2023 L&D Look Ahead

My annual look an industry on the verge of greatness. Or not.

The primary activity of all organizations is Learning. Winners must quickly learn; new markets, new competitors, new technologies, new business models, new techniques, new customer needs, new regulations, new new new…  So why is L&D still viewed as a support function equivalent to payroll? Maybe it is because we haven’t yet learned that what got us here will not get us there? Maybe this is the year.

Wondering what workforce development might look like beyond 2023? Check out my 3 Mics presentation here.

A quick look back…

A quick look back at my 2022 industry predictions as I prepare my 2023 thoughts.

As I sat down to write my annual note on what will shape the workforce development industry in the upcoming year I took a minute to reflect on last year’s missive. For those of you who were not on last year’s distribution list I have included the note below. I addition to the summary, I also provided several specific public and private opportunities for clients. I have chosen not to include these but I am happy to discuss them privately. While the focus of my annual note is on the market, and for investors/suppliers, its assumptions have implications for CLO and other other learning leaders.

This year I will publish the updated summary here as part of my annual distribution. Company specifics will remain only for clients.

In Hindsight

Honestly, I am surprised to say that I stand by the all of it. Normally this would worry me. I would assume that it meant that I hadn’t learned anything in the last year. In this case there is another reason for my continued support of the themes laid out twelve months ago. I over estimated the speed of change that the industry would undertake. The lack of enthusiasm from industry leaders to last year’s document was my first hint of this. Despite their chilly reception, the cover of the latest Training Magazine has reaffirmed my sense of direction. Even if my sense of pace is likely still exaggerated.

On Video

One of the investment opportunities I discussed in my note was both publicly traded and video oriented. My recommended sell/short for this company was due to an overriding belief that the model for “factual” video content needed a serious rethink. And I didn’t see anyone, public or private, pursuing new models. Before I distributed my note I actually reached out to one of this company’s large investor and shared my thoughts. They were not convinced. They are down 87% October to October. This is not meant as an “I told you so,” rather it is meant to say that the opportunity in video remains and I believe it will be a big player in 2023.

Final Thought

As I turn my attention to the upcoming year I am doubling down on the trends I highlighted last year. Last year my conclusion was that the opportunity to built the next generation provider in the learning space was there for the taking. I still believe this. But I no longer think that a new player is the big move. For next year I am thinking bigger. More at the end of the month.

My Industry Working Thesis

If you are not not asking the big, uncomfortable, scary questions about the future of L&D you are not a learning leader. It is easy to lead during periods of growth. This is no longer one of those times.

Workforce Development is a large and rapidly growing pain point worldwide for government, corporate and “student” customers. Economies are feeling the strain of a mismatched talent pool. Companies are realizing that their patriarchal relationship with the workforce is inefficient and no longer compelling to the workforce. Workers are learning to take greater agency for their labor, imposing consumer-grade expectations on learning solutions. Combined with a track record of limited impact and minimal stakeholder confidence, the workforce development sector is poised for a wholesale transformation.

Wholesale does not mean incremental. It does not mean best practice. It means new practice. It means that learning leaders will need to rebuild from the base not modify from what exists. What will the focus of L&D be in a world where 70% of a company’s workforce is non-employees. What skills will L&D need to develop in an economy where you can buy the skills you need, in the amounts you need, on the open market? How does learning design change in immersive environments? Does L&D’s tech stack become redundant when learning moves to digital domains where performance, activity and engagement data already abounds?

L&D has evolved as a domain alongside the growth of organizations. Organizations based on factory and military models. Models that are quickly proving themselves inadequate for today’s economy. L&D, which already has learner and sponsor satisfaction levels that would bankrupt most companies, needs a revolution not more slow evolution.

At some point L&D turned down the educational arts path and away from its organizational science roots. This shift left it with a stronger affinity to school teachers than to psychologists, labor economists and cognitive scientists. Neuroscientists and AI researchers are now defining what learning is for humans and machines. All the while millions of hours of “en vivo” learning experiments are being conducted in companies around the world by L&D.

