Learning at Large Ep4: Decentralizing L&D to support a successful learning culture

In this episode, I talk to Lars Hyland, Chief Learning Officer at Totara Learning. Lars is an advocate for the positive impact that technology can have on education and learning. We talked about how to demonstrate business value early on to control groups, identifying the right business problems to solve, knowing when to push back the role of a learning team, and how to decentralize learning and development to support a more scalable learning culture.

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About Lars

Lars supports over 16 million learners and 1,700 organizations through technology solutions. Lars brings over 27 years of experience in the design and implementation of large-scale learning programs and performance improvement solutions. He has worked with a wide range of international organizations across most sectors. Lars has seen trends come and go, but like me, has always been an advocate of people-centered learning.

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Podcast transcript

Simon: Lars, to get started, can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role at Totara Learning?  

Lars: Sure. So, I’m the Chief Learning Officer at Totara. We’re an organization that was born—actually, quite globally, stretching from Wellington, New Zealand to Brighton, where we are speaking together, which was back in 2010. So, not that long ago really. And we’ve grown as an organization offering a learning platform. This learning platform is an open source technology that is now used by 1,700 organizations around the world. We’ve got 16 million learners who will learn something through this platform in various ways, and the principles that we sort of work by is to shift the power and control and the ability to meet your organization’s learning needs much more firmly over the organization, and ultimately the learner.

So, our strapline is ‘freedom to learn’. It’s about freedom, and that freedom is delivered through having an open flexible technology, or framework or structure, that allows you to innovate around that.

Simon: Speaking to seal those around those kind of things.

Lars: Yes.

Simon: And it’s really to pick apart the challenges of providing learning support engagement to lots of people.

Lars: The old hierarchal structure of an organization is one way, but it’s certainly not the only way. And, you know, an organization is now a much more fluid term than it used to be.

Simon: So, who decides—like, if you move down from a top-down hierarchy—who’s deciding what learning people need? I mean, you’ve talked about the outcome of getting away from vanilla initiatives and taking a more personal learning experience. How deep do you go to make that effective? And then, who’s making the call on what is most effective for those niche needs around the business?

Lars: Well, it needs to be decentralized, doesn’t it? I think through to those who are in the business and are fulfilling particular functions for them, for that business—there’s a shift from just being case training, abstracted away from your everyday work, and swinging that much more towards “just in time” performance support built into the workflow. Having learning opportunities or support pop up for you as and when you need. And that could pop up in the form of colleagues being aware of things alongside you, and it can also be some automated hints, tips, and direction to more formal learning requirements that might be out in the “elsewhere” across the ecosystem that you have, the learning infrastructure that you have.

‘There’s a shift from just being case training, abstracted away from your everyday work, and swinging that much more towards “just in time” performance support built into the workflow.” @larshyland on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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So, the learning platform that you choose has to be multifaceted. You have the ability to really plug in or shape it around those needs—and not just shape it once, but reshape it constantly. And I think that’s quite a shift in thinking for many people, because we’re always locked in a project cycle. And if you talk to any learning technology services company or software company, they often are responding to projects. They’re not really necessarily brought in to participate properly as part of a deeper strategic rethink.

Simon: That’s an interesting point. You’re seeing more and more learning being created in-house, which I guess was almost that issue of understanding the business needs and the way you’re going to learn those messages.

Lars: There’s a tendency to oversimplify what’s actually involved in shifting usually a fairly large group of people from place A, in terms of their behaviors and knowledge and skills, to place Z. Unfortunately, you could argue quite a bit of simplistic compliance type training and regulatory type training. It’s all about ticking the box. And it’s not about actually affecting some sort of behavior rethink.

Simon: What’s the role of L&D or Chief Learning Officer in making sure that the experiences are holistic and effective in the way they’re being conceived, whilst allowing other people to be involved in that process to scale it?

Lars: Yes, indeed. That comes back to thinking about the architecture of both the tools that you make available, both to your own, sort of, expert team. So, I think an L&D team, as it might be called now, they need to be populated by true learning professionals—people who have actually recognized the range of skills that are needed in being able to advise and then design and coach and support people in creating a meaningful learning experience.

But the other end of the scale—when it’s about identifying the knowledge gap and identifying a small sort of shift in behavior, and being able to meaningfully put some assets together and an experience together—that will shift that. A lot of it’s down to some fundamental skills, like being able to write or communicate with clarity. And you can do that effectively, or you can do it really poorly, with very simple tools—you know, a document, a PowerPoint slide. etc. So, it’s not about having fancy technology to be able to make that benefit. “Garbage in, garbage out” still applies. So, it’s about those root skills of being able to articulate the right gap, and then being able to support it with the right mix of activities or assets.

Simon: Whose responsibility do you think it is to identify the problem that’s there?

Lars: It’s a joint collective process, isn’t it? So, a learning team may be spread out across the organization, but they are a team. They too often are order takers, so someone else is making the decision that they need some training and support. So, someone else is making a decision that new systems are going in or a new process is being put in place or new product is being launched. What the learning teams should be doing is ensuring that learning is built into that thinking more, or fundamentally rather than seen as an afterthought. Because in the process of actually trying to design something, you actually can unpick and improve what the actual workflow is or the product is or how the system works.

