About our guest
Donald Taylor is a veteran of the learning, skills and human capital industries, with experience at every level from delivery to chairman of the board.
A recognised commentator and organiser in the fields of workplace learning and learning technologies, Donald is passionately committed to helping develop the learning and development profession.
Chairman of the Learning and Performance Institute since 2010, his background ranges from training delivery to managing director and vice-president positions in software companies. Donald took his own internet-based training business from concept to trade sale in 2001 and has been a company director during several other acquisitions. Now based in London, he has lived and travelled extensively outside the UK and now travels regularly internationally to consult and speak about workplace learning.
He is focused on skills development and technology, and in particular on making sure that people and businesses have the skills they need. Donald believes this is best supported by using technology effectively – that is by understanding business needs and concentrating on engaging both learners and managers rather than concentrating on technical details and new features.
The whole world is going through significant change and transformation, and that’s being driven and enabled largely by technology. We now have an entirely different way of presenting information to people, and of helping people learn skills, which are two slightly different things.
We’ve gone from a world in which the pace of change was reasonably slow, to one of which the pace of change is much faster. In 2008 the amount of time it took from original concept to production of a car was about five-years. It’s now between 24 and 36 months, or less. Things get turned around much faster because the technology and the ways of working have all been compressed thanks to technology.
The most obvious change today is that we’ve gone from the world being a place where knowledge equated to power and expense, to where information is almost free.
As citizens in society, we are acclimatised over the first 15-years or so of our lives to believe that learning is done almost exclusively with training, or the “classroom experience” – such as courses and seminars, where there is usually a set process we go through in order to learn. This kind of formulaic group learning doesn’t allow us much room to question what is being taught, and whether we actually understand it.
As individuals, we are much more likely to see an issue, and then find a way to tackle it. That might be by learning something; it might be by finding some performance support – a classic case is there’s something wrong with your plumbing and you go to YouTube for a tutorial on how to fix it.
In this podcast, Owen and Donald Taylor discuss what this shift in access to information means for L&D, and how new technology can be embraced to improve our learning processes for the better.
- Everything has changed about the world we work in, what we can do, and I think we have to have a new attitude towards our role in order to do our best job, serving individuals and the organisations that we are beholden to.
- I can guarantee that every executive in organisations, or at least one executive has got digital transformation on their mind, so if you can hitch what you’re doing to that, you’re going to get an open door – just make sure we can deliver.
- If you don’t lead, if you don’t do project management, if you don’t have the right marketing, communications, and listening, your project is almost certainly going to fail.
- The point is that you’ve got to take control, and the leadership thing which is the most important probably – it’s this business and being able to get out there and say, ‘We’re running these projects, and we are simultaneously laser-focussed on success and willing to negotiate along the way to get there’, there’s always a series of conflicting things that good leadership is able to do, and that’s one of them. Deal with that, focus, and be happy to compromise along the way to get there.
- If you don’t have a business imperative you’re sunk. Firstly, do you know you’ve succeeded in terms of business? Secondly, when something goes wrong, and it will go wrong, you need friends. Those friends have to be people who bought into this right at the beginning because you’ve showed them as a way of solving a problem.
The Big Takeaways
- We’re starting to see a resurgence of the employee value proposition. People are starting to consider more now how they engage talent, how they retain talent, and how they gear themselves up ready for capitalising on the gig economy.
- The whole world is going through significant change and transformation, and that’s being driven and enabled largely by technology. We now have an entirely different way of presenting information to people, and of helping people learn skills.
- The current capability of things, like YouTube, creates an autodidact of the individual where they’re ready to learn, but they don’t necessarily consider it learning.
- Businesses are asking different things, and expecting different things from the learning function, and perhaps they’re not communicating that very well, and therefore it’s hard for the L&D people to respond.
- The three reasons for things failing are: They are poorly led, There’s no project management (in other words the execution isn’t up to it), the marketing and communications (ie the process of listening to people and acting in an agile way to alter your offering, all the way in the long line from conception through to delivery, into the sustain period) is weak.
- We need to change people’s view about what learning in the organisation is, and that means putting ourselves in charge of the view of learning, and no longer accepting the understandable assumptions that people come into the workplace with, having spent 15-years in education.
In this episode I’m speaking with Don Taylor. Donald Taylor is a veteran of the learning skills in human capital industries, with the experience of every level from delivery to chairman of the board, a recognised commentator and organiser in the fields of workplace learning, and learning technologies, Donald is passionately committed to helping develop the learning and development profession. Welcome Don.
