Jane Hart: Why We Should Drop the ‘L’ word from Workplace Learning


Jane Hart is one of the leading voices in how learning is changing. For over 20 years she’s advised leading organisations on how to improve their performance. Jane is the also the Founder of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies (C4LPT), where she runs the very popular Top 100 Tools for Learning list from the votes of learning professionals worldwide. Her blog is a go-to place for insights on performance and learning. Recently she’s been focusing on Modern Workplace Learning, the title of her new book.

We caught up with her to find out how learning is changing.  First off, let’s stop calling it learning. stop calling people learners, and stop calling it an L&D department. Change is coming…

You recently wrote a blog post on how the L&D world is splitting in two. It got quite a reaction. Why did you write it and why did people get so fired up?

I’ve written a lot about moving forward and change and what the modern workplace looks like, so I was a little bit surprised by the reaction, but it is what I was seeing. I work with organisations all around the world and I’m tapping into what’s going on, and I could see that things were dividing in two in L&D. There were people talking about change but not doing very much about it, just tweaking what they’re doing, just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic as Bob Mosher said.

Then there are other organisations who are saying we need to fundamentally rethink what we’re doing, it’s not about tweaking what we’re doing, we’ve got to make big changes. As one of my clients said “If we don’t change we are going to be changed”. They’re doing things differently. It’s slow but they have a different mindset, they are radically rethinking what they need to do to be appropriate for today’s workforce. So on one hand you have people saying, well, let’s just add a little social and informal to our training but not really doing anything.

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So these are the two different approaches I’m seeing, and in a later post I went on to say that this is a mindset thing. This is not a continuum, it’s not about gently modifying what we’re doing, it’s about rethinking our role as an L&D Department or Learning Department in an organisation.

For some people in L&D teams, this shift towards workplace learning is scary – should it be?

People who are worried about it cutting down on their role – I think they’re wrong. I think it’s actually about expanding their role. There will always be a role for formal stuff, making courses, facilitating – I don’t think that stuff is ever going away. But I think there’s potential for doing other things, so the role becomes more about enabling and supporting in other ways, working directly with managers, teams and individuals. It means having a more personalised approach, working to create a more personal, bespoke learning experience for people, rather than the one size fits all approach. Also it means becoming more performance consultants, so really understanding problems and helping people to solve performance problems, by themselves or with helps.

There’s also a role in helping people learn more effectively, to become better professional learners. So these are all new skills and opportunities, and maybe some traditional trainers or instructional designers may not want these roles, but if If L&D chooses to take that role it’ll become a more valuable part of the business. Part of the issue right now is that L&D is not seen as valuable, it’s painted into a corner as the training department, whereas I think they could move to be more about business support role. It can open up a lot more potential for L&D.

Part of the problem is we call it L&D but really most of the time it’s just a training department pushing out courses and controlling it in the LMS. The ‘L’ word gets in the way – maybe just call yourselves business support. It’s part of changing the mindset, move into enabling, nurturing, supporting, rather than creating, managing, delivering training.

What things could L&D (or whatever it should be called) be doing differently?

In terms of modernising content, it’s about making things shorter, more continuous, not one off events, more visual for example, so if you’re going to create things as a training department, create things that are in more modern and appropriate formats.

But really it’s less about content creation and it’s more about individuals — let’s not call them learners — and helping them to understand that the training department can’t provide everything you need. In the olden days maybe you could be trained for life in certain jobs and be done, but now there’s just an ongoing mass of information, and no learning department can cover it all for you. So you have to stay on top of it as an individual, not just as an employee, but for professional development. There’s no such thing as a job for life any more, we all have to keep up with new tools and skills, and I think in doing so organisations will be more likely to support people who want to move into new roles.

I think learning and development is up to everyone now, it’s not just up to learning departments. People are already doing this, for many people this is just natural. For some people maybe they are still expecting to be trained in the job, but knowledge work requires people to be constantly upskilling themselves.

What are organisations who embrace modern workplace learning doing differently?

For me it’s two things: using networks and helping individuals.

Internal social networks are where people are learning whilst they are working, so some organisations doing are helping their people to use these platforms and understand their value – not in a forced way but gently encouraging their people to get involved.

They’re also helping individuals, helping them to create their own plans, source their own development opportunities, and helping them to align with job performance or team objectives, and then helping them to evidence what they’ve done and learned, and what they can do now as a result. So they’re moving away from one size fits all competence plans, they are helping people to tap into flows of information to help them to build up their knowledge. 

So those are two key ways, it’s definitely a mindset change, it’s a big shift away from command and control to support and enable.

What are some of the barriers to modern workplace learning?

The barriers are both the mindset in terms of managers who might think that spending time on say Twitter is a waste of time, not seeing the value of learning that comes from non traditional approaches –  but also individuals who might not see the value either. So we need to address the culture barriers.

