Is Learning and Development Really Dying?

I’ve been reading many articles and blog posts that have an urgency about them regarding the impending death of Learning and Development function in corporate organisations.

Admittedly when I read these, my heart races a little faster.  I have this anxiety to catch up with the latest theories and tools in the field so that my survival in the job market in competition with all Gen Ys is secured. With 15 or so years to go until I retire (the golf course awaits), massive and continual restructuring, reorganisation, reduction and redundancy in our field I don’t want to compete for fewer jobs and contracts in an uncertain but ever-changing marketplace.

But I needn’t worry.

I don’t think things will change that quickly in Australia. If I was the betting type, I’d be willing to bet that we’ll be going around in circles for a little while because in order for things to change there needs to be a ‘mindset’ change about the difference between training and learning – not only from Learning and Development, but everyone in the organisation in general.

Until we stop thinking that learning equals formal “training events or courses” then this is going to take a while.

And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it could be another generation before we see any change.

Think about it.

Your experience of learning was probably in a school classroom in primary and secondary school.  The teacher stands up in front of the classroom and tells you what you should be learning for the day.  You then attend university and you get much the same. This is the majority of people’s mental models of learning.  Until people with new mental models of learning enter the workforce, we’re going to continue going around in circles debating the same questions in L&D.

(What does this mean?  It means that I can continue to beat my head against walls in frustration or, use the time to influence, support, guide and promote what I’m learning to my colleagues and clients so that this mindset change happens slowly over time until we are all replaced by a newer generation.  I’ve chosen to do the latter because frankly, my head hurts). 

While watching the first semi final of Eurovision, I was following my Twitter feed and read an article posted by @Donald Taylor who referenced a blog post by Connor Moss “Thinking Aloud: What Significant Benefits Would L&D Professionals Obtain Through a Post Graduate Qualification?”

Despite my jokes about Eurovision, the post and tweets generated discussion with varying opinions (and other sideline conversations with others) and it made me reflect on how my qualifications have assisted me with my work over the years.  It also explained some of the challenges I had come across when working with others in my field who may or may not have had that background.

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Would L&D Professionals Benefit From Good Qualifications?

At the same time, I accessed my Yammer account and saw this request below in my feed which only confirmed my suspicion that there still is a major role for Learning and Development to play in organisations.

Of course, I can’t help but feel that L&D has sold ourselves short by not showing real value to our businesses resulting in the perception that anyone can do our job.

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Urgent Plea in Yammer for Support (I’ve deleted the topic as you can tell what team he is from)

So what do you think?

I don’t know about you but I’ve been seeing these types of requests in increasing frequency over the years.  It is usually as a result of L&D teams being downsized but the need for some support in the business is still there.

So what do people do?

They create their own internal pseudo training teams where a subject matter expert who has demonstrated the knack of coaching someone on the job is then asked to become a trainer for their team. However, with old mental models, no background in adult learning principles, a fear of anything e-learning, no academic qualifications, no design or development expertise and a flawed perception of the role of Learning and Development (based on what they’ve know about them through experience), no wonder they struggle.  It’s not as easy as they thought it was.

And guess what?

The performance problem is still there and the manager is still unhappy!

The question is: “How will Learning and Development handle these types of requests?” or will they perpetuate the same cycle of training as being the solution for all business performance gaps rather than  supporting performance and changing behaviour in the business?

Similarly, if L&D doesn’t have a set of professional standards and qualifications, a consistent approach to how we work with clients and a focus on performance improvement, the choices of solving that particular business performance problem is limited.  We cannot offer more robust, customised, specific performance solutions to our clients if we have limited experience and knowledge of learning methods and media plus we will revert to what we know – the formal training – and bypass what we fear or don’t know about.

Like the mythical hydra, we can cut off it’s L&D head, but another one will grow in its place soon after.