The entire system (suppliers, degrees, roles) is built around core assumptions and canon that will need to change if L&D is to reinvent itself for the workforce of tomorrow. Reinvention won’t be easy. A lot of people have a lot invested in things staying the same. But they are not. And L&D needs to stop trying to build a faster horse.

What is your industry thesis? What assumptions underpin your plan for the future?

Recession Starts in the Mind

Where is L&D in the cycle?

Just a quick check to see where we are in the cycle. Asking for a friend.

  • Step 1: Heads down. Review onboarding schedule.
  • Step 2: Review Q3/Q4 calendar
  • Step 3: Contractors get the “finish by end of Q2/may not happen” message
  • Step 4: Executive calendar review because they are “too busy” to attend
  • Step 5: “What was our staff ratio versus ATD benchmark?”
  • Step 6: ” Good thing we got everything digital (no humans)” – executive
  • Step 7: “Good thing I got into compliance training.”

Let me know in the comments below.

Seth Godin on Lifelong Learning

“Learning, on the other hand, is self-directed. Learning isn’t about changing our grade, it’s about changing the way we see the world. Learning is voluntary. Learning is always available, and it compounds, because once we’ve acquired it, we can use it again and again.

…leaders who choose to make a ruckus understand that continuous learning is at the heart of what they’ll need to do.”

Seth Godin

CLO as Sports Agent

Learn from the pros. Stats matter and finding the ones that matter to your company is key.

The results of the new SEC reporting requirements are starting to appear on company reports and they “meet expectations”. As many managers will attest this rating covers the entire range of performance from “best of the rest” down to “not great, but not bad enough to replace.” I had low expectations so well done public companies.

Last Autumn the Zooms were flickering with talking heads (mine included) talking about how this new reporting requirement was a huge opportunity to raise the profile of L&D. Executive conversation based on data in every hallway. New standards and scorecards were sure to spread like wildfire. And then…not so much. The regulation was meant to evolve over time with reporting norms coming from the companies. So it will. But it will take time.

Moneyball

So what is a learning leader to do in the meantime? CLO’s need to talk data. The organization must be shown that in and numbers L&D has something to add to the story being told every quarter. how learning is scaling to develop new leaders in support of growth. How development is a tool for attracting the best and brightest. How L&D will help the company win.

When it comes to talking data I like to look at professional sports. I never played sports and while I enjoy them I think I look at them differently then some. As a learning geek, sports have everything to love: people dynamics, skills, strategy, performance targets, and unlike the business world a ton of data and a short feedback cycle. Make a change this week see the results on the weekend. Fully transparent performance reviews with comprehensive analytics every week. What is not to love?

And within this world of public performance how is a team contributor (let’s call them L&D) to set themselves apart, especially at contract time? The team’s star (let’s call them sales) can focus on titles, wins and other team accomplishments. But how does the center back (footballer) or left tackle (American footballer) stand out? Data.

In baseball the batting average (# hits/ # at-bats) is a classic sporting statistic. For decades it was seen at the gauge of a batter’s prowess. Then someone (I assume a player’s agent) asked the question, “but can they hit when it counts?” and so was born the slugging percentage. This is now a common stat representing how well the player bats with runners in scoring position. It is a stat in a context that matters. And there are lots of them used all you need to do is watch a game/match/event. Some sports broadcasters forget the “that matters” parts as they list a player’s exceptionally high batting percentage, against left handed pitchers (relevant), on Thursdays in June (maybe relevant but doesn’t matter).

So why not forget the “days of learning per employee” stat and talk about “days delivered in support of new product launches” to show how critical L&D is to new revenue? Or “delivered within 30 days of needs identification” to show responsiveness. Or “% of offerings that are new or refreshed every quarter/year” to show vitality of product set. These stats are powerful differentiators, specific to your business and your L&D organization’s value proposition. Best of all they are great conversation starters.

