As a learning leader, have you ever moved into a role and assumed ownership of a technology that was going unused? This tech might include subscriptions to specialized tools or expensive platforms like a learning management system (LMS). Initially, it seems a stroke of good fortune to inherit a platform paid for (or at least budgeted for) by a predecessor. After all, something is better than nothing, right?

When it comes to learning technology, however, that may not be the case. Everyone wants to make the best of sunk-cost investments, but designing an ecosystem around mismatched technology only leads to disappointment — and the recent growth of the market only further complicates things. Although many tools fall into specific categories, few do the same job, and they are not interchangeable. In fact, the various use cases for new players are increasingly specialized as more and more enter the space and increased competition has each carving out a unique niche.

In our case, we inherited a perfectly good, cloud-based LMS subscription. We were a few months into the subscription, and we had uploaded no assets whatsoever. It was simply the wrong technology for the needs of our organization. Instead, we put our efforts into a robust collaboration platform to build communities of practice and stand up a sales enablement strategy. It isn’t that an LMS is always a bad idea — it simply wasn’t right for us. Since a refund for the subscription was not an option, it made more sense to abandon the platform than it did to invest the time and talent to make it work for us.

The logic of starting with foundational technology, such as an LMS, seems sound on the surface. Certain components of a learning tech stack are considered essential for any organization — we expect tools for authoring, tracking and hosting, virtual instruction, and learner experience. The problem is that the proliferation of tools and our understanding of specific categories have been in constant flux. At this point, learning leaders are overwhelmed by options. Josh Bersin has noted both the fragmentation and the trending consolidation of these learning product segments. Similarly, RedThread Research created a model for assessing learning tech functionalities, organized by use cases identified in its research. Both perspectives are valuable in choosing technology from an array of ever-evolving options. However, stepping away from the trends lists, the buzz on social media and the crowded expo floors of major conferences, we might question whether the learning tech stack is the right focus. Here are four reasons to think critically of that assumption:

  • The end need isn’t for technology; it’s for improved performance and human excellence.
  • Recruiting for the skill sets that can support the learning tech stack creates unnecessary limitations.
  • Talent and available expertise may now be a bigger risk than technological disruption.
  • Building a talent stack may provide a stronger team foundation.

Understanding Human and Technical Needs

When cornered, any knowledgeable learning and development (L&D) professional is going to point to high performance on the job as the real need. That said, we are all susceptible to our implicit biases, and one at play in this context is the the framing effect. The marketplace frames our decision-making, and the ubiquitous voice of the L&D marketplace tells us we need to have these technologies. RedThread Research argues for the intentional design of your learning tech ecosystem, but the framework presupposes the need for a learning tech stack. According to the last U.S. census, nearly half the nation’s labor force works for companies with fewer than 500 employees. Therefore, it’s possible that our framing of the need is disproportionately influenced by large organizations and the market targeting those organizations.

A good counterbalance to that influence is a conscious analysis and scrutiny of needs. A jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) approach can be helpful. Bob Moesta’s technique for JTBD interviews, for example, identifies underlying needs and the multiple decision points that define them. This approach is typically applied to the buying process, but it can also be useful in understanding the decisions and strategies that will make teams successful, whether it’s analyzing the underlying needs for a technology purchases or understanding the needs of the stakeholders.

Recruiting Plug-and-play Talent

Envisioning the L&D future as an ecosystem often results in perceiving the talent portion of that system as human plug-ins. Increasingly, job descriptions call for expertise in a variety of specific tools. Leaders may make the comparison to web development and programming, but the complexity of learning to code is not analogous to that of learning to use most learning applications.

Emphasizing the technical skill set may cause leaders to overlook the skills necessary to achieve desired outcomes. Building a team of instructional designers with expertise in a specific tool or suite shifts the focus to tech experience at the expense of aptitude or potential. It also devalues soft skills such as the ability to communicate effectively or to collaborate. It’s also important to consider the size of the team. Larger teams allow for greater specialization, but smaller organizations may need a few generalists to cover all the bases. Plug-and-play talent may work well with your technology but not with your business needs.

The Talent Economy Comes to L&D

We’re used to thinking of increasingly sophisticated technology as the X-factor in accomplishing our business goals, but that may no longer be the case. A recent Gartner survey indicates that the talent shortage is the top emerging risk for global organizations, and additional studies, conducted by XpertHR and Conference Board, came to the same conclusion. If a talent crisis may soon pose as pressing a risk as technological disruption, we need to be much more deliberate about taking a talent approach to designing our learning teams. By reimagining the learning talent-to-technology relationship, we can work from need to solution rather than solution to need.

JTBD is not the production of training classes, online modules, videos or job aids. Addressing performance gaps through influence and insight requires leaders to have a talent mindset. Learning leaders must recognize that a professional’s ability to provide influence and insight is more difficult to assess than exposure to certain authoring tools.

A Team’s Talent Stack

What might it mean to intentionally design the team’s talent stack? Though the metaphor is not perfect — the inherent complexity of talent makes it difficult to create taxonomies or definitive competency profiles — thinking about the expertise we need to make our teams successful is often secondary to other considerations. First of all, we need to consider which soft skills will contribute to the end objectives. As a benchmark, LinkedIn ranked the top five soft skills: creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and time management. Of course, recruiting for creativity and persuasion would require a different approach than recruiting for tool experience. Such an approach is difficult to automate and requires more investment in robust vetting, qualification and analysis of cultural fit.

Recent research by Training Industry regarding the success factors of external L&D talent reveals that cultural fit is as important as cost in selection criteria. However, factors such as cultural fit or alignment with values don’t typically appear on the competency profile for a learning leader. Cultural fit differs from emotional intelligence in that we generally agree that it’s more of a style, preference or mindset than a skill. It encompasses work habits and communication preferences. We wouldn’t necessarily connect it to technical skills, yet there are work cultures that rely heavily on collaborative technology for communication. Cultural fit is a broad umbrella and encompass a lot of factors.

Ultimately, the choice isn’t talent over tech; smart organizations emphasize both. Instead, it’s understanding that talent contributes as much to the ecosystem as technology, and prioritizing L&D talent strategy can help learning leaders bring sustainable value to their organizations. Developing a team with adaptability will enable them to embrace new technologies. It’s time to put as much analytical effort into planning, curating and vetting our talent needs as we do into selecting the right technology.

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