Efteling gold fish. Personal collection.

Why learning professionals should strive to be leaders, not just service providers

Reda Sadki#DigitalScholar, Leadership

The learning landscape is changing fast. Even the most jurassic face-to-face trainers I know are now embracing the digital transformation or at least trying to. Ephemeral fads such as the Social Age or gamification are proliferating alongside newer, more sustainable and productive approaches that match the learning contexts of humanitarians and support the development of their capabilities in a volatile world. Everyone in workplace learning – save a few proverbial ostriches going the way of the dodo bird – is trying to learn the new skills needed to operate in new ways to do new things. This is like a dream come true.

But rethinking our roles, I believe, is going to be far more important than learning to run a webinar. Are we service providers? Are we a support service (like HR, security, and finance)? Who are really our clients, when those who pay are seldom those who learn? Can the business models of the past sustain us in the future?

The relevance of training is being questioned. In Profit & Loss (P&L) terms, we represent a cost center with often intangible return and consequently shrinking budgets. Cooking up a new evaluation framework is not going to change that. There are more people learning in the workplace than in universities. Yet it is higher education that remains a juicy business with 60% or more gross margins and lush endowments. (How did you think universities erect all these buildings?)

Years ago, a defrocked high priest of corporate learning called me a learning leader. Conflating leadership and authority, I had never been pretentious enough to see myself as a “leader”, much less one for learning. Yet, within my organization, I had become an advocate of learning innovation, building the case, gathering evidence, engaging with stakeholders, and doing everything else I could think of to help the organization improve how it learns.

The idea of learning leadership initially seemed merely inspirational and aspirational. That changed once I met Karen Watkins and discovered that her research over the last three decade has demonstrated that the strongest correlation to strengthened learning culture is exercising leadership committed to learning.

Thinking in leadership terms enabled me to see beyond my narrow job description. To truly serve the organization’s mission, I had to transform from a technical manager overseeing a procurement pipeline of over 80 dull, single-loop e-learning and find the courage within myself (there was none in management) to stop the assembly line. As the first Ivy League MOOCs made headlines, I struggled to figure out what these changes in higher education might mean for humanitarian workers and communities strengthening their resilience. Increasingly, the realization came that I would have to challenge the boundaries, to explore new approaches. And then George Siemens‘s clarity in describing what the changing nature of knowledge means for learning blew my mind.

And so I took a webcast lecture series and was astonished by how easy it was to transmute it into an open, scalable learning experience connecting a thousand staff and volunteers from over 100 countries. The hard part had been to overcome resistance from the gatekeepers and then helping stakeholders grapple with the significance of both the economy of effort and the potential of impact. This drew on what we were already learning from MOOCs, but without mimicking a higher university model that is not directly transposable to our context (as some are trying to do now, six years later). It cost nearly nothing and was more inclusive and productive than the face-to-face, three-day event that happened concurrently. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis visited me in Geneva shortly thereafter.

It became morally wrong to do what I had been tasked with by a clueless manager. I left the relatively-comfortable seat and position I held to jump into the unknown. The rate of internal change was simply too slow.

By then, I had found like-minded leaders and innovators to forge a new, unbeaten path, leading me to create LSi and then, in March 2016, the Geneva Learning Foundation. Along the way, my understanding of the significance of leadership for humanitarian work in general and for learning in particular grew tremendously, mostly thanks to the vision and clarity of others walking on the edges.

I understand that instructional designers and other learning professionals need to eat. Acquiescing to a client who has, for example, become a gamification zealot may be easier than challenging them to consider other approaches. Requests for proposals (RFPs) may leave no room for suggesting quality improvements, to put it mildly. Some people prefer to bet on slow career progression, hopping from one role to the next, biding their time. These are very individual choices. Not everyone can afford to be a risk-taking maverick. There are many ways to exercise leadership for learning, regardless of position, rank, or experience.  I do question, nevertheless, whether slow-and-steady survival strategies remain as viable today as they were in the past, given the volatility and uncertainty of change.

In 2016, during the Foundation’s first #DigitalScholar experiment, tutoring a young learning leader quickly morphed into mentoring. She initially described her role as figuring out which tool to use for e-learning production in relation to the learning needs she had identified, to then apply sound principles of instructional design, and finally to deliver a high-quality learning product. There was nothing wrong with her thinking, except for a startling lack of imagination about her own potential. Within ten or 15 years, she will be in a decision-making role. If the learning function is to achieve relevance and impact as a strategic business partner, she needs to think critically beyond her own role and explore what future roles are likely to demand. She needs to make her best effort to see look around the corner, to anticipate what is coming next while managing the unknown. And she needs to challenge her own capabilities by looking beyond her current but obsolete learning technologist role to a more holistic view of herself as a leader for learning, growing her skills to wield multiple lenses that can shape learning culture to not only drive performance and results but also help her blossom and thrive.

Image: Goldfish in Efteling. Personal collection.