When I saw this request on Yammer, this is what played out in my mind – in this order exactly:

  • “Oh no. Talk about being placed in the deep end.”
  • “Wonder if he was just told by his team leader to do this because they weren’t getting any support from L&D?”
  • “Why is he designing training material – when his job is obviously something else?”
  • “He’s already decided he needs training – how did he come up with this?”
  • “Why has he not sought support from his business unit learning and development team?
  • “Is he or his team leader aware that his business has a Learning and Development team?” 
  • “Maybe Learning and Development is swamped and they can’t help him but if they can’t, why wouldn’t they have offered alternatives – hang on, I reckon L&D doesn’t even know that there is a need here.”
  • “How can Learning and Development support the needs of their business?”

Now I don’t want this post to generate a ‘them and us’ situation of those with academic qualifications and those without because I have been in a few of these in the past and they leave a sour taste with both parties.

When it comes to academic qualifications with my peers, it seems to be a ‘sore’ point as it touches a raw nerve with everyone.

It’s a no-win situation when you get into conversations about academic qualifications of Learning and Development and this may be because many people ‘fall’ into L&D at some part of their career.  Added to that, there are a myriad of different roles and titles within L&D from trainers, to instructional designers, LMS administrators and many others – all of whom have a wide range of qualifications – from none to many.

In Australia, in order to cater for such broad roles within L&D, the basic foundation course is a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment.  The duration of this program varies depending on the institution you undertake your training however, it’s a basic start to equalise the standard of knowledge and skills of people in L&D.

But it’s only one small component.  Just because you have this qualification doesn’t mean that you are an expert in all things learning.

Personally it irks me that recruiters and some L&D managers (who have limited breadth of knowledge and experience of the learning function) only focus on this qualification for entry into L&D.  I recall an interview with a recruiter who discounted my Diploma in Training and Assessment because I didn’t have a Certificate IV in Training and Assessment – I had to explain that the Diploma was higher than a Certificate and her comment was, “I strongly recommend you do a Certificate IV so that it is in your resume”.  I’m not going to write what I was thinking… 

When I was in the Navy many years ago now, I was in the ‘Training” specialisation. (The Army calls it the Education Corps).  Funny how they use terms like ‘training’ and ‘education’ – but then again, the whole premise of learning back then was highly structured, formal learning environments but also strong emphasis on experiential learning.

I had a career path with clear guidelines on the types of roles I had to undertake and qualifications completed in order to be promoted to the next rank.  For example, someone could not take on a role such as Learning and Development manager until they had experienced a role as a facilitator, a role analysing training needs, a role as an instructional designer or developer.  Each role could be 1-3 years in length and there was additional coursework and on-the-job training that had to occur plus formal qualifications  required in each role.

Now I’m not saying that this is the best and only way for someone in L&D to follow a career path but it is one that I was thankful to have been given the experience to participate in because it gave me an excellent grounding, understanding and appreciation performance improvement and how adults learn.

The academic qualifications enabled me to critically think, reason and argue.  They exposed me to frameworks, pedagogies and research that I could use and apply in my work.  I could also offer a broad range of solutions for my clients and gave me the freedom to be more creative and innovative because I didn’t follow the normal models usually rehashed and reworked in the corporate world.  Having a peer group that has the knowledge, experience and qualifications also raises the bar when it comes to robust collaborative and constructive discussions – and even though you may not agree with them, you come out of them still learning something.

Most of all, academic qualifications also provide you with the professional credibility and reputation with peers within and external to L&D.

If every other field within a corporate organisation, IT, Finance, Sales, Engineers, and many others, why would ours, which is based on the development of its people, not be deemed important or necessary for qualifications?

I also believe that if you are aspiring for senior roles in Learning and Development or managing an L&D team, then qualifications in L&D are critical as is having worked in a few roles in the field so that you gain a greater appreciation of the field.

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These are my thoughts only based on my experiences working in L&D in the last 23 years. It’s not meant to come across as ‘academic snobbery’ in any way as I realise that people may not have had the means and opportunities for further study.