Thank you very much, Owen.
Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today Don, we’ve been really looking forward to your contribution. I wanted to start Don by talking about the world of learning, because I think that’s really your thing, and you’ve got a huge amount of expertise across all of the roles that you’ve held over many years. It seems to me that that whole world is going through significant change and transformation, and I guess from my perspective that’s driven largely by technology. How do you see the agenda changing for learning, and learning departments over the next few years?
It’s driven by technology in one respect, its also enabled by technology. The drivers are also elsewhere, particularly macroeconomic and society drivers as well. It would be a mistake to assume that everything is around technology but, having said all that I think if we look at technology and all the other drivers and what they’re asking L&D to do now, we see a learning and development function that is very different to what it was when I started in 1980-whatever, teaching people English. I then went on to do software training and what have you. In those days there were two ways of getting information, you’d talk to somebody or you got it from a book, that was basically it.
Now, we have an entirely different way of presenting information to people, and helping people learn skills which are two slightly different things. But in addition, it’s not just what the L&D function is capable of doing thanks to technology, in addition to that there are changes in the world we are working in, it’s a different environment. The most obvious change is that information is free, we’ve gone from the world being a world where knowledge was power, to where information is free, almost free I should say. We’ve also gone from a world in which the pace of change was reasonably slow, to one of which the pace of change is much faster. In 2008 the amount of time it took from original concept to production of a car was about five-years, it’s now between 24 and 36 months, or less. Things get turned around much faster because the technology and the ways of working have all been compressed thanks to technology.
So, Just in Time projects for example, the ability to coordinate working across multiple teams electronically and so-on, have all compressed that. Now, that’s something which is separate to L&D but absolutely is part of what we’re working in, and we have to ask ourselves how can we respond to that? It’s not just about, ‘I can do mobile content now’, it’s a much bigger picture than that, for example in that particular instance we’re looking at things happening faster, we have to ask ourselves is of course always the right answer to performance need, the answer is, it’s absolutely not, but that’s just one answer. So, to answer your question, everything has changed about the world we work in, what we can do, and I think we have to have a new attitude towards our role in order to do our best job, serving individuals and the organisations that we are beholden to.
Absolutely, to look more broadly at some of the drivers, and some of the agendas coming together much more quickly, I like the whole idea of JIT Just in Time coming together. I guess its people’s individual expectations both as an employer and an employee which is shifting too, expectations of the workplace, expectations of the learning environment, potentially expectation to their role or function as well.
We have a bizarre conflict here, people as citizens in society and people as individuals. As citizens in society, we are acclimatised over the first 15-years or so of our lives to believe that learning is done almost with training, or the classroom experience. In particular not so much with being a classroom but with a course, that there is a process we go through to learn. As individuals we are much more likely to see an issue, and then find a way to tackle it, that might be by learning something, it might be by finding some performance support; a classic case is there’s something wrong with your plumbing and you go to YouTube to sort it out.
The L&D function has a weird dislocation therefore, the organisation and individuals from the organisation simultaneously have two different views of learning; one is, ‘Learning is like training’, the other is, ‘I get my job done by using these tools and acting as a consumer in the 21st Century’. We have to say to them, ‘Actually when you say training, your wrong, there are other ways of learning things, and by the way, that stuff you do on You Tube, we do that too. But also, bear in mind that sometimes it’s not a short-term fix, sometimes you do need long-term capability building. So, in other words, we need to change people’s view about what learning in the organisation is, and that means putting ourselves in charge of the view of learning, and not anymore accepting the understandable assumptions that people come into the workplace with, having spent 15-years in education.
It’s really a really interesting dynamic. It’s almost like the current capability of things as you say, like YouTube, creates an auto didact of the individual where they’re ready to learn, but they don’t necessarily consider it learning. So, bringing those two agendas together, creating a sort of common vernacular maybe. How do you think it changes what the business is asking of L&D?
What, if you achieve that?
For me, if you see a dislocation between the way that L&D usually articulates its value back to the business, or the way in which its taken to deliver, and the way in which the business uses it, I think the business typically has an imperative one way or another that it’s looking to achieve, and the way it communicates that to the learning department seems to be shifting to me. I think that the business is asking different things, and expecting different things from the learning function, and perhaps they’re not communicating that very well, and therefore it’s hard for the L&D people to respond. Do you see a shift in what the business is asking for, or demanding, or expecting, and, do you see that the L&D function can respond to that?
