Five things we learned at ATD 2018

13 June 2018 |

The future of learning is digital. It demands innovation. It’s about staying relevant and being able to measure impact. But above all, the future is human. That was the message from the Association for Talent Development (ATD)’s 2018 International Conference and Exposition, which took place in San Diego, California, over three days in May 2018.

With 400 speakers across 300 sessions, it’s the largest annual event of its kind in the world. For many of the estimated 13,000 delegates this year, one of the undoubted highlights was the opportunity to hear former US President Barack Obama share his thoughts on values, resilience, leadership through change, and giving feedback, in an hour-long keynote interview with ATD CEO Tony Bingham.

So what were the key takeaways from the event?

1. The future of L&D is digital

Until now, the impact of digital technology on L&D has chiefly been about on-demand learning and low cost, highly scalable content delivery, through massive open online courses (MOOCs), e-learning authoring tools and platforms. The next stage in the digital revolution will see digital innovation influencing all aspects of the learning process. Yes, there has been a lot of hype around these technologies – but that hype is finally beginning to translate into useful and exciting applications.

Throughout the Conference and Expo, we were treated to tools that can give people ongoing, instantaneous feedback on their leadership style, or help them navigate challenges in the workplace. We were introduced to AI-powered tools that allow individuals preparing for a big presentation to benefit from instant, algorithmically-generated feedback on everything from their use of power words, to their pace, and even their reliance on filler words. Of course, a machine has no way of measuring that indefinable something that gives an individual like Obama the power to hold a room in thrall – yet.

Virtual and augmented reality are still in their infancy in many respects, but it’s already possible to see the emergence of intriguing new L&D applications. Take diversity and inclusion, for example. In the future, we might be able to use VR and AR to give individuals an opportunity to become temporarily immersed in situations they could never be exposed to otherwise – a white middle-aged, male manager might be able to virtually experience what it’s like to be a young, Asian woman in the organisation, with potentially profound results.

At the ATD, sessions from Daniel Jones and Elliott Masie sorted the helpful technologies from the hype, as they shared workplace applications of video segments, machine learning, performance support, voice-based coaching, chat bots, stretch assignments, virtual and augmented media, deep engagement, simulation, and gamification.

The time is approaching when digital tools like these will be part of our armoury, offering people an unrivalled opportunity to step outside their own realm of experience – whether it’s presenting in front of 6,000 people, or really understanding what it’s like to be LGBT+ in your organisation.

2. L&D must embrace new ways of thinking

Just as L&D is embracing new technologies, it’s also embracing new ways of thinking from other fields, whether that means tapping into design thinking, agile design methods, or the latest research from neuroscience on how the brain learns and grows.

hpc’s research partner Ken Nowack is a key researcher and contributor in this area and spoke twice at the conference. Firstly, on how emerging thinking from neuroscience is impacting how we should approach feedback. He also co-presented with Paul Zak on creating an environment of trust. Those of you who attended Ken’s session with us in October 2017 will be familiar with his research on why individuals thrive in an atmosphere of psychological safety.

3. L&D needs to stay relevant

A major theme of the event was the need for L&D to stay relevant, and make sure that the business is clear on the value that the function brings to the organisation. In an era when learning moves out of the classroom and embeds itself across the entire organisation—and when individuals are constantly honing their skills both at work and outside it, via TED Talks and podcasts—the need for L&D to measure its impact has become more pressing than ever. This is one of the big challenges for the future, and we’re a long way from having all the answers. What is clear is that training for training’s sake is not the answer, and that helping people to transfer their skills into everyday practice is the hallmark of a successful L&D programme.

4. Tone matters

Seeing Obama in the keynote conversation provided a vivid illustration to all of us that tone matters, and that a leader’s tone filters right down, whether it’s through society or through an organisation. It was a timely reminder that finding more effective ways of building high performance cultures isn’t solely about developing new processes; it’s about building better relationships between individuals, and so much of that is about the tone they strike within their conversations with one another.

5. The future is human

In the end, for all the impact of digital technology, and all the demands of analytics and measurement, we need to remember the human at the heart of the L&D function.

Marcus Buckingham, founder of the strengths movement, head of ADP Research Institute—People + Performance, and New York Times bestselling author, delivered an inspiring reminder that we are all individuals, and that work should not purely be a transaction – a straightforward deal in which we sell our time, so that outside of work we can do things that we love. Instead, he made a compelling argument for why we have to flip our thinking, and see work as a place where we can find purpose and love what we do.

He argued that we need to start using really human words about work, rather than hiding behind labels like ‘engagement’ and ‘empowerment’. “If you want to release talent, you’ve got to get in and you’ve got to engage with the language of love,” he said.

His suggestion? We should spend a week in love with our job. Write down all the work activities that you loved and those that you loathed. The activities that you love are what Buckingham calls “red threads”. And if you can manage to love what you do about 20 per cent of your week, you will thrive.

We also need to factor in those times when people don’t thrive, at least not in the traditional sense: we need to allow people to ‘fail forward’. In our society, failure is celebrated – in the media, and in social media in particular—in quite a dysfunctional way. If we want our organisations to flourish, and the people within them to flourish too, then we need to prepare people to fail. This doesn’t mean setting ourselves up for failure; rather it means acknowledging that failure is part of life, and that it doesn’t have to be a universally negative experience.

So yes, the future of L&D is digital. But more than ever, it’s also profoundly, deeply human.

Author: Kevin Hannigan, Head of Talent Consulting hpc

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