So what is your slugging percentage?

Failure: It is all in the definition

The new business context requires L&D organizations to experiment, innovate and transform. However, this requires trying out new ways of structuring the learning organization, designing learning products, delivering learning and partnering with business. Often, L&D leaders shy away from introducing these big, bold new ideas. The key obstacle is that many mature organizations treat failure as a weakness. However, successful startups have adopted a different point of view. For them, failure is nothing more than an evidence based correction to an assumption- better to know sooner, rather than later.

Too often, L&D’s limited resources are misspent. As Peter Drucker has been quoted as saying, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” It is from this perspective that failure becomes a virtue. None of us likes to fail. Nevertheless, in the context of operating successfully in today’s business environment, not only is failure acceptable… it is required.

“Fail often. So, you can succeed sooner.”

– Tom Kelley, Ideo partner

Let us begin by acknowledging that experiments can be difficult in a large company. Unlike startups there is often little ability to take a let’s-try-some- things-and-see-what-sticks attitude. This can challenge any organization tasked with innovating within an established company. In times to come, we are hopeful that this limiting factor will lessen as more companies, of all sizes, recognize the need for increased innovation in all aspects of the business.

However, for now, L&D organizations in mature companies may continue to relate to failure with fear. Having worked so hard to build credibility, L&D leaders might consider failure as a step backwards. I strongly recommend that L&D leaders change their perspective on failure. By properly recognizing failures, L&D’s successes become even more powerful in generating executive, manager, and learner buy-in. Two keys to this are turning failures into learnings and being transparent.

When Viewed in the Right Light…

Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur now teaching entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Columbia. He has studied what he calls the stages of startup failure.

Stage 1: Shock and Surprise

Stage 2: Denial

Stage 3: Anger and Blame

Stage 4: Depression

Stage 5: Acceptance

Stage 6: Insight and Change

While failure for L&D is rarely as final as it is for startups, the stages remain relevant, and both startups and L&D must push to achieve stage 6 as quickly as possible. What others refer to as a ‘failure’ is better described as a ‘major lesson.’ This lesson is one that can only be learned by trying. L&D must turn its failures into learnings. This is the only way by which the odds of delivering unmistakable value next time improve. According to Nick Casado, a computer networking star who sold his startup for over a billion dollars, the true skill is “to learn to embrace failure — not only embrace failure, get good at it, and by that, I mean get back up, apply what you’ve learned, and hit reset.”

Show Your Scars

The final principle of handling failures well is to be transparent. This transparency extends to the L&D team, stakeholders, and even other learning professionals. For startups, this sharing of ‘major lessons’ has become part of the culture. CB Insights, a research firm “that helps corporations guess less and win more” has amassed and shared over 200 startups’ “post mortems” in the hope that startups in the future will make new mistakes, not repeat old ones.

L&D conferences are full of best practice case studies and chest thumping showcases. L&D leaders must participate in these conferences, not just to listen to others’ successes, but also to fearlessly acknowledge their own failures. How about seminars on “10 ways I screwed up our roll out” or “3 easy ways for upsetting your executive sponsor”.

CLO as Founder

The role of the CLO in 2021 looks a lot like a startup founder.

“Will the founder always strive to do great work that is legendary, with people who are spectacularly awesome? Will this commitment translate to recruiting amazing people who want to work with the founder and each other? Have you ever been in a situation where you and a team were pursuing total excellence? A great founder will not just seek this or hope for this, he or she will demand this.”

– Mike Maples, Founding Partner at Floodgate, Investor in Twitter, Lyft, Sonos….

Today’s companies are being transformed by multiple disruptions: technology, digitization, volatility, diminishing geographic boundaries, tougher competition, more demanding customers, and skill shortages.  These disruptions are mandating new approaches to all aspects of business.

