”

This is an important point - that you don’t necessarily need the latest technology or to follow the new L&D trends to get results. Often, disruption starts with your people, and using an influential group of learners as the catalyst for change in an organisation can be the first step towards achieving your learning and business objectives.

Involve everyone in learning

Our next talking point was about social learning, and the fact that our social use of technology is becoming increasingly embedded in our lives outside of work. With this in mind, we wanted to know how this is shaping employees’ expectations of learning technologies, and whether or not it’s affecting learning design.

“One of the things we should be doing as a function is involving everyone,” said Ryan. “The focal point of the traditional training experience is the trainer. One person is expected to know everything and tell you all the answers. But it seems strange that just one person from inside, or even outside the business would know everything. I go by the motto that everyone is an SME in something, and the role of HR and L&D is to facilitate knowledge sharing among everyone in the organisation.”

Ryan also points out that often, we don’t know what we don’t know, which can make finding information we didn’t know we needed virtually impossible. Even when we are aware of gaps in our knowledge, we may not know who in the business can help us. That’s where social learning platforms come in. By putting systems in place to uncover knowledge at the point of need, it becomes easier for employees to connect and collaborate.

Cultural change through blended learning

“Blending is key, especially for organisations focused on ‘training’. Starting out by adding more blended elements to these traditional training sessions lets us take our first few steps on the journey towards a more blended L&D portfolio.”

Many organisations struggle to find a practical way to introduce more social learning into the blend, so Ryan has a couple of suggestions to help overcome this barrier. “Practical workshops rather than presentations allow participants to get to know each other and share experiences. Businesses can also do more to provide upfront content to be consumed ahead of time - don’t make participants waste time on the day watching a slideshow. A flipped classroom model helps us use their face-to-face time for more valued-added activities like roleplay, storytelling, debating and debriefing.”

As we all know, implementing cultural change can be a slow process - ‘a game of inches’, as Ryan calls it. Introducing elements of social learning to the blend over time can help us make these changes slowly but surely over time for real results.

Engage in learning

Another ongoing challenge for L&D professionals comes in the form of learner engagement. Without engaging learners effectively, we can’t be expected to disrupt the L&D space. We wanted to know how Ryan suggested L&D leaders tackle the issue of engagement.

“As learning professionals, we’ve typically done a very bad job of explaining to learners why they need to do a course in the first place. We need to do much more to engage learners rather than telling them to do a two-day training course or an online module here and there. This isn’t about learning because you have to - instead, it’s about letting employees direct their own learning, and empowering people to follow their own path.”

A common criticism of learner engagement comes from people comparing types of technology from inside and outside the workplace, but Ryan says that this is an unfair comparison. “There are millions of dollars poured into a video game like Halo, but most organisations just don’t have anything close to this in their budget, so we can’t expect to engage learners in the same way.” Instead, we need to get creative with the resources we do have, and show learners what’s in it for them. This is becoming increasingly important as more businesses look to informalise the learning process, moving from mandatory interventions to more learner-directed experiences.

Ryan has experienced this challenge in his own organisation. Their leadership development programme used to be a two-day workshop in Sydney once a month for five months, which was inconvenient for many of the employees working outside Sydney. Now, they are creating online communities for participants and distributing all materials and job aids through this, giving people the tools they need to start improving their performance immediately, while facilitating peer-to-peer collaboration.

Recommendations for improving results

To wrap up our conversation, we wanted Ryan’s key recommendations for L&D leaders looking to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the industry, and he had two great suggestions.

Firstly, L&D professionals need to connect to the wider L&D community. “Be an active participant in these communities - you learn so much,” said Ryan. With a growing follower base on his blog and Twitter, it is clear that Ryan understands the importance of keeping up to date with those around you. “As the industry changes so quickly, keep your finger on the pulse. What other people doing is important. And this doesn’t have to be limited to online - face-to-face connections are just as important, whether that’s at conferences or more informal meetups. I don’t just go to L&D meetups - I also join groups talking about topics such as the Internet of Things, augmented reality and digital marketing to help me meet different people and pick up inspiring ideas.”

Ryan’s second thought is that L&D leaders need to be more prepared to get their hands dirty. “It’s one thing to read about something or hear someone talk about it, but you also need to try it yourself. A good example is VR. People assume it’s too bleeding edge, but Google Cardboard is $20 and a 360° video camera is $300. These technologies and trends are within our reach, and we need to play with them to understand how they might meet our own needs.” But there’s one caveat - “Be careful about just chasing the shiny new toy - don’t try to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. Go back to your business needs and figure out what problems you’re trying to solve. This is useful for people who feel overwhelmed by the pace of change. It’s easy to feel engulfed and incapable, so combat this by letting it wash over you and being aware of what’s going on, but your anchor point should always be your business requirements to inform your next steps.”

Enjoyed this piece? You can follow Ryan Tracey on Twitter @ryantracey. We’ll be posting more from our new Disruption Debate series soon - follow us on Twitter @totaralearning for all our latest posts.

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