New skills for learning professionals

by Jay Cross on July 1, 2009


This month’s big question asks, “In a Learning 2.0 world, where learning and performance solutions take on a wider variety of forms and where churn happens at a much more rapid pace, what new skills and knowledge are required for learning professionals?”

Last month I opened the IADIS eLearning 2009 Conference in Portugal with an address on Redefining Instructional Design. Here is how I described some of the roles learning professionals will need to fill in our brave new world:


This is not entirely original. We addressed this question at the April 2009 Learntrends event. Charles Jennings, Ellen Wagner, and Curt Bonk vigorously tackled the issue. See Ellen’s Prerequisites for Instructional Designers. Also see Charles’ What Does a 21st Century L&D Department Look Like? wherein he writes:


Ellen Wagner, Curt Bonk and I spent our 30 minutes facilitating a discussion on the topic of ‘New Roles for Learning Professionals’. Going back through my notes and the archive of the (very animated) chat/discussion that took place, some clear threads emerged on the types of capabilities that a 21st century L&D department need to have.

Here are some of the core capabilities identified:

1. consulting / coaching acumen (as well as learning acumen) that is focused on performance problems and outcomes. The ability to engage with senior (and not-so-senior) line managers to identify the root cause of performance problems, and not simply focus on learning.

2. the ability to ‘speak business’. An understanding of business goals is the ‘so what’ in learning. Everyone in L&D should be able to read and draw conclusions from a balance sheet and P&L account and understand the business drivers that line managers are focused on.

3. a good grasp of technology – across-the-board – but especially emerging technologies, and how they can fit into learning solutions

4. adult learning – an understanding of how adults learn in the workplace, and ‘what works’ in organisational learning.

Along with these, another set of attributes such as: ‘empathy, ’ listening’, ‘tolerance for ambiguity’, ‘basic communication ability’ were identified as essential by participants.

Harold Jarche also made the important point that ‘attitude trumps skills’ for a learning professional. We’ve known that in a more general sense for years – many of us have used the axiom ‘hire for attitude’ when we’re recruiting. I certainly have found it has served me well. I can’t think of any situation where I’ve hired on the basis of attitude where I would have done otherwise in retrospect.

I had written about this in my column in last month’s issue of CLO magazine:

When my colleagues and I advocate cutting back on workshops and classes in favor of building “learnscapes,” we aren’t suggesting firing the instructors. Rather, we recommend redeploying them in new capacities, serving as connectors, wiki gardeners, internal publicists, news anchors and performance consultants.


There’s no cookie-cutter formula for assigning these new roles and responsibilities. An active community of practice is a different animal from a bottom-up knowledge management network or a corporate news channel. New communities have different requirements than old.


In their bookDigital Habitats: Stewarding Technology for Communities, Etienne Wenger, Nancy White and John Smith describe different community orientations in terms of meetings, open-ended conversation, projects, content, access to expertise, relationships, individual participation, community cultivation and service context.


Digital Habitats posits the role of the community technology steward. Technology stewards are people with enough experience of the workings of a community to understand its technology needs and enough experience with technology to take leadership in addressing those needs.


A steward’s initial task is to shape a vision consistent with the community’s orientations. The steward then selects the simplest technology to advance the community as both the technology and the organization progress.


Digital Habitats also assigns these duties to the technology steward:

  • Bringing new members up to speed with the community’s technology.
  • Identifying and spreading good technology practices.
  • Supporting community experimentation.
  • Assuring continuity across technology disruptions.
  • “Keeping the lights on” (including backups, permissions, vendor payments and domain registrations).

Pointing out that I foresee job enrichment and greater responsibilities for learning professionals who take on the challenge, I noted some other people’s observations:

TogetherLearn’s Clark Quinn sees the need for a learnscape architect who nurtures the health of the learning network for collaboration, communication and learning opportunities. More a leader than a technician, the learnscape architect is the network champion who carries the vision, monitors metrics, promotes network participation and encourages continuous experimentation.


Mzinga’s Dave Wilkins describes several production roles. Producers manage the contributions of others, drawing out the best in them while also opting not to include contributions that aren’t as good. Moderators help ensure an environment of high trust by ensuring that people play by the rules. Expert moderators may vet the accuracy and clarity of information in their domains. Yet other moderators seed discussions to channel conversations in ways that might provide insight to the organization. Reporters and bloggers unearth what is newsworthy and document it for the community.


These tasks won’t happen by themselves. Furthermore, people throughout the organization will need to share the burden of helping everyone learn. Distributing learning throughout the social fabric of an organization requires storytellers, mentors, bloggers, community elders, schedulers and editors. We’re all in this together.


Some instructors will continue to instruct, but they will increasingly do so with network support and in smaller bursts. It’s a better use of their time. Face-to-face instruction packs a punch but is difficult to scale. Economics dictate that traditional instruction will play a diminishing role in corporate learning.


Traditional instructors and instructional designers are ideally suited to excel in these roles. They understand how adults learn and how to transform information into learning. It’s important for corporations to benefit from their learning people, not give them pink slips

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