What is the future of Learning & Development department?


Recently I gave the keynote for the first breakfast seminar run by CADRE, a leading elearning design company, for senior executives of its clients. The topic of my presentation was The Future of Learning, giving a big picture view to kick off their series.

This is a brief description of my presentation:

Challenges for organizations are mounting from intense global competition, empowered consumers, and generational shifts. At the same time, building more effective learning is becoming central to achieving organizational success. This session will use a rich array of examples to look at:
• The driving forces shaping learning in organizations
• What the successful organizations of the future will look like
• Learning in a social network world: the new opportunities
• The context of learning: personalized, mobile, relevant
• Creating the future of learning: key action steps

At the conclusion of my presentation I got the audience to break into groups of 5-6 and assigned them discussion questions.

One of the questions I posed was ‘What is the future of the L&D department?’

I haven’t spent a lot of time explicitly in the learning space, though my experience from the mid-1990s in the knowledge management arena means I have long considered many of the same issues as those in learning.

One of the distinctions I brought out in my book Living Networks (and many others have made in various guises) was between Collections and Connections.

Creating and providing access to collections of digital artifacts, ranging from documents to meeting archives to videos, long dominated knowledge management. In learning there has been a long-standing shift to generating learning modules, which are content that can be delivered across a variety of platforms, and hopefully as close to the point of need as possible.

It is now well established performance is driven by the patterns and quality of connections that are together make up organizational networks. Learning functions have generally been slower to recognize that since much learning is social, facilitating appropriate connections between experts and others is a key foundation of effective learning.

The context for my question about the future of the L&D department is that I don’t believe there are meaningful boundaries around learning in a high-performance organization. Just as there are dangers in segregating responsibility for knowledge in a department when it should be central to the organization’s strategy and structure, learning should far transcend where it usually sits within companies.

As such, certainly one possible answer is that the L&D department may no longer exist, because its functions are fully embedded in the organization.

I acknowledge that in most cases, even if learning is embedded throughout the organization, there is a role for a dedicated L&D group in some form. Part of its responsibilities will be the continuous generation of meaningful on-demand learning that can be accessed whenever and wherever it is required, of course as well as traditional classroom learning, which still has a role.

The more important part of the team will be facilitating connections, creating a context in which people can discover who they should be engaging with to develop the capabilities they need. They will ensure that these kinds interactions become intrinsic to how the organization functions.

In my keynote I spent some time explaining the concept of enhancing serendipity, that is creating the conditions within which happy accidents of learning are more likely to happen. That should be at the heart of the learning department of the future.

Though I really think that it is better that the L&D department does not exist. Its current leaders and practitioners will have a critical role in the organization of the future, just not under that old name, loaded with too much baggage from the past.