The Future of Learning

At the May ATD International Conference in Atlanta one speaker said the following about learning and development functions: “We don’t own content and aren’t managing learning. That power long ago shifted from the learning department to individual employees.” The speaker was making the point that since learning has shifted to employees there is an opportunity for CLOs to assume broader responsibility for other talent processes such as talent acquisition and organizational development. While I agree that CLOs are well positioned by their experience to expand their scope and probably the best positioned to lead an integrated talent acquisition and development function, the broad assertion about the end of L&D as we know it still troubles me.

The statement may be true for an L&D department which has responsibility only for general learning which is not aligned to any company goals other than perhaps employee engagement. In this case the L&D department would offer a catalog of courses, either internally developed or externally purchased, and employees would select what they want to improve or are interested in. Learning aligned with company goals other than employee engagement and learning for onboarding, basic skills training and compliance would be managed by their respective departments. For example, the sales department would manage all sales-related learning, quality would manage all quality-related learning, and HR would manage all compliance-related learning. In this model I would say that the L&D department never managed learning to begin with. They simply offered a catalog and tracked what employees took. The department did own the content, but I agree with the speaker that advances in digital learning offered outside the company will soon make this model obsolete. In the future, employees will be able to find all their general learning outside the company, and the L&D department will no longer own that content.

The statement however is not true now nor should it be true in the future for L&D departments which offer learning aligned to company goals, important business, or HR needs. In many companies the L&D department is responsible for the content and management of learning to increase sales, improve quality, reduce injuries, improve leadership, achieve compliance targets, onboard employees, provide basic skills, and meet other company goals. Why would a company have its L&D department abandon this important role as a strategic business partner? Why would it be better to have employees try to figure out on their own what they need to be successful or in compliance, especially new hires or employees new to a position, when experienced leaders already know what employees will need to be successful in their job? Furthermore, some knowledge is proprietary and simply not available outside the company. And let’s face it, real impact on company goals requires more than access to content. It requires a well-conceived and executed program to target the particular need, convey the required knowledge or skills, and then reinforce the desired behavior. It actually takes a lot of effort to manage learning for results, none of which occurs in the employee self-directed model.

In conclusion, I agree that in the future we will not need to own general content which is unaligned to company goals and that employees will be able to find general content of interest to them outside the company. However, I do believe we should continue to own critical content and that there will always be an important role for L&D departments to manage learning aligned to company goals and needs.


  1. Josh Pavek says

    I always enjoy reading your posts Dave and I couldn’t agree with you more of this topic. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis and support of business aligned L&D.

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