Staples, wallflowers and value – why 2020 is a crucial year for L&D

By Donald H Taylor

3 minute read

For the past seven years I have been studying how new ideas are adopted in the learning and development (L&D) space. It’s a bustling field, full of noise and opinions, not always well-founded or
coherently expressed. Each year there is a new darling to love or bête noire to hate, and each is likely to be abandoned after a few months in favour of the next in line.

Despite this noise, given enough time and some data, it is possible to step back from the hype, cynicism and bewilderment and see patterns emerge in how we look at trends in L&D.

Since 2014, I have been running the L&D Global Sentiment Survey, each year taking the pulse of L&D practitioners by asking one question: “What will be hot in workplace learning next year?”, with
participants choosing 3 options from a list of 15. The question is designed to be quick to answer, to gauge of sentiment in the field. On average it takes about one and a half minutes to answer.

One person’s opinion, given in 90 seconds, isn’t worth much. But aggregate answers, over a few years, and patterns begin to emerge. This year, the survey’s seventh, over 2,200 people answered, and I’m starting to find answers to a question that has fascinated me for years: not all new ideas in our field gain traction. The vast majority fail. Why? What distinguishes the ideas that move from popularity among a small group of enthusiasts to general acceptance?

Among the self-selecting population that answers the survey, there are two groups. Group A, the smaller group, answers the social media call for participation early. It likes the latest, newest ideas
and tends to prefer methodologies over technologies. Group B is larger. It responds to email invitations to participate, and tends to be slightly more conservative, less easily swayed by the new.
Group B’s answers look a lot like Group A’s answers from 2 years’ previously, but with some options winnowed out.

The two groups are important because it seems that Group A are the opinion leaders, identifying and amplifying new ideas, while Group B picks up on their new ideas from Group A, but only
accepting those ideas they believe to be useful and  implementable. It’s my hypothesis that only the
new methodologies and technologies which the larger, more conservative, Group B accepts are ever accepted more widely.

What new ideas chime with Group B and which ones fail to make the transition?

From some research I conducted over the summer of 2019, it appears that there are three main reasons people consider an idea ‘hot’. Either people are talking about it, or they see credible case
studies around it, or they believe that the idea is applicable at scale, at reasonable cost in their own organisation.

Looking at the results of this year’s survey, it is clear some ideas have made the transition from Group A’s territory of showing exciting potential, to Group B’s territory of applicability. Mobile delivery, for example, topped the survey in its inaugural year of 2014. Today, Group A almost ignores it, while Group B still rates it very highly.

In contrast, Neuroscience/cognitive science is heading upwards on Group A’s ranking of options but downwards on Group B’s list. Why? Because although it might be a good idea in theory, there are very few case studies identifying Neuroscience/cognitive science as the reason for a project’s success, and little sense that it is something which can be applied methodically, at scale. Like Gamification, which was removed from the list last year, it is seen as probably a good idea, but intangible and complex.

L&D practitioners, clearly, can see the same ideas very differently. Mobile delivery is what I call a Staple, an idea that has become pretty much business-as-usual. We expect to be doing it. There are precious few of these Staples. There are rather more Wallflowers, like Neuroscience, which are brought to the dance by Group A, but never taken up by Group B.

There is one particular division of thinking between Group A and Group B that fascinates me, and which demonstrates that we are currently at a watershed in L&D.

Two options rose in popularity among Group A this year: Consulting more deeply with the business and Showing value. These are ranked #3 and #5 on the opinion leaders’ table, in both cases up from last year. On Group B’s table they rank in the lower half, more or less where they were last year.

In other words, Group A think it important L&D should work with the business, and they think it more important than they did last year. Group B seems unexcited by the prospect. For me, as chair
of the Learning and Performance Institute, this should be the #1 priority of our field. Without a closer relationship to the business, we are always on the back foot, reacting to the latest demands
on our time. With it, we prove our value and improve our offerings, and become what L&D should always be – an integral part of the business, rather than the adjunct we have too often been until

This is why I believe 2020 will be a crucial year for L&D. Will Group A, and people like me, manage to convince the busy, hard-working members of Group B that being closer to the business is essential
for success? Will Consulting and Showing value become Staples, like Mobile delivery, part of our business-as-usual? Or are they doomed to be ignored, Wallflowers at the party, like Neuroscience,
overlooked in favour of the latest, shiny new technology?

We will only find out whether L&D has shifted its approach in 2020 come November, when I run the survey again. In the meantime, I will be working hard to help L&D practitioners understand the value
of working more closely with the business, and providing practical steps to making it happen.

Hear Donald H Taylor talk in more detail about the 2020 survey in this webinar recording.


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