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The Diminishing Shelf Life of Learning

I’m coming up on my 30th anniversary of being in the learning profession. Oh, how the world has changed.

I remember teaching my first Lotus 1-2-3 class on IBM portables to a group of accountants in the early ’80s. It was a three-day course from beginner through advanced. On the last day, one of my students asked me if we were considering writing a fourth day of instruction. I answered, “Why? There’s really nothing else to know.” They were experts. They had seen it all. We taught that course for years without a revision since the word “upgrade” wasn’t in our vocabulary at the time. Content had staying power and shelf life. Courses could run for years without much thought about future versions. Clearly those days are gone.

Content’s shelf life is minimal at best. Many would argue there really isn’t a true shelf life anymore; that content should be as dynamic as the world our learners live in. This brings up significant issues for the typical learning and development team.

The first is how we view formal learning. By formal I mean anything that’s scheduled, stable and viewed as helping a learner achieve a predetermined level of mastery or understanding. The classroom, be it virtual or face-to-face, and e-learning have been the predominant modalities in this approach, and for many organizations the front line of learning. I’m not saying either of these are going away anytime soon, but perhaps we should take a look at their intent and design to better align them with the realities of today’s business pace.

Change is constant. Creating a class or e-learning that has any shelf life is unrealistic. Because of this rapid change, the classroom needs to be less about information dissemination and more about information aggregation. Gone are the days when learners needed to find someone who knew things they didn’t. That was a scarcity model. Today information is abundant and available in many ways. If anything, learners need help filtering and finding the right information for a specific moment of need. Formal learning can still teach foundational skills, but it needs to shift a good part of its time and efforts to help learners remain current and effective once the formal experience is over.

The second issue to consider is learning content maintenance. There will always be foundational skills and concepts to teach, but a vast majority of what’s needed to perform in the workforce is in a constant state of churn. We need a stronger and more scalable way to collect content as it is being updated.

This will require us to examine how we design our content, who we involve and how we make it available. This is going to challenge us to involve stakeholders, learners, lines of business, product owners, customers and leaders in ways we haven’t in the past. We’ll need to harness the power of social media and collaboration tools in a way that allows the enterprise to remain current. We’ll need to build feedback and editing capabilities into embedded performance support systems that live deep in the workflow and related systems.

We will need to trust other nontraditional content owners to maintain and even create content in ways that won’t move through our standard processes as they have in the past. This will involve creating a governance structure around content and how it is managed. We’ll need to forge new and different relationships with our learners, their managers and the overall lines of business so they better understand these new roles and responsibilities.

The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that we just can’t keep up. Pretending we can only hurts our effectiveness in serving the enterprise and its trust in our ability to impact overall business performance. The first step is realizing that content has little to no shelf life. It takes a new and innovative approach to content for learning to remain current and effective.