It's often been said that you need to study history so you can learn from it and not make the same mistakes. Instead of focusing just on mistake avoidance, we can also use history to spot trends and patterns that help us prepare for the future.

The history of our business is fairly short. ASTD just celebrated its 60th year, but for 20 years the "TD" stood for "Training Directors." In the early 1960s, a new professional association was formed, the National Society for Programmed Instruction (NSPI), with a focus on instructional design; and the "TD" in ASTD became "Training and Development." This marked the recognition that there was a true profession devoted to helping people improve performance. As with many good ideas, it took about 10 years for the fundamental changes recognized in the early '60s to take hold.

So, it is the history from the 1970s to now--a span of about 35 years--that has defined today's roles and whose trends allow us to peek at the future.

The Business of Training

Throughout this 35-year history, I've seen the constant challenge of describing our profession. Ahh, to be an accountant or an engineer or a computer programmer. Those are professions that people seem to understand. They come with easily recognized attributes. But try introducing yourself at a social gathering by saying, "I do performance improvement!" Then, watch people try to puzzle out what that job might be without appearing to need treatment themselves.

The only phrase that seems to encompass our history is the "business of training." Certainly it has changed; yet so has the business of banking, health care, etc. For a long time, we did "training;" next we did "human resource development." Then, starting a few years ago, you could get a certificate in Human Performance Improvement and, more recently, you could become a Certified Performance Technologist. And now, hot off the press and based on the ASTD Competency Study, comes the Certified Professional in Learning and Performance (CPLP). The word "performance" is clearly today's centerpiece of our credentials and credibility.

The question that begs is: What has caused the changes in the profession, and where does that lead us? I see two main driving forces.

The Growth of the Profession

The business of training as a profession had gained significant strength by the 1970s. At one end of the spectrum of training design, criterion-referenced objectives became popularized and recognized as a way to produce near-instant results for improving training. On the other end of the spectrum, Kirkpatrick's four levels of evaluation may have come from an evolution, but it spawned a revolution. To connect the two ends of the spectrum (from objectives to evaluation), instructional design became codified and presenters became facilitators. This meant that the level of expertise increased (you could even get specialized college degrees) and, thus, no longer could just anybody do training effectively.

At the same time, there began an explosion of delivery options. In pre-history (i.e., before the mid '70s), there was the classroom, sometimes with videos (or, gasp!, 16mm movies), and occasionally programmed instruction. Then came the technology changes in our business's infrastructure: personal computers, satellites, the Internet, fiber optic networks, wireless networks--translated into "training-speak," the language includes CD-ROM, interactive one- and two-way video, Web-based training, Web conferencing, PDAs, and learning management systems (LMS). None of these were in Webster's Dictionary 30 years ago.

What all of this technology has done to the building of our profession is significant. There is now more specialized knowledge, which means more barriers for less-experienced people to do training effectively and more value for those who know how to make use of the techno-maze.

So one piece of the equation is that, as a profession, we have become more highly skilled and specialized, which has raised our value.

The second driver of change in our profession has been our customers.

"Training is the first thing to go."

When the economy or a business sector started to dip, the trainer's lament was, "Training is the first thing to go." Well, no. Training isn't the first thing to go.

In a broader sense, anything that doesn't add clear value or that can be postponed with little impact is the first thing to go. In our 35-year history span, the point was made in the early '80s and then repeated in the last few years.

In that earlier economic downturn, businesses cut back and reorganized. Being in the heart of automotive land, I saw many corporate training staffs reorganized into oblivion. In some automotive suppliers, even the corporate manager position disappeared. The trainer's lament was echoing off the walls of every ASTD meeting. But the truth was that there was just as much training going on, perhaps even more, than before the downturn.

What was lost in one training arm was more than made up for in another. Unfortunately, many people had grown comfortable in one role, and they hadn't seen the shift coming. What got cut was management training and "personal improvement" training (e.g., stress management, presentation skills, etc.). What got added was technical training for workers and supervisors in the plants. Why? Because technical training was tied to a strategic initiative--automotive productivity and quality improvement--with clear impact and measurable value.

This lesson repeated itself in the last three years. I saw a global chemical company suffering from the economic decline, but the Six Sigma strategic initiative carried on. People were still getting trained as Black Belts and Green Belts. It had, and still has, a good ROI (return on investment). In another case, I was part of a company's decision to implement an ERP (enterprise resource planning) system. This was a strategic initiative projected to have a high ROI, and the organization-wide training was well supported.

Therefore, another piece of the equation is that, as a profession, our customers have seen the value we bring to increasing their business success, especially when it's linked to strategic initiatives.

A Peek at the Future

Given these history lessons, each glimpse into the future is based on trends or patterns from our history.

Outsourcing will likely increase, especially outside the Midwest. Will business necessities move your role from in-house?

When outsourcing increases, the true performance improvement professionals gradually leave, perhaps switching jobs or retiring. The result is that the training functions are managed, coordinated, and administered by people from the line organization and HR--people outside the "training profession." They need and want to know more about their new role and rely on others (the outside professionals) to help them understand the fundamentals like objectives, instructional design, evaluation, and delivery alternatives.

Strategic initiatives will continue to be an important intervention for our profession. However, if a business outsources, then the link to a strategic initiative is through someone who is most likely from outside our profession. A strategic initiative can require roles that are very different from your mainstream role. Can you stay in touch with the opportunities and prepare for a significant role change?

Finally, back to the point about technology and alternative delivery methods--the options will continue to expand. For example, look at blended learning, one of the favorite phrases in our profession. Many organizations consider blended learning to be a curriculum where one topic is classroom-based and another topic is Web-based. But a more advanced model of blended learning has one topic with multiple delivery methods, and the whole can be managed by an LMS. For example, in a design to teach basic automotive technology, the idea is to combine some self-study of existing print material with Web-based training and classroom hands-on experience--with the whole adventure covering only two days. The message? Proficiency at designing and developing within a method is a requirement, but it's not enough.

How these glimpses converge on your role is yet to be seen. But one of the lessons is certainly to be prepared for change. Our business will change, either with or without you.

2005 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.