How does L&D innovate?

A while back, I wrote about how there’s no new shiny in L&D. When I wrote that post, I was asking a question I didn’t know I was asking. I wasn’t asking why is there no new shiny in L&D. I was asking why is there no new innovation in L&D. Now there’s a question open to debate.

Consider all of the advancements we’ve made in the L&D field in the last twenty years. Then consider whether those advancements would have happened had it been left up to an L&D professional. I would guess not.

When did mindfulness suddenly become a thing? And how is it something that’s suddenly become a mainstream language in business, and now there are consultants making money off it? More importantly, when did L&D decide this concept was something worth pursuing in helping people to be their best self? I’m not arguing it doesn’t have relevance, because it absolutely does. I’m arguing that L&Ders on their own wouldn’t have decided this was somewhere to gain some organisational learning from.

How did neuroscience burst onto the field of L&D and leadership as a way of understanding the human condition and how to create or put in place activities that are brain friendly. That this is even part of the lexicon shows how well it’s understood as an approach to learning. And yet, had a bunch of L&Ders come together to discuss the future of learning, would they have known that brain friendly techniques are where we should be looking next?

If social technologies never existed, would L&D pros have been the ones to step up and say “Hey, there’s a new way of learning available via this thing called the internet, and this is how you do it.”

I’m not beating up L&D. Really I’m not. I’m just reflecting on where innovation in the field comes from.

Mindfulness, neuroscience, emotional intelligence, social technologies (and their application to organisational living) and so much more happened because of determined research in some cases, and because of human curiosity in others. Some bright bod within the L&D sphere then sparked up and realised they could monetise what that is. That’s clever thinking, opportunism, and being in the right place at the right time.

What advancements have L&D made to life in general? You take any of those topics I’ve mentioned, and people will be able to relay anecdotes about how they’ve helped improve their life.

When did you last hear someone talk about how great the e-learning they completed was?

When did you last have someone highly endorse a webinar they attended as being core and fundamental to the way they lived their life?

When did you last hear someone describe a competency framework in a way which made you want to go and pick one up to read for fun?

When did someone last commend a workshop so much that you were sought out for media opportunities to do more with it and spread the word to countless thousands?

When did you last have someone speak so enthusiastically about informal learning that you could see the difference it made in their life?

There’s something there about why this doesn’t happen in L&D. There’s something about why advancements in L&D tend to happen because insight and research in other parts of life are found to have clear organisational relevance (except NLP which should just die a complete and utter death).

What am I saying? That as L&Ders we are great at curating and facilitating the sharing of information. We are great at facilitating learning sessions and we understand the human learning process better than most.

I am also saying that L&D will never truly be an innovative function. It will always be a slave to the organisation they’re part of, and they will never truly be a strategic function no matter how aligned they are to the business. This isn’t because we can’t do that, but mostly because this is not our raison d’etre.

What am I not saying? I am not saying that L&D haven’t improved organisational life. One of the great beauties of working in this profession is that there is no right way of helping people learn. There are better ways than others, but it’s all useful. I am not saying that L&D isn’t vital for organisational success. Any organisation that truly learns, never stops innovating – that doesn’t necessarily happen because of a hit squad of L&Ders though.

I am not saying that L&D can’t be innovative. What we do, and how we deliver it can be at the forefront of learning processes and that’s incredibly exciting. If I can provide a learning environment where regardless of the method I use, you learn something new and are able to apply it, then that’s the best I can hope for. I have seen and been part of some amazingly good learning sessions in respect to this.

What am I suggesting? I suggest that for L&D to be innovative, they forget about looking at how the function performs and measures its success, and instead learns from sources they would never have considered. Not business books, and not in trade journals. But explore the unknown. Who knows what could exist out there that has relevance to organisational learning?


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

3 thoughts on “How does L&D innovate?”

  1. HI Sukh,

    I agree! As an L&D Professional I’m open about my purpose which is to form a bridge between concept and reality: between theory and behaviour. I feel that its my role to make people aware of all the tools they CAN use to develop themselves, help them to choose the right ones, and make it accessible/relevant to them. I’m never going to change the world, but (hopefully) I smooth the way a little.

    Yours, firmly on the “B Ship”,

    Sheridan 😉

  2. Are you seeking innovation or creativity? You can’t generally have one without the other since, an innovations spread, they become re-invented by the adopters who see how they can be used in a different context.

    Creativity is simply a facet of innovation, and your piece feels like you’re unhappy with both. Should L&D be more creative feels like a no-brainer but business want to see results from their L&D function so we temper this creativity in favour of best practice. We seek out this practice in other spaces and display it as innovation. We can manage lateral challenges; the “no-one else does that” argument through demonstrating that others do…just not in the L&D field.

    I’ve also got an itch about a previous blog when you talked through L&D, delivery and procurement. I replied on twitter that you weren’t comparing like with like:
    L&D is a function
    Delivery is a channel
    Procurement is a process

    Which do you want to innovate?

    Innovate process and you create a self-fulfilling role…people need to learn the new processes.
    Innovate Delivery and you put your role at risk…the organisation doesn’t need as many people to deliver. Innovate a function and you become one of those scary people at events whose ideas you like but can’t possibly roll out because they’re just too dangerous.

    Good stuff Sukh.

  3. Reminds me very much of my thought process after attending the first L&D Connect Unconference. After leaving that event I remember feeling that me, you and the others who attended the event could change the world.

    Well certainly the L&D profession and workplace learning or at least break away from the elephant thinking that has engulfed L&D for far too long…..whether you call it innovation or not the point for me is to develop my practice and to continually evolve what I do and how I do it. Experiment, fail, learn, share, experiment, take risks, succeed, learn, share more 😉

    Where these ideas come from can be begged, stolen or borrowed. They can come from manufacturing, retail, banking, production lines, start ups, tech companies, my granddad. It doesn’t matter – what’s important is that we collectively open our minds and break away from the chains and wooden stake in the ground and go and explore and seek out what’s happening elsewhere and try it ourselves. Do something different – for me this is innovation. Challenge, disrupt, copy what others are doing and apply it in your own surroundings as whatever happened some where else will happen differently for you because of the variables involved…..whether you’re the innovator, early adopter or you get it with the late majority – embrace and create positive change as we have so many options around what L&D is, can be, should be and will be…..if I can influence that I will. If I can help others escape the chains I will. If I can continually challenge myself to improve what I do and how I can help others then why would I not?

    My name is Mike Collins and I’m an innovator and I’ll do my best to keep it that way.

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