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.

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

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.

Everything Dies

Thoughts on a learning product’s lifecycle.

There is a reason that we use the term lifecycle when describing products. Products die. It happens to all companies. Startups that have launched a new product only to find that it does not deliver enough value to attract a user base generally run out of funding and are quietly forgotten. While the company may no longer exist, the product, be it an app or a web service, may remain. You can see examples of this reality every day. Look in the app store for your phone. If you see an app that has had no updates in the last 12 months, it is highly likely that the company behind it has closed. 

In December of 2017, AOL announced that it was shutting down its messaging service AIM. At that time, many still loved, AIM, a twenty-year-old remnant of the first dot-com era.  It is estimated to still have had millions of users at the time of the shutdown. So why shut down? Because there is a cost to keep the service running and as AOL stated in its announcement of the decision, “We’re more excited than ever to focus on building the next generation of iconic brands and life-changing products.” Focus. In an age of Facebook, Snapchat and Slack, there was little opportunity for AIM to deliver huge value to its users. Instead, AOL is investing those resources towards products that can.

Some products do not die, they are updated but unlike an app, where one version automagically replaces the prior, the older version remains. Software as a Service (SaaS) companies like Cornerstone, Salesforce and others release updated versions of their software all the time. The newer version is meant to replace the client’s older version. However, change is hard and many clients do not upgrade to the latest release. Upgrades can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls and the older version is familiar and therefore easier for the client to support with its internal users.

This means that SaaS companies are usually providing client support across several releases. This draws resources away from building value into future releases and instead requires investment in supporting the waning value of the past releases. Familiarity with legacy solutions is a challenge for L&D as well.   

Getting the business sponsors and managers to accept a new solution to replace an older one can take some work. L&D must be prepared to help them see the value.  L&D organizations, like all organizations, must always seek to invest their limited resources in areas that will yield the highest return. When a product either fails to deliver a predetermined value threshold, or is superseded by a higher value-adding product serving the same need, it must be retired. Like AOL, L&D must recognize that focusing resources on upgrades for a diminishing user need is a distraction and that continued support for an existing product has costs.

For L&D to adopt a true product approach it must acknowledge the dynamic nature of all solutions, continuously assess the value of its solutions, and acknowledge when a solution needs to be retired or upgraded. This requires the support of the business sponsors as well as the awareness that the “more” is not the goal. As in many activities it is not the creation but the editing that often drives significant value.

Note: I write this fully aware that in my enthusiasm I often share unedited thoughts in these posts. Unfiltered ideas are a feature not a bug for my product (I hope) – j.

The Tail Will Wag the Dog

David Vance recently did a webinar regarding the pending legislation requiring the reporting of human capital metrics for public companies. I cannot state strongly enough the potential implications of this move. A move which I feel equally strongly is being largely ignored by my L&D colleagues. I do not have a crystal ball but simply applying the dynamics of other publicly reported numbers may help to clarify.

Publicly Reported Numbers Get C-Suite Attention

L&D has long asked for it but is it ready for it’s close up? While L&D’s current data reporting may make the industry feel good but will it stand up to the scrutiny given to financial data reporting. As a CLO can you sit with your CFO and defend the numbers, the methodology of collection and the actions taken as a result of them. Financial numbers (margins, expense, key ratios) are never good enough and always include the plan for improvement.


Having the numbers out there without context is going to create some interesting dynamics. The L&D metrics for a company are highly contextual. This is something that I have long argued as a mitigating force to the use of benchmarks. Most companies are a cohort of one. The growth goals, competitive environment, geographic challenges and legacy paradigms are just a few a few of the things that can make a company’s metrics right for them and them alone. Without this context L&D may face pressure from new external and ill-informed senior internal sources.

Teaching the Test

If the metrics are what becomes the face of L&D the natural response is to game them. This is no different than sales organizations that pull sales forward to make a quarter look better or an operations department that delays a purchase to manage costs. When what gets delivered is in pursuit of two masters (performance and metrics) and one is highly visible, which one do you think wins.

Short-term Thinking

There are many who decry the behavior of public companies driven by a quarter-by-quarter mentality. We know that performance development occurs over time. How will our approaches to leadership, diversity, and upskilling change when they are held to the 90 day window of reporting. This is not to mention the fact that if the metrics are wrong. We all know that vanity metrics are a constant, although comforting, threat to true performance development.

