Trends from Learning Cafe Unconference Sydney 2017

trends from learning cafe sydney main2

The Learning Cafe Unconference event is not like most conferences. It is focused on group discussions, not presentations and case studies. This is one of the reasons that the organiser Jeevan Joshi restricts numbers to the event: discussions don’t scale. The discussion-based format means that as a participant you have to work harder.

The event is not a ‘pure unconference’, where the participants define the sessions at the beginning of the day. Jeevan pre-organises the topics and questions and gives the event an overall framework.

Personally, I find writing blog posts like this one is a great way to synthesise and bring together experiences and ideas from the day. There are many concurrent sessions throughout the day so my experience of the event represents only a fraction of what actually happened.

xAPI is becoming mainstream

xAPI is becoming more important to what we do at Sprout Labs and so I chose xAPI as a focus for my day. Bumping into me in a corridor at one point, Jeevan asked me why I was going to an xAPI session when I already knew all about it. I explained that I wanted to get a sense of how other people are experiencing xAPI and hear the questions that L&D people are asking.

If xAPI is a new term for you, it’s simply a new, flexible way of reporting on learning. The data doesn't just have to come from an LMS. Employees can add learning data from a mobile app, or it can come from an online course, or your intranet. A nice example someone spoke about during a session was around meeting compliance requirements. Instead of being met with a training solution, the employees’ workflow was changed so as to integrate the requirements into the workflow. The steps and decisions were then recorded using xAPI as evidence for regulators.

The adoption of xAPI has been slow overall. It’s been added to all the major authoring systems but LMSs have been slow to adopt it. In most organisations, the LMS has been seen as a central repository of learning data, and it makes logical sense that this is where xAPI data should be stored too. But for most LMS providers, adding xAPI to their LMS means a total rethink of how data is managed. What happens instead is that the organisation’s xAPI Learning Record Store (LRS) becomes the new central place to store learning data instead of the LMS. In a modern learning ecosystem LMSs are becoming just one of the sources of learning data that is added to an LRS.  


what is lrs

A great question that came out of an xAPI session, ‘Who drives it – the individual, or the organisation?’

Usually, it’s the organisation who puts in place the infrastructure, and then in a perfect world, there would be systems to track learning in the workflow, e.g. apps that ask an employee what they learned today. Part of the power of xAPI is that it can be used to track informal learning, and this needs to be more learner-driven.  

xAPI at this stage is about ‘learning data’. People are only now just starting to link learning data to the organisation, team and individual performance data.    

We live in a data-driven world

In the afternoon there was a great ‘learning labs’ sessions run by Andrew de Graaff on learning data. A facilitator opens the discussion by taking a problem they are seeing in their business and asking the audience to help them explore possible solutions. The overall theme for the session was how in learning we often collect data but don't do anything with it. We don't mine it for insights.  

Quickly the discussion came around to issues of how hard it is to link a single business outcome and business metrics to a ‘simple training intervention’. You might notice that I used the word ‘training’. Learning is complex – it's what I call a ‘wicked problem’, as it’s hard to link a ‘simple training intervention’ with a complex outcome that involves many factors. Just doing training often doesn’t make any real difference. This means that learning and development approaches have to change and that L&D has to work beyond just courses to look at processes, resources and infrastructure. This is part of the move to focusing on capability development instead of just learning.  

Focusing on data early in the process of designing learning programs means that the conversations about a program change. All the factors that affect the outcomes need to be considered and this naturally opens up the conversation for approaches beyond training.   

Our learners need to be at the centre – the learner as consumer

A theme that came up many times during the day was that organisations need to put learners at the centre and think about them as clients of L&D programs. L&D is an activity often driven by what the organisation needs, not what the employee needs. Which is sort of odd because it’s the employee that needs to learn and change.

A nice example of this is where training is organised around how to use a system and then there might be another section on policies. This is an organisation-driven approach. A more learner-driven approach would be to focus the learning experience on what tasks the employee needs to do, which is often a combination of using systems and applying policies. If learners are going to be thought of as consumers then organisations need to provide them with more choice and control about what, how, and when they learn.   

It came up that the way we learn at work needs to be more like the way we learn in our personal lives. At home, we look for solutions on Google. We watch how-to videos on YouTube (that are often shot on a phone). We connect with peers in communities that share the same passions. Nothing happens in a straight line – we don’t read an article, watch a tutorial and suddenly become an expert. We take the time to experiment and explore. In our workplaces, learning is locked away in our LMS, often in linear modules. It’s designed to be pushed out to employees instead of being accessed just in time.       

The future of learning is focusing on impact

Towards the end of the day, there was a great hackathon session called How to make a measurement of workplace learning effectiveness & impact – cheaper, better & faster. Jeevan posed a series of questions. The group split into three, talked, voted and then presented back. My group had the question, ‘How do we increase value?’

Early on in the conversation, there was a nice reframing of the terminology from ‘value’ to ‘impact’. I’ve found that focusing on impact is a great way to reframe discussions about learning programs. In the past, I've done a short podcast on the matter: My favourite learning word: impact.

Three other ideas from the session:

1) Focus on getting to the root cause of problems by asking why the problem exists.   

L&D is getting better at moving away from being an order taker for training programs and really questioning why learning is needed in the first place. They’re looking more at holistic performance solutions.

2) Focus on what success looks like.

L&D is often seen as being reactive and not strategically focused. A simple but powerful way to refocus the discussion with stakeholders is to ask:

Imagine we are in a meeting three years from today and we are looking back over those three years. Assuming the program has transformed the performance of the organisation, what does that look like?

3) Don't wait for people to come to L&D with a problem. Go out to sections of your business and talk about trends and ideas for improvement.    

Technology and consulting company CEB has found that most successful business-to-business salespeople do not focus on solving problems. They focus on bringing new insights and new ways of working that help either to improve results or decrease costs for the business. This same approach can be used internally in organisations. In a later blog post, I hope to explore this approach more.  

We work in teams, we should be learning in teams

Paul Batfay ran a great session on moving from individual development plans to team development plans. Most of the work we do is in teams so it makes sense for more development to be done as a team. Part of the model is that someone needs to take a lead in the development process, which would solve many of the problems with learning not being transferred into practice. This would work really well where a team leader has skills and knowledge that the rest of the team needs. If it were new knowledge, a facilitator would need to be brought in, and the leader would need to support the learning process.

The approach might not work in all situations. For instance, it may work better in an operational team than it would in a cross-functional project team. Paul has written a great blog post about the approach at https://freefacilitator.com/2017/02/12/team/.

All Learning Cafe Unconference events are packed with great ideas and inspiration. What I’ve written here represents only a small portion of my pile of notes.