I don’t think it’s shifted what the business needs, for some organisations that’s actually recognised, and in some of those organisations that’s actually conveyed to the learning & development department. And in some of those organisations the learning & development department stands up and is prepared to meet the challenge. But in too many places what happens is, organisations deal with the symptoms rather than the causes of what’s going on. So, you might see that your customer service is down, you might see that your dropping off on sales with regular customers, you might see a whole bunch of different things that are all symptomatic of high turnover of staff, which is another one, all symptomatic. Or a handful of course, as one of those [inaudible 11:16] will be that people aren’t necessarily doing the constant in the workplace, in the work experience learning, that they require to do the job.
So, not all organisations absolutely see that. But the organisations that do see it recognise then that they need to do something about it, which is something to do with learning but it’s not training in the established schoolroom assumption way that they have. So, for those organisations, yes, they’re being transformative, it takes a long time for those thousand cuts of these different symptoms to have an affect on an organisation. I think what’s really pushing organisations at the moment is, they see themselves as falling behind from where they want to be, and rather than putting that in the bucket of, ‘Well we’re not able to keep our people properly engaged, and learning all the time on the job’, they are saying, ‘We need to digitally transform’. In a way they’re right, its part of the same issue. I like the fact that people are looking at one big issue, and I do think that digital transformation piece is something if learning development can hook itself onto, it’s something that they can really help establish themselves in the organisation to make a difference. So, if you can hitch yourself onto the digital transformation
then you can be taken seriously by the organisation, provided of course that you deliver.
Axa did a great job in the low countries, Netherlands and Belgium, I think Benelux altogether actually, they recognised they needed to get their executives thinking differently about the digital world they were working in. So, what they did was, it sounds a bit bizarre, a reverse mentoring programme; all the executives worked in a very well-structured way, it was a very well thought out programme, with a team of young employees to understand what the digital world today looks like. After six-months immediately these executives were all saying, ‘You know what, I understand the world differently. I’m acting differently now and I’m doing things in a different way’. A year after that they’d actually trebled the business, because they saw the world they’d came from was not the world now, thanks to being able to look at it through this digital lens.
So, the digital transformation came as a result of, if you like, a training exercise, but its much more than a training exercise, it’s about getting people to shift their mindsets and the way they perform and act using technology. The trainers in this case, if you’d like to call them that, were a bunch of new graduates, new hires, who saw the world in a different way. That’s a great example of digital transformation having a real impact on the business, and it being led by other things as well, but it was led by a change in people’s behaviours through human intervention.
Fantastic example. That was a very brave proposition to put to the board I suspect. Did that come from L&D, or did that come from out of a training session?
No, it came from the top, and so with these things always, when you get digital transformation, in fact any transformation in an organisation, and its done successfully, it almost always comes from the top. I’d love to hear of an example where its been led by L&D, but all the digital transformation including digital transformation episodes I’ve seen as being successful, have all been led from the top.
It’s fascinating how those two agendas and two dialogues can start to merge the learning and development, and the digital transformation piece. Interestingly the next person we’ll be speaking to on this podcast series is from Swisscom where it has been led by L&D, so I’m up to speed on that one.
Who are you talking to?
Patrick from Swisscom, and it’s where they’ve created almost like a democratised model for… I hesitate to call it reverse mentoring but it’s a similar sort of principle. I think it started really as an L&D transformation rather than a digital transformation, but its along similar lines. It’s really interesting to see people being brave about doing those kinds of things.
I’d love to read or listen to it.
Patrick wrote a case study that was published on LinkedIn, I shall point everybody and indeed your good self to it Don. I’ll introduce you too because he’s a fascinating chap, so it will be good conversation I’m sure.
So, that’s really interesting, that’s a new agenda that learning people should be hugely aware of, it’s a route to the executive I guess isn’t it, and a route to the current agenda in businesses, and potentially basically route to budget to achieve some of the things you’re looking to achieve, creating relevance for some of the things we’re trying to do.
I can guarantee that every executive in organisations, or at least one executive has got digital transformation on their mind, so if you can hitch what you’re doing to that, you’re going to get an open door, just make sure we can deliver.
Therein is the challenge, and a potential excellent Segway into the book that we referenced earlier which you published last year, which looks at as I understand it the success criteria of implementing learning tech, and some of the perils and pitfalls along the way. Can you give us a bit of an insight on that front?
