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Disruption Debate with Stephen Walsh: Content curation for relevant learning

 Welcome to the fifth instalment of 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 Stephen Walsh. Stephen is a co-founder of Anders Pink, a content curation tool for learning, and is a well-known figure in the learning technologies industry.

Tumultuous times

“We live in tumultuous times, and I think we can safely say that they’re nowhere near over,” said Stephen. “There’s a lot of political upheaval ahead, and we are having to adapt to more change than I can remember at any other time in my life. This is going to lead to a lot of disruption for the L&D industry to deal with, meaning we need to become smarter about the way we deal with this change.”

Of course, Stephen is right - in an age where AirBnB is catching up on traditional hotels and Ubers are even more popular than taxis in some cities, business models are totally changing, and businesses must be equipped with the skills and tools to keep up and avoid getting left behind. So what’s the role of L&D in these times of change?

“It used to be about training people in a skill, then you’d be set for life. Now, the half life and relevance of skills is deteriorating rapidly. Automation means that a huge number of jobs won’t exist in a few years. Any work that can be put into a flowchart will disappear, and certain skills will evaporate and be replaced by machines. That’s why organisations and individuals need to learn how to stay agile.”

Staying agile in uncertain times

How are organisations meant to stay agile when none of us know what the future is going to look like? Stephen believes that creating endless e-learning courses focused on specific skills isn’t the way to go.

“Designing formal learning experiences to train people in specific skills is no longer the best approach for L&D professionals to take - it’s part of the solution, but doing only this is almost backward looking. Instead, it’s our responsibility to help people develop the skills they need to find what’s relevant and stay smart. The idea of ‘learning how to learn’ has been around for a while, but now it really means something.”

So what does this mean for L&D? Stephen believes that learning professionals need to become better at finding relevant content that already exists out in the world and make it mean something to learners. HR’s main challenge is to adapt to a working environment more porous than ever before, and Stephen says that if we’re not looking outside the organisation, absorbing the information available to us and acting on it quickly, we’ll all get left behind. Occasionally someone may tweet an interesting link or drop a news story into an email, but how many people really see content shared in this way, and how do people know what to focus on if information is coming at them from all directions?

“We should be integrating learning into the workflow,” said Stephen, “and giving that content context and relevance to ensure it’s not just noise. L&D has the opportunity to be the heroes as content curators in this model - it’s a massive job, but if L&D doesn’t do it, who will?”

Becoming discerners of learning

At the end of 2016, the rise of ‘fake news’ came to a head, with several key world figures speaking out against false stories designed to confuse, mislead or manipulate the media-consuming public. Fake news can easily sway people’s views on important issues, highlighting the need for the critical thinking skills to discern what’s real and what isn’t.

“Algorithms, such as those that drive Facebook and Twitter, can help us find and filter content, but they can’t do it on their own,” said Stephen. “But we still need humans to curate, add context and add value to this content - you can’t automate that.”

The same applies to our learning. We can create an algorithm to push relevant content to our learners, but this may not always be 100% successful - it’s important that our learners know how to tell which content is irrelevant to avoid getting distracted.

Be part of the learning community

Stephen believes that being an active member of the learning community is essential if we are to stay agile and smart. We often tell our learners to practise social learning, but as Stephen puts it, L&D professionals need to ‘attend to their own oxygen masks first’. This means practising what we preach by being social learners ourselves, and by using our own community as a test case to find out what works in the way of social learning.

“There is a lot of altruism in the L&D community,” said Stephen. “People are very helpful to each other. There’s a good culture in this industry, but this doesn’t mean people are always sharing what they know efficiently. The help is there if you know where to ask, but not everyone does.”

In the most recent Towards Maturity Benchmark Report, 53% of organisations reported that social and collaborative learning is the number one skill missing from their learning programmes. This change starts with us - we as L&D professionals are working towards a common goal, so it’s up to us to find the specific tools and systems to support social learning among ourselves to ensure it’s right for the learners in our individual organisations. Once our own community is in the social learning mindset, we can impart our knowledge onto our learners for the best results.

How to stay sharp and relevant

We wanted to know Stephen’s top tip for organisations looking to keep their learning relevant.

“The biggest risk to organisations is not staying sharp or failing to adapt to the new skillsets they  need. It’s L&D’s responsibility to help the organisation stay agile by helping choose the right tools and methods to help people stay smart in each situation. L&D needs to bring relevant content from the outside world into the organisation, and help learners understand how to make sense of this information. We should also be outward looking - don’t totally let go of formal learning, but do look outside and act as a filter for the content entering the organisation to ensure it’s accessed efficiently.”

Stephen also believes in the power of open source to help today’s organisations stay ahead. “Open source is an important part of opening up the ownership model of business today,” said Stephen. “It’s about what you bring to the table now. Learning must be portable and visible to anyone you work with, which is where open source software comes into play as validation for our previous learning progress can be carried with us from company to company. This lets us hit the ground running in any role, and helps managers ensure that all the content we consume is as relevant and useful as possible. This is only going to become more important as the speed of business change accelerates.”

If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to follow Stephen Walsh on Twitter at @stephentwalsh, or keep up to date with the latest Anders Pink developments at @AndersPink. Follow us at @totaralearning to be the first to hear about the next instalment of our Disruption Debate series.

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