Lots of senior leaders buy into this approach very easily. Mid level managers can have more difficulty, maybe they see learning as more instructional. But you need to work with them, help them to understand and value it. It’s not about the obsession with completion, it’s not about ticking a box, it’s about building a habit of continuous learning. Elearning and the LMS is all about completion, onto the next thing, but that mindset is part of what’s holding a lot of people back.

L&D will be changed by people who are already doing this stuff. I’m already seeing people work around their L&D department because they’re not getting the service they require – so we have to move out of this completion mentality and focusing on pushing ways forward. We have to help people to get beyond the idea that only courses have value – you don’t need a certificate to prove what you’ve learned – just show that you can do your job better. Even so there will be people with firmly entrenched views – for some people formal is the only thing with validity. But things will change, five years ago organisations were banning social media but now that’s changed.

The aim should be to get to the point where learning is an unconscious process, we’re not talking about it as learning, we’re just using things to get on and be productive and successful every day.

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What’s the role of managers?

The key for managers and for team leaders is to value all this stuff and to make time for it. If they’re giving people 30 minutes a day to build a daily learning habit, they can ask people to show the value by sharing what they’ve learned, alert the rest of the team, give something back. And for managers, they have to be part of it too, they have to set the tone and build up their own habits. They have to constantly ask – what did you learn today?

What do you need to think about when using social tools as part of workplace learning?

Twitter and Facebook are external social tools so people use them in their own ways. When organisations introduce internal social networks, they can’t expect that people will use them in the same ways – they don’t know if they are being monitoring or tracked – so this is as much about the organisational culture.

So you have to be careful when you’re introducing an internal workplace network tool. Some organisations have put in leaderboards to encourage people to share, but this means you just get loads of stuff, people oversharing and it’s not about quantity. So for me it involves working with a team and helping them think about what would be useful to share. Don’t just put up a sharing platform and say ‘share what you like’ – put it in the context of a team working together, get into the team, model the behaviours, keep it focused on work and helping the team get smarter. There’s a big job there to show people what it’s all about, get into the weeds, help people to see how best to share – give people time to get the idea. I find that upfront you have to do a lot of work to get it moving, but then you should start to withdraw. If you’re in L&D – let the team just get on with it – at first you might need to be quite hands on though.

L&D need to have social skills themselves. They have to practice what they preach, they have to show the value of social collaboration for themselves in how they work and share first before they can encourage people to do it. Being a member of a community and facilitating it takes time to master, it’s a subtle skill that takes time. So for L&D this can be a new role and skill to develop.

You’ve talked about building daily learning habits. What can people to do build habits?

The best way to start is to set time aside every day. For me, it just happens in the background.  For instance, with Twitter, I’m always aware of the alerts coming in on the corner of my screen, but I know that’s not the approach for everyone. But I think if you just spend 30 minutes a day, that works out the equivalent of 10 training days a year – that’s an amazing amount of time to invest in staying on top of things. It’s up to you to pick a time, but I would set an alarm to get into the habit. But you have to find the right pattern for you, what’s right for your work patterns.

The second thing is to reflect on it – take 30 seconds to take notes, what are you learning, what are you taking in. Reflective practice is a really important skill, we should all be more conscious of what we’re learning and what we’re extracting from our information that’s useful.

It’s also really important that you have things coming to you as part of your daily learning habits. You can’t spend 30 minutes looking for content – you need to use tools to filter and to push things to you, be that tweets or blog posts. So get content pushed to you.

What are your personal tools and habits to keep informed?

I use Tweetdeck which helps me to watch the data across a range of columns, that’s how I manage Twitter. I also use Feedly to manage my blog subscriptions – I follow over 200. It’s then about applying personal filters. I read headlines and filter, then I read abstracts and filter, and if it looks good at that level I’ll read it.

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So you have to trust your own personal filters. There’s no such thing as information overload, just filter failure. Another thing that works is to just delete. If I fall behind, say if I’m away for a few days, I’ll just delete it all rather than try and catch up. If something is that important, it will come back around anyway because someone will amplify it.

I also regularly reduce the number of people I follow or blogs I read – you have to keep asking are you getting value from this person or this blog, and if not, delete – it’s your time. Harold Jarche talks about personal knowledge management, and it’s an important skill. You have to have a good sense of your own filters and keep updating them and sense checking. It’s a constant process, that never stops. Also sometimes you have to go out and look for things too, bring in different voices and allow for serendipity.

So how will you change and build new workplace learning habits?

Get Jane’s latest book, Modern Workplace Learning here.

Join Jane’s Programme on Modern Workplace Learning here.

Follow Jane on Twitter @c4lpt