Yes, the book is called, ‘Learning technologies in the workplace’, it’s published by Kogan Page, and if you search for Donald H Taylor I’m sure it will come up. But the point is, if you are implementing a [low? 17:26] in technology in the workplace, they fail for three reasons that I’ve been able to identify. There’s a lot more to the book than just this, but the three reasons for things failing are, they are poorly led which encompasses a whole lot of things, there’s no project management, in other words the execution isn’t up to it, and finally the marketing and communications by which I don’t mean trying to convince someone to buy something, but I mean the process of listening to people and acting in an agile way to alter your offering, all the way in the long line from conception through to delivery, into the sustain period, the marketing & communication pieces is weak.
So, if you don’t lead, if you don’t do project management, if you don’t have the right marketing, communications, and listening, your project is almost certainly going to fail. On the other hand, they’re predictable things, and there are easy things you can do to fix those, and if you get those right you should be able to do it. The point is that you’ve got to take control, and the leadership thing which is the most important probably, it’s this business and being able to get out there and say, ‘We’re running these projects, and we are simultaneously laser-focussed on success and willing to negotiate along the way to get there’, there’s always a series of conflicting things that good leadership is able to do, and that’s one of them. Deal with that, focus, and be happy to compromise along the way to get there.
I guess it must have something to do with great stakeholder engagement, CXO engagement, those kinds of things driven from the board, without that kind of dialogue and maybe putting that back into the digital transformation agenda, hooking it to a broader business imperative maybe?
If you don’t have a business imperative you’re sunk. Firstly, do you know you’ve succeeded in terms of business? Secondly, when something goes wrong, and it will go wrong, you need friends. Those friends have to be people who bought into this right at the beginning because you’ve showed them as a way of solving a problem. So, when I talk about marketing engagement and leadership, I’m talking about leadership having the ability to ask questions, listen and build exactly what you said, the stakeholder management piece which means that firstly you do the analysis, then you do the communications, you work out who your friends are, who you have to keep informed, and brutally you seek out difficult conversations. Learning development is great at sitting in a comfortable corner, talking to people who think we do a good job, yeah, that’s lovely, but to be successful in an implementation you’ve got to go, ‘I have to disagree with you’. Get those people on board, turn them around and you’re well on the way to success.
I think that is a fantastic nugget gold-dust piece of information. Absolutely, any implementation of anything I’ve seen been successful, it’s living in this cosy world of assumption, and avoiding difficult conversations which always, always comes back to bite you. Those I’ve seen take those challenges head-on are always successful, because actually you’re going to the root cause of why potentially people reject us, or block us one way or the other, rather than assuming. I wonder how many people in the learning and development community are confident in having those kinds of conversations. Maybe people will let us know what they think about that, but I think that’s a really interesting piece of adviser, thank you.
So, how are you seeing the learning market shifting to address those kinds of challenges? Are you seeing new entrants, new solutions, new providers?
I have be very careful and wear a whole bunch of different hats, so I’m the chairman of the Learning Technologies Conference, I’m the chairman of the
Institute, I deal with a lot of individuals, I’m very wary of pointing to individual companies, but yes, there are people doing interesting things in our field, and there’s also people doing fascinating things on the periphery and coming in from left field. But one of the big things for me is content and I won’t name names, but I have this pyramid of content that I talk about which was based on some work originally by Clive Shepherd and Nick Shackleton-Jones, and they had blogs around 2014-2015, and I ran with that. I think the supply of content now is much more complex than it used to be, if you think of a pyramid, at the top you’ve got really high-quality Hollywood production stuff, and at the bottom you’ve got a layer which is free stuff from the internet. In the middle you’ve got a whole bunch of different things, we make ourselves user-generated content, but also in the middle you’ve got something new which is what I call curated content sets, this is content which has been sourced either for free, or from a supplier somewhere, but someone stepped in the middle of the process and said, ‘We’re going to find this information, this learning content, put it all together and create these content sets which are suitable for your organisation for one particular role’, so, if you’ve got sales people who are operating in North America here’s the content set for them, sales people operating in the European territory here’s similar but a different set of content, and if you’ve got people on production, a different set of content.
So, in other words what we’re saying is, the old days of giving somebody access to an entire library of content is counter-productive, there is simply too much there to be able to find what you need, rather than that there’ll be somebody in the middle who is effectively if you like a training information broker, somebody who comes in and provides a curated set of stuff just for the organisation. I’ve seen this happen since very successfully, and that shifts the role of L&D from being the people who create and distribute causes, to the people who find the best brokers, the best curators of content for their organisation, and they get people to work with them. They work with them well, not because they’re good at creating content, that’s for the L&D team, but because the L&D team knows its business well. So, they can go out and find the right curators, that’s a different skillset, but we need an L&D team, but it’s a crucial one.
