5 Ways We Could Change How We Think About L&D

Rachel Burnham writes: At this time of year, I often curate a set of resources that I think are helpful for developing L&D and enabling L&D professionals to modernise our ways of working. This year I have decided to do something different and instead take a step back to focus more generally on how we think about L&D.

Whilst some in the L&D profession are forging ahead trying out new ideas and experimenting with approaches based upon well-founded research and evidence of what works well, we also are part of a profession that is slow to change. Many continue to use methods and practices that we know are not as effective as they could be – methods and practices that are not meeting the challenges facing organisations or individuals.

Here are five areas that I think we need to work on as a profession.


Whilst this approach has been adopted recently, there is still a lot of muddle and confusion around about what this really means. I think getting more in our profession familiar and confident using an evidence based approach can help with three challenges:

· Tackling the pervasive influence of learning myths around subjects like learning styles, left brain/right brain and so on.
· Encouraging a focus on effectiveness and what actually makes a difference to performance.
· Building an appetite for making use of data analytics that is practical in focus.

Looking at a wider range of jobs and sectors

So often the case studies, research and examples explored in L&D conferences, articles and podcasts are from the same rather narrow fields of employment. It is time that we started to look more broadly beyond the knowledge worker or service sector and also consider the needs of other types of worker, sector and size of organisation.

When we are only hearing from this relatively narrow field, important though it is, we risk considering only these needs of these kinds of organisation and that the ideas and solutions presented only are effective in those situations. If we want to tackle the long tail of L&D that is mostly still only using face to face delivery of content-heavy material, then we have to ensure that our examples, our research, our practices can meet these needs of a diverse range of job roles and organisations.

Less black and white, more nuance

I think we are running a risk of being too simplistic in some of our thinking about L&D practices. Of making ‘blanket –judgements’ about ways of working. ‘This is good’, ‘this is not’. This is current, up-to-date, the latest thinking and this is not.

For example, I notice in each at the time of the Learning Technologies conference and exhibition a slew of articles about the latest technologies and a corresponding slew of articles defending face to face delivery.

When it isn’t either or.

We need to be so much better at being nuanced. Not just about about the respective values of using technology and face to face, but across the whole field. It is not helpful to run down the whole of education. We know that context matters. So let’s get much clearer about what works when, and in what circumstances, for who and at what point in their career and what the limitations are. Let’s identify the boundary conditions for approaches, rather than portray each approach as the answer to everything.

Connect ideas

There are some amazing ideas being developed and explored in L&D. New ways of working and new (well, newish, in some cases) models and practices. Many have slightly different focuses and emphasis. When you begin to be exposed to the range of approaches to performance consulting, models of learning, alternatives to face to face, learning at the point of need or in the flow of work and so on (and also their critiques) – I think a lot of people in our profession, who are new to these approaches can feel overwhelmed and over-faced. ‘Where are earth do you start?’
It would be great to see some more linking up of these ideas, some more comparing and contrasting of them, so that they are not just used piecemeal, but more systematically. We need help to work our way through the thickets of new ideas and research, to weigh up what is of value and work out which ones link together and are worth taking action on.

We neglect skills at our peril

I think there is some very interesting thinking around at present about knowledge – mostly about how we make much better use of resources or other performance support tools to reduce the need for knowledge learning. There is great work on behaviour change around – work on habit formation and learning transfer to support this. But I think we need to be also paying attention to how to effectively support ‘skills’ development.

I think we have taken our eyes off this area a bit, yet it is hugely important. High level skills can be challenging to develop and continue to be important in many areas of work. Although we critique learning programmes for ‘mere content-dumping’ and a reliance on knowledge transfer done badly, we haven’t really focused much on how to develop complex skills effectively. Skills that are needed in this wider range of jobs and organisations that I think we should be looking at.

So, these are the 5 areas, which I think we could usefully focus on, to help shift thinking within our L&D profession, this year. What do you think?

About the author – Rachel Burnham:

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  Rachel is particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow Rachel Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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