Radically rethinking the role of L&D

UPDATE: Find out more in my book, Learning in the Modern Workplace 2017

forward-165245_640In July 2016 I read a number of blog posts and articles that argued the case for a radical rethink of the role of L&D in today’s workplace. Here are just three.

The first one, It’s the Company’s Job to Help Employees Learn written by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Mara Swan (HBR 18 July) made a number of significant points. Here are a few soundbites:

“most jobs today demand … the capacity to keep learning and developing new skills and expertise, even if they are not obviously linked to one’s current job”

“a major pillar in Google’s recruitment strategy is to hire “learning animals””

“Sadly, most organizations have yet to wake up to this reality, so they continue to pay too much attention to academic qualifications and hard skills, as if what entry-level employees had learned during university actually equipped them for today’s job market.”

“workplace learnability is far less structured and formulaic than college learnability, and employees must juggle the tension between the demand for the short-term efficiencies of productivity with the long-term quest for intellectual growth”

“So how can managers do a better job of fostering learnability in the workplace? Select for it … Nurture it … Reward it”

For me, this is what today’s L&D department should be focusing on … helping their people become learning animals.

Josh Bersin also writes how there now seems to be a clear recognition that L&D role needs to change, in Using Design Thinking to Embed Learning in Our Jobs  (HBR, 25 July)

“As I talk with learning and HR executives around the world, I hear these issues coming up everywhere. In fact, our recent research on global human capital trends shows that 84% of business leaders cite the “need for improved organizational learning” as a top priority, and 44% say it’s urgent.

Unfortunately, the problem is not one of designing better programs or simply replacing or upgrading learning platforms. Rather, there is something more fundamental going on — a need to totally rethink corporate L&D, to shift the focus to design thinking and the employee experience.”

And Mary Slaughter, in Stack the learning deck: Embrace new skills and roles to build a “full-stack” L&D function (HR Times, 21 July) also makes the case for a different approach

“Today corporate learning is less about developing and conveying content and more about enabling people to adapt, contribute, and excel throughout their careers. This shift has created the need for a much broader definition of what it means to be a learning professional.”

This new full-stack L&D function includes a range of professionals, not only those with “classic” degrees in teaching or instructional design but also people with knowledge of data science, neuroscience, marketing, user interface and user experience design, application development, information design, and content development.

It includes people who can think holistically about what the business needs and what learners need to support the current and future business.”

The issue for many is what they should be doing now to make these radical changes – after all as Josh Bersin says above it is not about “designing better programs or simply replacing or upgrading learning platforms”; it requires something more fundamental – “a need to totally rethink corporate L&D”. I have been working with a number of L&D teams around the world helping them make significant changes to what they do – using an approach I refer to as Modern Workplace Learning #MWL.

I wrote about what this change might look like in my Modern Workplace Learning in my book which I released at the end of 2015, but since that time I have been building on this  work, so from September I’ll be running a new MWL challenge where I shall be sharing a lot of new ideas on how to do things differently as well as do different things. If you’d like to find out more and/or to share what you have been doing to radically rethink the role of L&D, then come and join us.


  1. Mike Shaw

    Thank you for drawing on these three examples to show where L&D should be moving to, and for me this reinforces the concept of ‘learning organisations’. This is refreshing and motivating and, perhaps, starts to address the tension between the need for businesses to meet their strategic objectives, i.e. usually productivity and profit, and the need to support the development of its staff. I believe these two aspects are not mutually exclusive though might often been seen as such and, of course, it takes some careful thinking as to how both sit together so that, ultimately, there is a mutual benefit to all.

    The idea of Modern Workplace Learning sits very well with the concept of ‘learning organisations’. In fact I think they feed on each other. The key is making that culture change and, as you have pointed to, take a more holistic and insighful approach to learning in the workplace.

  2. Mark Oehlert


    Great read as always. The L&D group though lives in an ecosystem that also needs to change. The curriculum of instructional design programs needs to reject fadish ideas or methodologies that have been shown to be based on specious research and also change what the output of a designer is expected to be. Client orgs’ expectations also have to change and move away from seat time as a measure of ROI. Finally we have to move away from the LMS. It’s not broken, it’s just not the design we need. We do need a different kind of platform.

  3. Jamil

    I loved this post!!! “Learning animals” is an awesome term. It seems almost like a side-extension of the “growth mindset,” where an individual knows that they have the power to learn skill sets to better assist them in achieving whatever goal they have.
    As a trainer I have noticed that “learning animals” do exist, both culturally & individually. And wow! The trainings are so much more effective when the mindset of the participants are primed for growth & learning.

  4. Gina Richter

    As Josh Bersin also states “the learning curve is the earning curve”, I think L&D is more than a responsibility of an organization. I think it means that each employee needs to understand that they must continue to learn each day to maintain a competitive edge and ultimately that means the organization will also gain a competitive edge. We also need to make a switch from create to curate to enable us to be agile in what the employee experience is every day! We need to increase our employees’ curiosity, their understanding of what learning is, and why its so critical to success, and how to make sure they are gaining the competitive edge necessary to succeed.

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