What do you think will happen when L&D goes from opt-in self-reported numbers to a friendly industry organization to a federal requirement? Is your organization ready?

Time for L&D to Bear Down?

“Some confluence of events at some point in the future will cause a recession. I don’t know what those are, nobody knows what those are, and nobody will ever know what they are.” – Jamie Dimon, CEO JPMorgan

So I am as uncertain about a coming recession as a guy on track to make $30 million in salary this year and whose business it is to see them coming. But it is an honest answer and it is important to watch and see if, “at some point,” is this point in time.

  • American central bankers have grown more fearful, models gauging recession probabilities had “increased notably in recent months.” Meanwhile, indicators tracking manufacturing and services industries, as well as business and consumer confidence — so-called “soft” indicators often seen as a harbinger for weakness in hiring and spending — continued to worsen. – Livemint · October 10, 2019
  • In a recent Forbes article Sergei KlebnikovthatHarvard University professor and former treasury secretary Larry Summers placed the odds of a recession before 2021 at nearly 50%. This supports Summers’ interview with the Wall Street Journal, In which Summers delivered a grim outlook for U.S. economic conditions—“I haven’t been this alarmed since the financial crisis,” he admitted.
  • Even our prescient friends at SHRM, in a 2017 article entitled, “How HR can prepare for the next recession,” plainly stated, “Economic downturns are inevitable, so HR should act now to prepare for the next one.”

L&D Under the Macroscope

While the L&D industry (IMHO) can get caught upin the micro (is. learning solutions, platforms, evaluation) I prefer to focus my attention on the macro because these become the undercurrents that drive the broader industry. Judging by my LinkedIn connections there are a number of L&D leaders that were not in place in 2009. So let’s begin with a quick L&D recession primer.

  • The effects last longer than you think. a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Roaring out of the Recession,” (published in 2010!) stated, “CEOs continue to combat the myriad challenges thrown up by the Great Recession of 2007.”
  • L&D gets the axe. JB at Bersin & Associates reported that average training expenditures per employee fell 11 percent in the past year, from $1,202 per learner in 2007 to $1,075 per learner in 2008.
  • It is global. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills released a report on the impact of the 2008-2009 recession on training at workIn it authors Alan Felstead, Francis Green and Nick Jewson made it clear that discretionary training got the brunt of it with, “Private sector employers continued to train their workforces because they were faced with a number of ‘training floors’; that is, types of training that are essential, and therefore cannot be abandoned, by functioning businesses or organisations.”
  • It doesn’t go back to the way to was. Bersin’s group also noted that at the time almost all business leaders reluctantly admit that the current crisis also marks an inflection point: The world after it is unlikely to resemble the one before it.


Why I am Excited About a Recession

“He said what?!?!” I recently met a out-of-town friend at the New Orleans Air BnB he was staying at. I took an Uber to his place. Why does this matter. Because macros trends like recessions have played in role in both Air BnB’s and Uber’s success. In his “startup land famous” TED talk Bill Gross identified the number one factor in determining startup success. Bill should know. His firm, IdeaLab has been there since the beginning and has seen hundreds If not thousands of startup over that time.

In his talk Gross identified “timing” as the most highly correlated factor. Not quality of idea. Not founder, industry or technology. If the recession had not occurred would the founders of Air BnB needed to rent out thier extra air mattress to make ends meet? If you ever wondered where the “Air” came from, it isn’t from aspirations to sell plane tickets. Would people be willing to offer perfect strangers rides in their personal vehicles if it weren’t for the need for extra income in an economy where it can feel like job skills have the shelf life of an avocado.

In addition to the economy, another macro that caught my attention this was this one showing that at H1B visas are being issued at record LOW levels! Combined with the fear of recession does this accelerate the trend towards remote workers? With budget reductions in the back of executives’ minds is L&D empowered to more effectively implement new ways of doing things (given we can make the cost-saving case) that were resisted prior?

Discomfort enables behavior change and constraints drive innovation. I agreed with JB when he said last time. I agree with it for the recession to come.

“The world after it is unlikely to resemble the one before it.”

