After over four decades in the learning and development field, including chairing two competency studies for ATD, I believe that our field is ripe for a true paradigm shift. We have matured in many ways, creating amazing, well-designed learning programs that are delivering better and better returns for companies and individuals. But we are at the point of diminishing returns, and there is a vast, unfolding field of possibility awaiting if we focus attention on truly unleashing the power of the learners themselves.

Let’s face it: What many companies have only paid lip service to in the past – the importance of learning to business success – is now a clarion call. We are moving at high speed into a world where learning is truly a critical capability for any organization that wants to be agile, aligned and innovative. But it is individuals, not organizations, who learn. It takes savvy individuals just to keep up with technology, new business strategies, shifting structures, virtual work environments, new project assignments and rapid skill obsolescence – not to mention the myriad of mobile, online, print, video, and even VR learning apps and programs.

Training professionals are trying to stay on top of this shifting learning landscape. We work hard to keep up with the speed of change and what seem to be the shortening attention spans and varying expectations of as many as four generations in the workforce. The result has been better designs and savvier attempts to support learning transfer into the variety of virtual and office job locations and team situations.

Are these efforts by the training community enough? Is it enough to provide more interesting and shorter learning experiences brimming with multimedia? Or to have increasingly talented and even entertaining facilitators and trainers? Or to invest in more coaching and performance consulting? Or to provide badges, certifications and other rewards?

These are all very powerful responses to today’s workplace learning needs, but they are not enough.

Most learning happens informally or under the direction of the learners themselves, on the job and in life. In addition, people receive help from each other, from managers and from subject matter experts – people who are not learning professionals but who influence learning in the moment and at critical times.

Then, there is the learning that occurs in formal training programs. We would like to think that we, as learning professionals, at least have control over this learning, but look more closely. If the learner doesn’t prepare, interprets information in a way we didn’t intend, doesn’t concentrate, or fails to learn and transfer that learning to work and life, all our great designs are simply costly diversions.

The fact is, learners are in charge of all their learning, but their sense of personal power and skills related to learning are not up to today’s challenges. Most adults rely on trial and error and the study skills that helped them through childhood and school. They often default to ad-hoc problem-solving and goal management habits they’ve developed on their own to deal with the challenges of adulthood. Few have deliberately upgraded their skills to the level today’s world and workplace require, and very few have updated their knowledge about how their brain actually learns or how to deal with the new information, environment and resources. Yet this knowledge is essential to optimally dealing with new learning challenges.

I believe that the next frontier for our field is unleashing learners to take charge of their learning – in formal programs; in day-to-day life; and when working with experts, coaches and colleagues.

It’s time for us to acknowledge that it’s ultimately the learner who learns and brings that learning into their work and life. It’s our job to prepare them to take on this powerful role and to treat them as agents of change rather than objects to manipulate toward objectives they may or may not understand, buy into or support.

We need a subtle but crucial mind shift for the learning and development field. In addition to focusing on learnability of our programs, we also need to support the development and application of learner-ability. For only when the learners take on a full and empowered learning role – in formal and informal situations – will we see real and sustainable breakthroughs in ROI from training and learning.