Brad Zomick

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Obama, ‘mind blowing’ developments, and transforming for relevance: L&D takeaways from ATD 2018


If any business hadn’t yet discovered that modernizing workplace learning is crucial for success, this year’s ATD International Conference and Exposition served as the ultimate wake-up call. After all, even the former President Barack Obama was there to say so.

Obama addressed the confab in San Diego just months after former first lady Michelle Obama spoke to another workplace learning conference.

Every year the ATD gathering, the largest of its kind, illuminates the biggest trends reshaping professional development. This year, it attracted more than 13,000 participants from 92 countries, according to ATD.

To provide you with big takeaways and guidance that all Learning & Development professionals should know, we reached out to two prominent leaders in the field: Tim Collins, learning solutions senior program manager for T-Mobile, and Tamar Elkeles, co-author of Chief Talent Officer.

Obama on the importance of learning from the ‘outer ring’

Collins said his team stood in line for “three or four hours” in hopes of getting good seats for the conversation between Obama and ATD CEO Tony Bingham.

Obama spoke about breaking up change into component parts to push it through, Collins said. He also discussed the importance of everyone learning from each other, and ensuring people are given the opportunity to take on leadership roles. He explained that as president, “even in the Situation Room, he wasn’t just talking to people at the table,” Collins said. “He was speaking to the people supporting them, getting their thoughts.”

In its summary of the conversation, ATD noted that by getting people on the “outer ring” of those meetings involved in the conversation, Obama was not only tapping into their knowledge. “I was also sending a message to the principals that they should be listening to their staff and asking for feedback,” Obama said.

Elkeles was especially struck by the ex-president’s message that, as she put it, “It’s not about your title and it’s not about the job. It’s about what you do, who you are as a person, and how you contribute. It’s about your effort, passion, and interest. That really differentiates people.”

Obama gave the example of a young Asian-American man who was assigned to work in a small Midwestern town in which he had no experience or connections. Although it wasn’t easy at first, the young man persevered and did a great job.

“The reason he had been successful was not because of my 10-point plan for dealing with healthcare or economics,” ATD quoted Obama as saying. “The reason was because he was in possession of a set of values that he carried into that situation, transmitted by his parents.”

Obama explained, “The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate the old-fashioned, homespun values” his mother and grandparents taught him.

For Elkeles, this message speaks to “something that we’re learning more and more about. It’s not just the skill set, it’s about the values that you have and the way you treat people — that’s what differentiates talent today.” As L&D professionals, Elkeles adds, “we’ve been focused a lot on building great skill sets. But the difference is more around: How do you get people to live their values and think differently?”

‘Exciting’ technological changes show L&D data

While the big-picture reasons for developing talent quite strong, Collins said, businesses often struggle when it comes to measuring the effects of its learning efforts and showing return on investment (ROI). In fact, LinkedIn found that L&D is top of mind for 80 percent of executive teams, and 90 percent believe it can help close a skills gap, but only 8 percent see the business impact of L&D, and only 4 percent see the ROI.

“Finding ways to gather a lot of big data, to get the measurement, has always been difficult in the L&D space,” Collins said.

But at the conference, it became clear that a new era of data and visualizations can change all that, Collins said. That’s largely because “xAPI is taking over as far as what we need to be looking at,” he said.

As explains it:

“The Experience API (or xAPI) is a new specification for learning technology that makes it possible to collect data about the wide range of experiences a person has (online and offline). This API captures data in a consistent format about a person or group’s activities from many technologies.”

(Editor’s Note: Learning technologists with coding skills can learn about Pathgather’s xAPI integration schema here. )

With xAPI, data no longer have to be siloed into separate areas. “You get pretty much anything you want as long as you have someone to write the code for you,” Collins said. “It’s opening us up to get the data we never thought possible before — not just in e-learning courses, but connecting to actual, tangible real life experiences.”

Businesses can see not just what courses their employees complete, but also the learning offerings they begin, experiences they engage in, and more. “I can get data on that whole trail,” Collins said.

This information can help him, and other L&D leaders, guide employees to content that will help them, “which is pretty exciting,” he said.

And all this helps businesses see what they’re achieving. “I can give you concrete ROI on what we’re doing, and show it to you,” Collins said. The data is pulled together into visualizations that make sense, instead of traditional spreadsheets. “Plugging it into all the systems” he uses, Collins said.“I can give you the learning and business results in the same snapshot. It’s just mind blowing.”

Read: How internal mobility, retention, and performance show the ROI of learning

At the conference, Collins also ran a session, titled “Getting Back to Grassroots: How to Effortlessly Implement an Enterprise Learning Solution.” In it, he told the story of T-Mobile’s creating The Hub, its internal talent development platform built on Pathgather.

The new role for L&D

The ATD International Conference and Exposition is an important time for L&D leaders to share ideas with each other about the challenges they’re facing and solutions they’re finding. Some of the top talent development executives gathered for a meeting of ATD CTDO Next, a membership group focused on “technology, science and the future of work.”

“There was a lot of really good information about ways of working around our learning transformation, and specifically what we as learning professionals need to do to deal with all the changes happening in the workplace,” Elkeles said. “We need to think about how we’re ​evolving and leveraging our role in new ways​.”

As workers are given more freedom to select and curate their own learning paths, “We don’t manage learning anymore,” Elkeles added. “Our role is really different. How do we transition to make sure we’re staying relevant in our companies?”

For example, ATD CTDO Next “had a whole session on creating compelling learning environments,” including collaborative spaces and research about how even room ceiling height can inspire learning and innovative thinking, said Elkeles, who serves as a Pathgather adviser.

AI, VR and human skills

Among the technologies getting more attention at the 2018 ATD confab was the growth of artificial intelligence (AI), Elkeles said. “People are talking about how to use the technology for training.”

It’s something she touched on in “Myths and Realities: Today’s Learning Agenda Exposed,” her own session at ATD: “Nearly one-third of today’s work can be displaced by technology,” she pointed out in a slide. “Social and emotional skills, creativity and high-level cognitive capabilities will be increasingly important.”

So workplaces have impetus to develop these skills among their employees. As emerging technologies lead to the automation of more work people are now doing, “We have to be prepared for a world in which we’re going to be working together with robots,” Elkeles said. Steadily, more of the “repetitive tasks we don’t want to do” will be handed off to robots, but there will be plenty of new jobs involving strategic skills and higher-level thinking.”

Learning professionals should being to embrace these technologies as new ways to deliver learning, she says. Elkeles told her attendees that Toyota is using virtual reality to engage candidates during career fairs; the U.S. government is using VR for onboarding; UPS and Walmart use it to train drivers, and Shell is using it to train engineers.

Sprawling L&D ‘partner community’

As informative as the sessions can be, the packed floor filled with vendors — this year, more than 460 exhibitors participated — can be particularly educational.

“It’s an awesome experience to go through that expo,” Elkeles said. “Because you’re really seeing all of what I call the L&D partner community, and we can’t build great learning organizations without them. Whether it’s software, programs or systems, you get a sense of who’s out there in the space and who could be an effective partner.”

(Pathgather is one of the exhibitors.)

The entire experience of the ATD conference and expo “provides perspective,” Elkeles said. “Sometimes it helps validate what you’re doing in your organization, and sometimes it helps you learn from others so you can head in a different direction.”

And for L&D pros like her, it’s an important time to engage in the process she’s all about. Attending ATD ​ICE ​is educational, she says, “and because our jobs are focused on learning, we are passionate about this space and always want to learn!”

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