Can L&D really think like marketers?

By John Helmer April 29, 2016

Man holding sign saying 'Think Tank'Learning professionals are being encouraged to think like marketers in order to meet the needs of today’s increasingly self-directed, peer-directed learners. But doing so can lead L&D into difficult waters.

This was just one of a number of fascinating insights that arose from our latest Think Tank dinner.

We assembled an invited group of L&D leaders to discuss these issues in a three-part discussion held under Chatham House rules. Contributing to the debate were delegates from the worlds of Finance, Mining, Telecomms, IT and commodity trading.

You can read highlights of the discussion here.

But for those who want a deep dive into the third part of this fascinating discussion, read on, as we address the following question:

Part 3: How will technology shape the future of learning in a post-course world?

Key points

  • Examples of online communities from the developer world – Github and Stack Overflow – show the use of trusted networks for learning, communication and employment incentivisation. Important to note, however, that these are bottom- up phenomena and combines practice with learning in highly unconventional ways.
  • We are seeing examples of quite radically different ways of structuring learning within organisations using social media – e.g. a peer-driven video learning platform in one company which runs on user-generated content and has been so successful that its has eclipsed the company’s communications platforms.
  • Making snap assumptions about Millennials in the workplace could be dangerous: many fundamentals of their work motivation remain the same – but greater comfort and facility with technology is a given.
  • It requires a change of mindset for L&D to take on board the role of learning curation as a central activity – the big change being that it involves a shift away from ‘moderation’.
  • Trying to set up internal social networks can be problematical if they are too rigidly controlled, or compete directly with an established external network everyone trusts more. Companies doing this should be agile and iterative in their approach, and acknowledge that they operate in an attention economy.
  • In moving to a more marketing- focused mindset, L&D might have to embrace controversy as a way of gaining attention (a la HR Grapevine) rather than rigidly adhering to the company message.
  • L&D should be aware that moving to a ‘marketer mindset’ is liable to bring them up against some unfamiliar issues to do with trolling, negative messaging, legality, data protection, free speech versus dilution of the company message, spin, and so on. However, companies facing threats from disruptive competitors may well have to learn to countenance a little internal disruption of this kind.

What GitHub and Stack Overflow have to tell us about the future of learning

A delegate to our Think Tank from a software company, that employs large numbers of developers – software engineers and the like – shared his observations about how these highly techie people approach learning.

‘They are self-driven and peer-driven learners … passionate about their jobs, so they want to learn … For me, a lot of the time, it’s almost about acknowledging that fact and getting out of their way.’

Looking at the external tools and forums that these self-driven, peer-driven learners use for their professional development provides an interesting glimpse of one possible future for digital learning.

Stack Overflow is ‘a question and answer site for professional and enthusiast programmers’. Formed in 2008, it has more than four million registered users and is a self-organising community where knowledge is the currency. ‘Noobs’ must follow the rules of engagement laid down by the tech mavens who preside over the community if they wish to progress from being askers of questions to expert answerers. Status is earned by providing fast, accurate answers to problems, and the community penalizes behaviours it doesn’t like (leading some to claim that the site has suffered a troll takeover).

It is clear that some kind of collaborative learning is going on here, and progress within the community is a type of professional development. The site also has a jobs board, and can be the route to further employment.

GitHub, which boasts more than 14 million users, is something different again. It’s actually a place to work, more than specifically a place to learn – developers collaborate on and store code there, using powerful version control software called Git – but Wired has compared it to the Library of Alexandria, calling it it ‘an invaluable education and business resource’.

‘GitHub hosts the source code for millions of projects, meaning anyone can read the code used to create those applications. And because GitHub also archives past versions of source code, it’s possible to follow the development of a particular piece of software and see how it all came together. That’s made it an irreplaceable teaching tool.’

GitHub has also launched a programme called the GitHub Student Developer Pack to give students free access to popular development tools and services, including links to MOOCs.

What’s striking about GitHub is that it while it is undoubtedly instrumental in developing the skills of its members, that learning component is intimately bound up – almost inextricably so – with the workflow of developing code. It’s learning by doing, in the purest sense.

Another interesting aspect of GitHub, which it shares with Stack Overflow, is that is an external, independent resource – i.e. not something provided by any L&D department (although organisations can and do pay to have private, paid-for areas where they can develop their own proprietary code, as opposed to the open source software that constitutes most of Github’s output).

We’re seeing a model here that bears almost no resemblance to the world of traditional training, although it was clear to our delegate that such sites play an important part in how his people develop their technical skills.

Whether there is a read-across to other, non-IT-related skillsets remains to be seen. It is quite possible that software engineering could turn out to be unique as an area of professional practice in its insistently collaborative (but oddly hieratic) culture. However with all areas of the enterprise subject to digital transformation, and IT at the head of the curve, it is more likely a harbinger of things to come.

This delegate shared a further interesting fact about his techie learners: while intensely keen and motivated in their thirst for any new technical knowledge, they have to be dragged kicking and screaming towards any sort of soft skills learning. Introducing the topic of emotional intelligence to a roomful of ‘geeks’ produced the unseen but palpable phenomenon, in his words, of ‘25 sphincters tightening simultaneously’.

