Five Must-Have Skills for Learning Professionals: An Update

The first post I wrote here was called Critical Skills Learning Professionals Need Now, back in October 2010. Since then, I've been on a quest to help people in the learning and development industry continuously learn new skills and stay current. Fueled by a personal quest to avoid professional stagnation and a desire to see our profession thrive, I've tried to write about useful, practical, and value-added ideas that learning professionals can put to use in their work today.

What started out as three critical skills has become five critical skills — and a book. In a series of blog posts, I plan to provide further detail on each of the five critical skills that co-author Mitchell Levy and I believe learning professionals can put to use right away. Each week for the next five weeks, I will write a blog post on each of the five critical skills: business acumen, rapid instructional design, social/informal learning, enterprise 2.0 collaboration, and performance support. So load up your Google Reader and let's get started. Today, I'll summarize the five skills:

Business Acumen

In the book, I tell a story about an interaction I had with a director of customer service, who was my boss, about what she needed from me. I was a new training manager. She said to me in a meeting, “Bill, I need my people to be able to talk to customers so that customers leave the interaction feeling as if the customer service representative was knowledgeable and willing to help.” It has since occurred to me that the director of customer service was not telling me what kind of training she needed for her team, or even that she needed training at all. She was telling me that she needed her people to be competent and able to help customers. I could have taken people to the movies, if it meant they'd be able to help customers. It was about the performance, not the training. This is what learning professionals need to learn most urgently: what the business really wants. In my case, the business really wanted to a team of people who could help customers, which was measured by quality scores and customer satisfaction ratings from ongoing surveys. What does your business really want?

Rapid Instructional Design

Rapid instructional design is not about software tools or even about speeding up ADDIE. Rapid instructional design is about changing the way we think about how we design learning. For starters, instructional designers need to think like software developers. Software developers think in versions. They release an initial version of their software, knowing it isn't perfect, and knowing that people will find bugs. That’s OK. Good software developers listen to users, improve the software, and then release a new version. It's an iterative process that's ongoing and based on the assumption that the product will never be perfect.

Learning professionals should take on a similar process with instructional designs. Release them in versions, take in feedback from learners, and adjust accordingly. Learning pros should never wait for a class to be perfect. If they do, the class will likely never be implemented.

Social/Informal Learning

One of my favorite lines from the book is, “Social learning is already happening in your organization. Embrace it. Cultivate it.” Even if you think you'll have resistance to implementing social learning in your organization, know that social learning is already happening, and that there is nothing you can do to stop it. It is your job to make sure people can efficiently connect with each other so they can learn from each other. Even in a formal training class, people learn from each other as much, or more, than from the facilitator. It's no different out of the classroom.

Enterprise 2.0 Collaboration

Enterprise 2.0 collaboration is about using social networking technologies to enable people within an organization to connect with each other so they can get better at what they do, and get more work done. Whereas social learning is about connecting people — with or without technology — enterprise 2.0 collaboration is about leveraging technology so people can create their own content and learning materials. And that's now a big part of our job.

Sure, this isn't specifically a “learning” function. But if you believe that communities of practice are an effective tool, then you also understand that learning and practice go hand in hand. Enterprise 2.0 collaboration can help bring learning to the work, instead of removing people from their work in order to learn. Certainly, learning professionals ought to be doing that.

Performance Support

Although performance support isn't just about job aids, they're a good place to start. In fact, be obsessed with job aids. Create as many as you can. Then, make them as easily available to people, as close to where they perform their work as possible. Performance support is about providing people the resources they need, when they need them, in the specific context of the task they are performing. For example, if someone is completing a complex product order screen that requires several steps, why not post a link to a "how-to guide" right on that screen. It's not even good enough anymore to post that same "how-to guide" in the help section. Even that is too far removed from the work. We must think about supporting people in the moment they need help. In this case, right on the screen.

Stay Tuned!

Throughout the next five weeks, I will focus one blog post on each of the five critical skills in more depth and with more practical ways of learning and implementing the skills. So stay tuned!

Any by the way, if this topic scratches you where you itch, you can buy the book here. Or at least you can "Like It."

More: Three Great Takeaways from ASTD 2012.

Bill Cushardauthor and Director of Training and Development at Allonhill, is a learning leader with more than 12 years of experience in training and performance improvement at companies such as E*TRADE Financial, Accenture, and Time Warner Cable.

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