“What the learning teams should be doing is ensuring that learning is built into that thinking more, or fundamentally rather than seen as an afterthought.” @larshyland on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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Simon: How do you think—I mean, you know, it’s been a successful launch and the business goals have been met. Everyone’s giving each of the high fives. How could you go back to look at what that performance improvement impact is of the L&D team?

Lars: One thing I would strongly recommend people do—and I’ve managed to achieve this on some projects, not all, in the past—is being able to set up control groups. People think of experiment as, like, risks. But actually, it’s about properly understanding the landscape that you’re in and then controlling for variables that, actually, you can’t control.

Simon: I guess it’s something that’s an ongoing journey across the business, to understand how your workforce responds to learning with a certain type. This typical pressure for people to respond to a deadline from the rest of the business—how can they, by themselves, kind of keep ongoing R&D to make things better and better?

Lars: I think it comes back to enable yourselves to move quickly and to demonstrate that early value that you’re adding, because over time, that shifts people’s perceptions into the learning teams being consultative and business thinking and very much interested in meeting—aligned with the goals that the business teams themselves are structured around. There’s often disconnects, aren’t there, between what gets reported back. As if, “we roll this training out, it took six months, everyone completed it, and everyone got 90 percent, everyone knows what they’re doing.” On the ground, that may not actually be the case. Several may have resented the experience; they maybe got the pass mark, but they’ve just fallen back into old habits.

Worst case is that you launch a learning program and you have thousands of people complete it, and then it makes no difference or perceivable difference to business performance. Well, really, what have you achieved? You’ve just wasted a whole bunch of people’s time, seemingly. And if the rest of business doesn’t even perceive that as an issue, it’s just part of what you do—so you’re blindly doing this, then. No one’s really winning on that; no one’s really learning, and the organization itself isn’t improving itself.

If you take the different scenario, which is where it is taken very, very seriously and it’s put into the heart of what people are doing—i.e., it’s heart and soul of rolling out a change—is that learning experiences are a critical part in that. Well then, the data you’re collecting is going to be watched carefully and monitored carefully by everybody. And then, it’s down to your decisions around those tools you’re using, the technology, and the platforms that you have as to how you can share that data and will use that data to help nudge people in the right direction, support people who are flagging, allow people to race ahead. If you can personalize, make it more adaptable with some type of experience that they have, so that no one individual person is left on their own, you’re enabling people to deliver the value that they can to the organization, at the pace and the level that they can.

“It’s down to your decisions around those tools you’re using and the platforms that you have, as to how you can share that data and use it to help nudge people in the right direction, support people who are flagging” @larshyland on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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Simon: Say you’ve got 200,000 people in a business. Where do you start from, to think about personal learning for a huge organization?

Lars: It’s daunting and it’s difficult and it’s challenging, and you need help—you know, having a good learning platform that allows you to manage that effectively. So, it’s two things, isn’t it? Any organization has goals and objectives and missions that are independent of any one individual person. So, there is a formality around that. You can’t get away from it, and it’s a formal learning directive. That said, at the other end of the spectrum is the fact that when we think about learning—well actually, learning is a very individual experience, and people learn in different ways at different paces. Well, they think they’ve learned in different ways.

Simon: What you mean by that—that they think they learn different ways?

Lars: Well, that’s another little Pandora’s box, because the training world and the learning world is full of pseudo-science almost. There’s a lot of things that we latch on to and may be learning styles or other quite easy-to-understand frameworks and models and tools, and we then take them as gospel. And a part of that is because it’s easy to do that. And it’s partly because many of us, you know, don’t necessarily critique them or have the actual skills yet to critique them to actually go… Well, hang on a minute. Actually, what’s behind this—in many cases, not a lot is behind it. And yet it’s allowed to pervade and it’s allowed to sort of be part of it. So, you end up with people going around saying, “Well, I learn visually” or “I learn kinesthetically.” No, you don’t. Everyone learns in a multi-modal way. And if you look at the research behind it, you really look at the research behind it, you recognize what it’s really all about.

We have different preferences, which is different than actually a deep, deep thing or saying, “Well, you actually learn differently to me.” Providing you understand that learning doesn’t happen in an instant—that it happens over time, that repetition is critical to repeated exposure, repeated practice—deliberate practice is a critical part of any learning experience. If you start to understand those things, then what you build and design—actually, it’s quite difficult to do it in a way that it sits on its own in isolation from what everybody, an individual, is doing in their job. You sort of have to include the manager. You have to include their peers. You have to include the tools that they’re going to use on a day-to-day basis, and you start to realize that what you’re building, is more holistic—that there will be formal elements. And then, this is the way to push all the buttons. But we’re not just going to do it abstractly. This is built into the tools that you’re going to use anyway. So, you can pull it up anytime you need, through to reinforcement at later points after any of these interventions.