I have also been questioned why I am “against facilitator-led training” by my peers in L&D over the years.  I’m not.  To me,  facilitator-led training may have a place in solving certain performance problems but it just won’t be my only solution when it comes to working with clients to identify what their issues are.  

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About Activate Learning Solutions

Helen Blunden is the founder of Activate Learning Solutions and Third Place. She has over 20 years of experience within learning and development across private, public and not-for-profit organisations. With a specialty in performance consulting and networked learning, Helen believes that workplace learning is integral to business success. She has a passion for enabling people to learn beyond the classroom and believes in the power of networks and communities to drive collaboration and meaning within the organisation. From facilitator-led instruction, online and blended, Helen deploys social and informal learning such as enterprise social networking, collaboration tools and emerging technologies that have been proven successful and embedded workplace change.
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13 Responses to Is Learning and Development Really Dying?

  1. Yeah it is all interesting how it’s all going to pan out and I don’t think we will find an answer any time soon. I’d be interested to see how other countries have the same problems.

    In Australia, we have a minimum standard qualification being the Certificate IV in Training and Assessment but it was borne out of the traditional training idea. There are other competencies around ‘Designing eLearning Resources’ etc which have subsequently been added over the years which also helps. It’s a start at least but it’s not mandatory.

    To date, I have not seen anything around Performance Improvement (what comes before deciding that learning is the solution) but I am assuming that this gets covered in university adult education courses. Many people have Certificate IV but I have met some L&D managers who don’t have any qualifications in learning/HR at all. For these people, admittedly I do feel a level of discomfort (and at times unfairness) that they have been selected to do a role that involves people development (and to recruit people into learning teams who have the wrong skill sets based on a narrow view of learning) and who may be quite obstructionist in their views. I have also been in teams where I’ve had to explain instructional systems design frameworks simply because they were never exposed to them.

    Maybe what we need is a career progression map – have the basic foundation quals but then mix and match other learning and on the job experiences dependent on the role we have in L&D as not all roles will require the same level of knowledge and skills.

    You’re right about not being stuck with a model that might restrict us – I wouldn’t want that either. Maybe it’s defining the basics/foundations first but then having a flexible approach afterwards because we have the fundamentals right.

  2. alison says:

    I hear all of that, but to put it into context as I understand it, I think the foundation shifted on L&D when the narrative moved from training. This is partly why L&D is lost. Accounting will always be accounting.

    Now, I’m not suggesting that there weren’t some very valid reasons for L&D/HRD’s role to shift, but I do have concerns with the dominant discourse that has been driving HRD. And I’m even more curious why, when in theory this shift spells so many great things for biz, it’s not being readily adopted. There’s something fundamentally strange there that I can’t quite put my finger on… and until we can clearly see a trajectory/shake off some of this stuff, I’m hesitant to attach credentials to the profession. But as you say, that subjects the field to other risks. I guess I would wonder if our answer lies in which are the worst of ‘the two evils’. 🙂

    So… all of that to say, we should keep thinking/talking about this.

  3. Good point Alison, in all honesty, it’s a bit of a mix up – and it’s ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t”. I was thinking last night, “is there any other profession out there that is also going through this flux as much as L&D?”

    I look at my husband as the accountant and despite changes in accountancy and auditing standards, his profession is secured. I look at my brother as the engineer, and despite decrease in jobs in manufacturing and large project engineer jobs, he still has a clear progression for development. It just seems like L&D are ‘lost’ – still trying to define themselves.

    Part of me thinks that if we did have a firm foundation through qualifications, skills and some set of standards, that we’d find it easier to navigate through all this change now. At least we’d have a ‘plan’ for what we need to close the performance gaps rather than trying to grapple with too much change in the one hit.

    But I have no answers really….

  4. alison says:

    re: your earlier comment, you could be right that it’s about drumming up business.