And I, for one, think that that is something to get excited about.


Learning is the Silver Bullet

Originally posted on LinkedIn 10.16.19

Nelson Mandela said,”Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Malcolm X called education, “the passport to the future.” And with the World Economic Forum currently estimating that 54% of today’s global workforce will need reskilling in the upcoming years…never were these sentiments more relevant.

Fortune 500 companies alone employs over 65 million people, many of which will need to be reskilled in order for them and the companies they support to thrive in today’s business environment.  Whether you call the times we live in  VUCA, transformative or just batshit crazy, the reality is, we live in a time where learning is needed as much as air to survive.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,  the US currently has over 6 million unemployed. This comes at the same time that there are over 7 million open positions to be filled at our companies. This mismatch of skills to opportunity affects approximately 1 out of every 30 families.  Add to this the almost 2 million jobs impacted by corporate layoffs in the month of July and the need for learning is crystal clear.

Education, at all levels, has the ability to deliver unmistakable value on a multitude of fronts. From  socio economic issues like poverty and classism to global challenges like terrorisim. Malala Yousafzai,  Pakistani Taliban target turned activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate said, “With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”  I couldn’t agree more.

As Learning and Development professionals we have an obligation to continuously seek and employ new ways to deliver the ever higher levels of value required by today’s world.  This is why I wrote Running Training Like a Startup. To provide a new way of looking at the work we do and they way we do it.

Over 20 years ago I was lucky enough to be part of the team tasked with taking the concepts and practices described in the seminal book Running Training Like a Business to clients around the world.  The book focused not on the solutions being provided but rather on the L&D engine that provided those solutions. For the last two decades I have worked with companies of all sizes across the globe to explore ways to improve the value their learning delivers.

During this time I also worked as part of the rapidly emerging startup economy.  First as strategist for a VC fund during the first dot com run then as manager of a 50 million dollar fund and advisor to startups, angel investors and startup ecosystems in both Delaware and New Orleans. Then 5 years ago, I saw an opportunity to bring these two domains and the passion I had for each, together.

W. B. Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” This is the same fire sought after by startups as well, in the form of virality and exponential growth. With the support of Ed Trolley and David van Adelsberg, the authors of Running Training Like a Business, I set out to turn the practices of high performing startups into principles for use by L&D organizations. The book includes approaches to speed, team, product, communication, data and even failure. The lessons from early stage companies like Uber, Air BnB, Slack and a multitude of others are captured in my updated look at what it means to run training like a business today.

Taking a page out of the startup toolkit I open sourced the book in January.  The principles were too important and the mission too critical to limit the spread of these ideas. It also allows the book to be a living thing and not a snapshot.  Like an app on your phone I have released 2 updates to the book this year with more to come as we gain more experience with its approach. Running Training Like a Startup is my contribution to addressing the challenges we, as L&D pros, face.

Abraham Lincoln viewed learning, “as the most important subject which we as a people may be engaged in”. As an L&D community we must engage with new ideas and new approaches. Call today’s business environment what you will. But hanging out in the desert with its vibrant and beautiful ecosystem reminds me that even in the harshest environments we can adapt and thrive.

Note: In case you think I am just a sappy romantic about L&D, read this tough love post from a couple weeks back.

Revisiting the Learning Stack

A framework to help identify amplifiers and limiters of learning

I find frameworks extremely helpful.  I also find blogging useful for memorializing ideas and belief at a given time.  So going back and revisiting  a blog post about a conceptual framework is really enjoyable for me.  Before I started the Running Training Like a Startup project and blog I had been capturing my L&D musing on a blog I titled Learning Hacks.

In 2013 I authored a post  on the Learning Stack.  A framework for thinking about the amplifiers and limiters of learning. My focus has always been the macro and meta of corporate L&D.  I found the framework a useful way for me to organize the huge volumes of new research and experience being released.  It also provided useful context for more discrete elements of learning. In today’s environment, as L&D pros look widely for levers to enhance impact I felt it was time to take another look.  You can see the original post here.

Six years later, with so much more known and accepted in areas like neuroscience, learner personas and game dynamics, I am curious how the framework holds up.  Take a look.  Tell me what you think.   I look forward to your feedback.