“It happens over time, that repetition is critical to repeated exposure, repeated practice—deliberate practice is a critical part of any learning experience.” @larshyland on the #LearningatLarge podcast

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Simon: Lars, if you were an aspiring CLO looking at how to manage learning in your organization, what one piece of advice would you share, having supported 16 million learners, 1,700 organizations?

Lars: A chief learning officer type of role—it’s not ubiquitous. Not everybody has that type of role. And if you are in that type of role, hopefully there’s already recognition in that organization of the strategic importance of learning. So, my advice really is that technology is a fundamental pillar in the learning experience that we’re trying to design and build, and that is not one thing—it’s multiple things. And reframe your definition of technology from being AI chat bots and VR and the sort of things which are emerging in really exciting directions, but think also in terms of a book as a piece of technology, or a film or a video, or even environments in which people are working. If you think about it holistically, then I think the chances are much higher that you’re going to be nurturing and building and rebuilding learning experiences that are going to be effective, not just efficient.

Simon: What book or resource would you recommend to other learner leaders?

Lars: Well, I’m going to recommend two, for two different reasons. The first book actually is more about seeing where this is all heading. And it’s inspirational, really. It’s actually a piece of fiction by an author called Neal Stephenson. The book’s called The Diamond Age. Its subtitle is A young girl’s primer. What that actually refers to is that whole thread in the story is about how a young girl learns, and how that experience is described there. It’s set in what felt like 10 years ago, quite futuristic. But if you read it now and look at what’s happening around us right now in terms of the debates around the impact of AI and automation, interacting through voice immersive technologies, all of these things are coalescing around something that looks increasingly like the way that is described in that book. And it brings out lots of social impacts. So, if you want to have a bit of inspiration that will make you think more deeply about what we’re all about here, about designing effective learning experiences, I’d check that book out.

The other book is brand new, actually this year. It’s called Brave New Work and it’s by a guy called Aaron Dignan. He is someone who’s worked with quite a range of organizations to think more deeply about the structure of organizations. So, this is not just about thinking in isolation about learning—which is actually, when you think about it, it’s quite nebulous. This is about organizational structure and thinking about organizations; he terms it an operating system. How does your organization operate, and what are the systems inside it that define the operating system? That extends to the culture that evolved from that, because that system creates behaviors—it’s influenced by behaviors. It has I.T. systems in it, it has workflows and processes and interactions.

How is your organization structured? What is your organization “operating system”? And this book actually brings that alive in quite good ways. He points out a whole list of typical things that I imagine many people will recognize as what they would experience in a large organization or even semi-large organization. You know, when you see people behave with each other and interact with each other and the frustrations that you have in work—your managers sort of always advocating caution, be reasonable with what you’re doing, don’t move quickly, think carefully about what you’re doing, avoid embarrassment, that sort of thing. Closer to home, for us as learning people, is like when you’re training new workers—when they’re new coming into the organization—too often, it’s that they don’t get the right information. It’s incomplete, it’s misleading—you know, holding conferences and meetings when you’ve got actual critical work to be done. So, there are there are things that I’m sure people would recognize—it’s like, “This happens all the time!” And it feels dysfunctional.

Now, what he points out is a whole long list. I’d recommend looking at it. Actually, that list verbatim is taken from an early 40s manual written in the U.S. to help individuals operating in occupied countries to disrupt the behavior of organizations so that they would slow them down, make them inefficient, and make them just not work very well. So, it was undermining, deliberate sabotage and undermining of how an organization should operate effectively. And when you read this list, you recognize that we’ve just absorbed it. Many large organizations around the world just naturally operate like this. No one’s doing deliberate sabotage, but it’s just there. It is a very, very interesting take on it, and I’d recommend that.

Simon: Thank you for the recommendation. And finally Lars, what do you see is the number one trend for online learning over the next one to five years?

Lars:  Well, there’s no one thing, I think. I’d come back to my recommendation before; it’s about thinking holistically—and it’s challenging, but it’s important as learning professionals that we keep on top of all of these things. So, there’s all the new stuff that a lot of vendors will be excitedly promoting—you know, around AI and automation of things, chat bots, and other stuff. And there’s some good things there. However, there’s still nascent immersive technologies, and you need to have the critical faculties to decide which and where and how to use them. And they all have a role, and then are part of your palette. The other part of it is recognizing that—actually, focus on the basics. Make sure that everyone in your team communicates effectively, can write with clarity, can use even just basic tools and authoring tools—good authoring tools—use interactivity in sensible ways that add things and don’t hinder. That’s what you need.

Simon: Well, Lars, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been really fascinating.

Thank you to Lars for sharing so much today. If you want to find out more about Lars or join the Totara Learning community of 7,000 learning professionals, please do follow the links in this podcast.

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You can join us on Twitter @Learn_at_Large to keep the conversation going using the hashtag #LearningatLarge, or email me at simon@elucidat.com with thoughts, suggestions, and questions. We’d love to hear from you so don’t hesitate to get in touch. And finally, don’t forget to subscribe to “Learning at Large” in your favorite podcast app and subscribe to our newsletter for updates on new episodes.

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