Baseball and basketball can teach us some lessons about the corporate learning game.

Although it may appear that baseball has changed, the game is essentially the same. There are nine well-prescribed roles with clear assignments, little interdependence and a manager in control. Basketball, on the other hand, has changed so much that the game is different than it used to be. Players have become quicker and more athletic, centers don’t park themselves under the basket but can actually dribble and shoot from long distances, and players frequently change roles. Players don’t just execute on what coaches tell them to do; they improvise autonomously as the context changes.

There are many parallels in business, where there have been many recent changes. Managers are shifting to coaching roles. Power and influence are shared among executives, coaches and “players.” Strategic agility, improvisation and collaboration replace strong individual contributions. And every employee has opportunities to lead, depending on the context.

Traditionally, the learning function has been more like baseball, lagging behind changing business dynamics despite new competencies, new delivery technologies and new sources of content. It has involved many well-defined roles (sponsor, learner, designer, facilitator, etc.) with clear assignments, little interdependence and a manager in control of the function. However, learning is slowly evolving into an approach that’s more like basketball. Here’s how.

Roles Are Changing.

Learners are no longer passive recipients of programs they have been asked to take. They consume and contribute. Sponsors no longer fund learning and then abdicate responsibility. They look for solutions that drive business impact and hold learning executives accountable for those solutions.

Training designers are no longer technical professionals plying their trade in a business they understand superficially. They need to know context (industry, organization, leadership) to connect the solutions. Training deliverers are no longer performers sticking to a script. They must recognize resistance, acknowledge it, and leverage it through skilled facilitation and coaching.

Relationships Are Changing.

Within this changing system, influence is volatile and unpredictable. Roles are less defined in the moment and are determined by what needs to get done. For example, learners now work closely with needs analysts and designers, and all players share responsibility for providing and integrating workable solutions for sponsors. Learners also work with each other to establish the parameters within which the solution can work. Then, they apply and provide feedback on the efficacy.

Learning professionals work with designers and developers to jointly come to an understanding of context and the implications. Additionally, conference center leaders help learning designers understand how collaborative space, when used differently, enhances learning and solution implementation.

What Can You Do?

Here are some tips on managing change in this new learning game.

  1. Map the players and interactions in your game. Who are the players, and what are the relationships among them? Who should have influence, and under what conditions?
  2. Given the problem or opportunity you are currently facing, determine which players are most likely to help you build, deliver and sustain the impact you want to have. Challenge every assumption about who should do what.
  3. Determine how you should navigate this system and how different that approach is from the way you currently manage your partner relationships.
  4. Cede control to those who should have it, when they need it, and share accountability.