As businesses battle these disruptions, L&D organizations need to go through their own transformation. A transformation that enables them to create unmistakable value for their companies. This transformation is more than just a step change. It will require L&D organizations to think afresh and recalibrate their teams, products & services, value proposition, execution model and stakeholder communication.

Just as the success of a startup is reliant on its founder, the success of the transformation of L&D depends on its leaders acknowledging the need for transformation and then taking on the role as founders of the new L&D.

Chief Learning Officer 2.0

In 1991, when Jack Welch made Steve Kerr GE’s (and possibly the world’s first) Chief Learning Officer, the business world and the world of learning looked very different. A quarter of a century later, it is time to take a fresh look at the position and the key role it plays in ensuring that learning is running at maximum efficiency and effectiveness. There are three primary roles for a founder of a startup that should be the focus for the CLO as well. These are; define and keep the vision & value proposition, attract and retain the best talent for their team, and grow the investment.

With a focus on these three critical roles, leading CLO’s will have a fighting chance in these rapidly changing times. (more to come…)

Go Ahead and Try

Experimentation is a fundamental activity for startups. Startups are leaping into a great unknown. Does anybody want to use my product? Will anybody pay for my product? How are we going to build this product? Startups are a pile of assumptions.

The goal of successful startups is to, as quickly as possible, prove or disprove assumptions and turn them into facts. They do this through experiments. In addition to the value of turning assumptions into facts, experiments are also key to effectively managing resources. They can help minimize the risk of investing too many resources into a product whose need or value has not been validated.

Experiments are simply a formal process for data collection. Why formal? Without the formality, experiments often produce less data, the wrong data, or even worse, no actionable data! When thinking about an experiment, startups must be able to clearly answer the following questions:

What we believe (our assumption).

What we will do to verify our assumption (our actions).

What we will measure (our metrics).

What our measurement results need to be if we are right (our expectations).

Nothing is perfect and innovation only comes from new experiments. With so much newness occurring every day, if L&D is not allowed to conduct some experiments of its own it will be forever behind the needs of its customers. Experiments, by definition, have an unknown outcome. Therefore, while L&D can’t know the outcome, it must know the parameters of the experiment and be able to work with the business to set the proper expectations. These expectations must be understood to get the most out of every experiment.

With a mutual understanding of the goals, structure, anticipated return and resources requirements, an experiment’s business sponsor can make a reasoned decision regarding participation in the experiment. Setting expectations is about knowing the risk and understanding that the potential reward is critical for experiments to be accepted in organizations unfamiliar with risk-taking.

For L&D, experiments can be used on any number of aspects of their organization. Content is the obvious one. I also believe that those organizations that adopt this approach in areas like process and people will see great return.

I recognize that a scientific approach can only take you so far. There are many factors that could influence the results of an experiment and there is not enough time or resources to prove everything. However, experimental results filtered through the experience and knowledge of the L&D organization can greatly increase the confidence level in any decision.

The Experiment Portfolio

Adopting experimentation as a key activity for your organizations can be difficult, even for startups. Some try it and quickly abandon the process because the experiment didn’t work out the way they anticipated.  That is exactly the point. 

Let’s recap. Experiments have unknown outcomes. For organizations, this can become a barrier to adoption. When the results are confirming of assumptions the results are easy to accept. When the experiment’s results challenge or even run contrary to an organization’s assumption, the impulse may be to discredit or rationalize them away. And when the contrarian results come as part of your first experiment, it can drain the energy for additional experiments.

Experiments are best committed to in bunches, not singularly. This reduces the possibility that a lone experiment can sap the enthusiasm for adopting an experimental mindset. Confirming results builds confidence by proving that a project or initiative is on the right path. Contrarian results may reduce that confidence. It is important to see that both are positive results. The conversion of a core assumption into an evidence-based fact is the goal.

If an organization collects nothing but confirming results, they are likely testing the wrong things. If you already know the answer, don’t waste precious resources asking the question.