Attendees of an ASTD Pulse of the Profession webcast were recently challenged to think so far outside the box, they might not have even been able to recognize its shape. Moderator Kevin Wheeler, founder of the Future Talent Institute, the Australasian Talent Conference, and Global Learning Resources Inc., pushed the collection of panelists to explain why it's time to try something different. Jay Cross, Clark Quinn, and Harold Jarche, who have joined together collectively as TogetherLearn, were panelists on the webcast.

"The world is changing and has changed dramatically in the past year," Wheeler says. "Most of our traditional thinking about economics, finance, and corporate life has undergone a stress test - as we have begun to call it. There are many trends in the world that are changing the way we think about everything. Training is at the top of the list. I continue to hear the issues. There is not enough skilled labor, so how do we develop people more quickly? How do we develop more skilled labor?"

According to Jarche, there are several factors that lead many to believe that current structures aren't serving us very well. "In our new economy, learning and working are becoming integrated," he explains. "No longer are we going to do the work, then go off and do the learning. The learning has to become part of the workflow. Designing specific kinds of learning [solutions] that are outside of that [workflow] don't make any sense. More and more of us work in networks, or we are connected to networks. That means we can pretty much connect with anyone in the world at any time, from anywhere, and get access to the information we need."

These are difficult issues, explains Jarche, a sentiment echoed by all three panelists. "One of the issues we have with instructional systems design is that it is a rearward looking process in terms of what the training objective is. What are the training needs?" he asks. "You can build training around good practices and best practices, but you can't build it around emerging practices. We need to have a new way of looking at learning. How do we imbed that into the flow? How do people at the micro level take responsibility for that themselves? How do we, in the learning profession, at the macro level, develop systems and structures that support that?"

In most workplaces, change is happening much faster than instructional systems are designed to handle.

Adds Quinn, "The reason we are having problems is that, in most regards, we are not meeting organizational needs. The training department is focused on [training for novices]. The role of learning for practitioners and experts comes into play. You need performance support at the practitioner level. At the expert level, you need collaboration and communication.

"Even when we have those elements, we don't integrate them," he adds. "They may have portals, networks, and courses, but they aren't integrated."

Quinn suggests that if a training department is trying to take on this challenge in small steps, it is not going to work. "We need to own the entire thing," he says. "The need for formal learning drops off as you move from novice to expert, and the value of informal learning gains more importance."

Neither formal nor informal

Cross is quick to note that he doesn't look at learning as formal or informal. "When we are dealing with the novices or newbies, they need more formality," he says. "They need to pick up the lay of the land and the language and practices. Sitting people down [and making them learn] is a great indoctrination.

"Informal learning, which is often on-demand, tends to be in small chunks that are reinforced immediately. If you are looking at the productivity of the workers, the new hires are money losers. They cost you more than they bring in the door just getting up to speed. The people in the middle zone, the practitioners, are the ones who are knocking the ball out of the park."

"As a human performance technologist in another life, I was always amazed that training was a solution looking for a problem," says Jarche. "If you look at all of the human performance problems in an organization, about 15 percent of them are due to a lack of skills or knowledge. Lack of skills and knowledge is the only thing that [formal] training can handle.

"There are other kinds of learning solutions, such as performance support tools, which usually address a lack of information," Jarche adds. "It's about getting the right information to the right person at the right time. With that, you might hit another 5 to 10 percent."

The panelists suggested that as more social networking and collaborative tools become available, training organizations can start addressing lack of resources, lack of information, or just not knowing what to do and when to do it.

But Jarche warns that "if we don't embrace performance technology as a first step, which opens up the toolbox, we are going to miss [the opportunity] to use these social networks. The training folks should be there and helping. They have the tools - they just don't have the right mindset."

What happens when the CEO agrees?

When the big boss finally agrees with the concept of doing it all differently, what comes next?

Cross tells the attendees that there are a lot more costeffective ways for people to learn things. "People learn much of their job by informal means, but we haven't taken upon ourselves in the learning profession to do much with that," he explains. "Organizations [shift back and forth] from putting a lot of money into push learning - training programs - to putting more of it into pull learning - wikis, social networks, and [other resources] where people can find stuff. People involved in formal learning know how to do a lot of this stuff. So my message to the CEO is: here is a way to spend less money by changing the emphasis, and getting greater results."

Training is the most expensive solution, Quinn suggests, so if you select training as your default solution, you have automatically chosen the most expensive solution. "And that makes no sense," Quinn says.

But, as it turns out, a lot of people don't know what they don't know, suggests Wheeler. "And if I don't know that, I can't go and find it on my own. How do you deal with that issue?"

Adds Jarche: "The role of the training department needs be to help people become good self-learners, collaborators, and good network workers."

Wheeler asks: "How do you know if you are a good self learner?"

Quinn explains that a critical aspect is to address the learning ability of learners themselves. "The best investment may be to help learners become better self learners," he says. "Then you can provide more pull resources and trim down the full courses you need to provide. In the long term, you spend less money and you are developing your people in a reproducible, viable way."

That is easy to propose, but may not be a smooth path, argues Cross. "Culturally, people expect things to be provided to them - even crammed down their throats," he says. "It's difficult to go from that mindset to becoming an inquiring do-it yourselfer. We have seen it happen in Silicon Valley, but mostly as a result of loyalty to one's profession and not an employer."

An important concept for knowledge workers is personal knowledge management, says Jarche. "Internally, we all need processes by which we sort knowledge and categorize it. We make it explicit, and we make it possible to retrieve it. It doesn't always have to be electronic, but there are some great web tools to do this. From a training department's perspective, this isn't training. In some ways, the goal of a good training manager is to put yourself out of work."

Wheeler asks: "But is this just a cop out? Can employees legitimately claim that this is just another way for an organization to spend less on their development?"

Says Quinn: "There is an issue here about an organization's learning culture and whether they share [knowledge]. You can't separate the organizational strategy from the organization's learning culture. You have to make it explicit that these are the sharing cultures that we value. You can't just say, here are the resources, so just go selfhelp. It has to be a part of a cultural shift."

Cross agrees: "You have to have a strategy and you have to have a culture, absent either one of them, the organization is down the tubes. Having a set of values is what really resonates, and gives people something to buy into. We are asking people to do things that they feel good about. One of the things that remains the responsibility of top leadership is the setting of the vision and values. This is the ideal time to redeploy and to do things that are more practical. This is the time for the training department to come out of the shadows as a backwater in the HR department and to take on a leadership role. It's time to add some truth to the statement 'people are our most important asset,' instead of it being just a line in the annual report."