This is not the same in all workforces, however. Another delegate from a very different business sector reported the absolute opposite: soft skills development is snapped up eagerly by his people, while technical training has proved a harder sell.

The carry-out? People need to see the relevance of learning to them in order to be motivated to do it, and if the relevance isn’t immediately obvious, then it is a part of L&D’s role to help them understand that.

Video learning

Innovative forms of learning can often cut across organisational dividing lines. We heard the example of a company with a large retail network that decided to address the difficulty of getting learning out to its 20,000 learners by launching a peer-driven video learning platform. Employees in one part of the operation could publish brief how-to videos that could be accessed across the organisation. This provided the comms function of the organisation with a surprise when they found that all their channels were suddenly empty ­– their audience had deserted to the video learning platform.

Missing the point about millennials

Insights from this discussion reinforced much of what was said in our influential report on millennials and leadership. Much of the attention given to this area focuses on attitudinal differences with this generational cohort, however the clearest point of difference to emerge from the academic work we surveyed was a different and distinctive attitude to using technology. ‘There’s a lot of ­– oh millennials want this, or millennials want that – but I think the big difference is a comfort and a facility with technology which the previous generations don’t have … they’ve never known anything other than online, mobile, etc. It’s their normal.’

Curation versus moderation

These themes of generational change, and the emergence of more self-directed, peer-driven learners, have big implications for the practice of L&D. We are already beginning to see a dissolving of the boundaries between learning and communications, and acknowledgement of the need for L&D to embrace the new dynamic of social media – resulting in a call for the learning professional to learn to think more like marketers.

But is there a limit to how far L&D can go in thinking this way?

The leaders and bleeders who make up our Think Tank guest list are people already moving in this direction, and they have begun to encounter some of the challenges and contradictions that arise from embracing a new, and in some respects alien, skillset.

One challenge arises from a fairly fundamental difference in attitude between the two disciplines. Marketers, it was pointed out by one of the marketing professionals around the table, tend to operate with a fairly cynical, Don-Draper-style view of human nature. Books about marketing will tell you, for instance, that there are in essence only three basic motivators – fear, greed and personal advancement.

Learning professionals, on the other hand, are almost by definition heavily invested in human improvability, and have a perhaps more nuanced view of human motivation informed by academic models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of need, or the ‘Human Givens’ model mentioned in Part Two of this discussion.

A further difficulty arises from the fact that in many organisations learning sits within the HR function, and carries an obligation to stay ‘aligned’ and ‘on message’ that can be inimical to learning innovation.

Adapting social learning for corporate use can be problematical. One delegate said he would love to use a network like Yammer for social learning but, ‘I can just hear the security lords saying, “you need a moderator for every single comment” – and it would die’.

Relying on peer moderation to keep social learning on track feels like a risk many heads of L&D might not feel confident enough to take. Then again, many corporate-sponsored networks fail simply because they are sponsored by the company, and prove less attractive than the external, better known alternatives (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Stack Overflow, etc.).

Learning curation can raise similar questions, where curation involves L&D being the gate-opener to external sources that embody competing arguments, or viewpoints that contradict central tenets of the organisation’s mission and values.

General advice for anyone seeking to innovate in such circumstances was to test things in a small way – under the radar perhaps – rather than go straight to roll-out at full scale; to test and iterate, taking an agile approach.

Such gradualism can’t altogether assuage the deeper fears raised by this subject, however, which relates back to that essential mission of L&D we mentioned earlier: ‘It’s an interesting question: if what we really want is to free the spirit and emancipate the soul – and all that kind of stuff – maybe what you create is something you can no longer control?’

Another put it like this: ‘if you really want it, this marketing stuff, you have to get the whole of it, the bad as well as the good.’ Thinking like a marketer locates L&D firmly within an ‘attention economy’, the result of which might be (if it works) that the voice of L&D comes to sound a lot like HR Grapevine – sensationalist, yet compelling and strangely addictive.

‘But do you want that? Do you really want it? Because it’s about to hit you like a tidal wave.’

The positive value of disruption

L&D exposes itself to risk by opening up new social channels for learning. The danger is that opening the flood-gates in this way allows negative voices to be heard as loudly – or even more loudly – than positive ones. A troll takeover.

But perhaps that isn’t the worst thing that could happen.

‘I’d rather there be people saying negative stuff: at least the reaction wasn’t ambivalent … I’d rather provoke a reaction than that the whole thing was just ho-hum.’

And in case this quote should lead you believe our delegates were verging on trollish themselves, out to stir up a reaction at any cost, the discussion yielded up a more reasoned defence of the value of surfacing these disruptive voices. Disruption, we heard can be a force for good – may even be essential to business survival.

How so?

Disruption is now a fact of life across many business sectors. Transport: ‘If you’re a taxi driver, Uber is coming’. In banking, established players face threats from more agile fintech competitors: ‘we’re like this big whale with hundreds of little nibbling fishes slowly taking our business away …’

‘So unless we’re prepared to be disruptive in our own organisations, you may as well go hand in the towel’.

Opening up channels for disruptive voices carries risk – but might be critical for business survival.

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