    I wonder, though, about the qualifications/standards and I recall a class debate when I was studying for my MHRD. The field is in so much flux because of its shift to being a ‘strategic partner’ and HRD is still dominated by positivist discourse that if we land on one thing… we could end up having to live with standards/agendae that we really don’t need/want. But you also make a good case for why we might want to have them too.

  5. Oh, I forgot to add that if this is the case, then it makes a stronger point for L&D to have professional standards and qualifications. Maybe it would stop the trend of being influenced by others and provide valid arguments and reasoning about the best solution for their clients – rather than spending massive dollars on the next big thing in some misguided idea it would solve all their performance problems.

  6. Mmm…interesting. I really don’t know. It’s just been an observation but maybe they can be marketing gimics to get people to click on the link and read their posts? Recently I read a post from a learning technology vendor and it seemed to read that if you buy their product, you won’t have any other issues around learning anymore. In all honesty, sounds like it may be a bit of spin…

  7. alison says:

    I know this was a verrrry small part of your post, but I’m wondering if these catastrophic ‘L&D is dying!’ proclamations stem from interested parties who are keen to change the narrative (even though we know we need to shift away from ‘training courses’)? Is this possible or have I been reading too much about ‘disruption’ in Higher Ed? 🙂 Just thinking out loud.

  8. Yes, it would be great if there were more courses available to L&D people. I’m suprised that there aren’t more? I do agree that they are expensive and might be out of reach of some, but then there are assistance options available to people undertaking post grad study in the form of FEE-help etc.

    PD events can be hard to come by in some organisations that don’t have the budget for them. I like you idea of putting an amount of funds aside to use for PD and each person could set their own limit depending on what they could afford.

    On the informal side I like to learn from others like yourself who are very experienced by reading their blogs and/or following them on twitter, participating in discussions and subscribing to some of the online learning magazines that are generally free.

    In some respects I think it comes down to the mindset of the individual – whether they want to learn and develop their skills and knowledge or not.

  9. I agree but that’s the only minimum standard of a qualification that we have when it comes to learning. At least we have that I guess.

    Ultimately though, there are plenty of other short courses and events (some offered by training bodies, associations and vendors) that we can attend to supplement our skill set for what we are doing in our work.

    There are courses you can do at a higher level at university but they are very expensive – and I assume these will provide the strategic L&D offerings. For example a Masters in L&D will set you back over $15 000. It’s simply too cost prohibitive for some people who want to take it further.

    I agree – the Cert IV is narrowly focussed on facilitation skills and some design of e-learning resources at a basic level.

    It would be wonderful if we had some sort of a career path for various roles in L&D and suggested courses or professional development to follow. I’ve picked up mine through being 23 years in the industry and working in a breadth of different roles and undertaking qualifications but a LOT of self directed, self study too because there was no ‘magical’ course that can zap all this information into my head.

    Over the years, I set aside $2000 in a budget every year for my own PD which included books, software, subscriptions, events – and it’s served me well because I’ve noticed a trend in companies not providing this level of PD to staff.

    I think though, if you’re serious and passionate about your role and your work, an investment in your education and development is really a small price to pay because you get back so much more.

  10. Hi Helen I enjoyed reading your post. I find it really interesting that there is such a reliance on the Cert IV in Training and Assessment as the entry level qualification for entry level L&D (especially as it goes out of date – TAA to TAE). Surely there must be others? I think the Cert IV provideds a narrow set of skills and you learn more about compliance than anything to do with learning processes, designing learning materials (F2F or online), motivating learners or strategic L&D thinking.

  11. Sukh Pabial says:

    Reblogged this on Thinking About Learning and commented:
    Really good post about recent and ongoing debate about qualifications in Learning and Development profession.

  12. conormoss says:

    Reblogged this on The Twain SHALL Meet and commented:
    This keeps the debate going and gives an excellent insight from and experienced L&D professional in Australia.

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