That’s one example. Other things we can see coming in from the outside of course, AI, artificial intelligence, we absolutely know that large organisations, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft have all expressed an interest one way or the other in using AI generally, but specifically AI in the learning field. We can expect these large organisations to be playing in our field very soon, but they already are in some cases. On the other hand, you also have little start-ups who are very specialised doing AI, and we can expect those to be coming in as well. So, expect what you’re doing to look very different in two-years’ time to what it already is right now, because of the pace of change.
Its fascinating, and that’s why its such an exciting time to be in this market at all, whichever part of it you’re in, it’s so dynamic, its changing so quickly, it’s so exciting. It’s critical I think what you said that there’s a new set of skills required for the learning function, to be looking slightly differently at the world, and to be able to have a credible discussion more widely across the business etc. and to be able to navigate their way through all of those technologies, opportunities etc. A really exciting time, and I think some of those areas are really going to bring forth some fantastic new initiatives and directions. Obviously, we’re in that space too. So, the whole idea of AI in fact just moving into the people analytics space, bringing collectively what we’re doing in this space front and centre for the executive function, some of that insight, some of that initiative, some of that data is fascinating stuff. So, a great time to be here.
One of the things maybe slightly more old-fashioned starting to see a resurgence of, is the employee value proposition. People are starting to consider a bit more now how they engage talent, how they retain talent, and how they gear themselves up ready for capitalising on the gig economy. Do you have a view on how learning and development can contribute to that new employee value proposition idea?
It absolutely does of course, and if you look just by itself, learning development absolutely helps organisations keep their employees engaged better, we know that. On the other hand, you could also spend the money you might spend on L&D doing other things that are also good at doing that. So, I spend it on L&D rather than on perks or whatever. I think the answer is that increasingly the money spent on L&D is more valuable to employees for longer, your employee who takes themselves seriously and is aware of the volatile nature of employment today, understands that investing in themselves, or getting somebody else to invest in themselves is a crucial reason for working with a particular company, and that’s why people choose organisations. One of the top three criteria by which new graduates choose a potential employer is, ‘Will I get a well-structured learning and development programme there?
They do that because its going to help them build their future employment prospects, so its not just that you get people doing their jobs better, you get the engagement in the short-term, you also get the greater productivity. All the research shows that people are much more likely to stay with the organisation, particularly during the on-boarding process if you invest in them, and you keep investing in them. So, is that what you were referring to Owen?
Absolutely, again that’s very fascinating. I’m starting to see already how organisations are trying to create that kind of self-directed career pathway inside the organisation, already for employees, helping employees navigate their own career internally, but also in more enlightened areas creating pathways for people who might go on into a wider industry role. That totally rings true for me, and I think L&D have an absolute critical role to play, a really interesting direction of travel for it.
There’s one final question I ask everybody that contributes, and I think your answer will be really interesting, so if you don’t mind, based on your experience and expertise, what one piece of advice or recommendation would you give an organisation about to embark on any kind of people change, or learning programme?
Who am I talking to?
I knew you’d have a great answer for that!
Am I talking to the executives, or am I talking to the learning & development department?
Let’s talk to the executives with that one.
If I had one piece of advice to give them it would be, don’t be constrained by the past. You have unique current challenges that cannot be solved in the way you used to solve them. So, listen to your highly skilled professional learning and development department, challenge them, but be ready to accept that they know what they’re talking about. They may offer you something which you think is left-field, but it could transform your business.
Brilliant, I think you’re absolutely right. Some of these agendas that you were saying earlier, things are starting to shift, and the agendas are changing, and we need to look outside the box in terms of what L&D is, what the function can deliver, how it contributes to the wider agenda. Unless the executive is aware of what can be delivered by that function, and in fairness unless the L&D function communicate that effectively, that dialogue is never gonna happen.
That’s the other side of it, we can’t sit back and say, ‘Hey, it’s somebody else’s fault’.
Don, a huge value. Thank you so much indeed, very-very insightful. I know you’re an incredibly busy man and in huge demand, so it’s been a real delight. All of your contact details, your full bio which I know is extensive, access to your books etc will be available, we’ll make that available via our podcast site. Is there a quick way to get hold of you if anybody wants to learn a bit more? Is there an email address or a phone number?
Donald H Taylor on LinkedIn will bring me up. Contact me on LinkedIn, that’s always the best way.
Fabulous, thank you so much, really appreciate your time today and I look forward to speaking to you again soon.
Thank you for the opportunity.