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Editor's LetterPredictions and Fiction

Chief Learning Officer Editor-in-Chief Mike Prokopeak says the most successful CLOs he's met are voracious learners, always on the lookout for a new idea to borrow or a new person to follow.

By Mike Prokopeak
co_010217_editnote_302Yogi Berra had it right. “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” the legendary New York Yankees player and manager was reported to say.

Look no further than the U.S. election for proof. A year ago, vanishingly few experts gave a reality TV show host turned politician a chance to make it through the primary election let alone become president-elect. But Donald J. Trump is set to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C., this month nonetheless.

The difficult nature of predictions hasn’t stopped the rise of an industry chock-full of pundits and experts offering up their forecasts on what’s next. From politics to sports to business and technology, an ever-growing corps is always at the ready with quick analysis of the latest news and what it means for the future.

The problem is the average expert is only as good as a chimpanzee chucking a dart at a dartboard. That’s a real analogy from the researchers behind a two-decadeslong study that found a random guess about the future to be  about as accurate as your average pundit’s prediction.

We’re remarkably bad at predicting the future because, well, it’s tough and most predictions aren’t really about rigorous statistical analysis. Rather, they’re stories we make up to make sense out of a messy reality. By and large, predictions are fiction.

Some predictions look spectacularly bad in hindsight. In 1903, a Michigan banker advised a client to steer clear of investing in an upstart company founded by a man named Henry Ford. His reason? The automobiles Ford produced were just a passing fad but “the horse is here to stay.” He was right about one thing: there are still horses.

Even visionary innovators and savvy entrepreneurs can be remarkably bad forecasters. In 1943, Thomas Watson, former chairman of IBM, said there was a potential global market for five computers, at most. That’s right: five. In the whole world. Watson completely missed the rise of personal computers, let alone the supercharged mini-computers most of us now carry around in our pockets and purses.

But that track record doesn’t stop the prediction industry from marching on, especially this time of the year. As the calendar flips from December to January, there’s a deluge of projections and prognostication, a rising tide of top 10 trends and 2017 outlooks.

It can be a fun exercise and is not without a certain educational value. Taking a moment to step back, examine what’s working and peer at what’s ahead is a form of learning. The most successful CLOs I’ve met are voracious learners always on the lookout for a new idea to borrow or a new person to follow.

But something is lost in the quest to identify the latest trend. What’s trendy isn’t always what’s important, especially when it comes to corporate learning and development.

Take technology. Besides fashion, there’s not a topic more full of breathless analysis and frenetic trendspotting. Corporate educators have a long history of chasing shiny new objects and expecting them to redefine how we learn. From laser discs and e-learning to social networking, artificial intelligence and chatbots, there’s been no shortage of revolutionary new trends to follow.

What’s important — and lasting — isn’t the technology itself. It’s how employees use it. It’s how technology integrates with how work gets done, not the other way around. Simplicity and ease of use are hallmarks of successful technology. Whether it’s the latest software application or a new LMS platform, technology should help workers do their job better, not take them out of it. User experience is a lasting feature of successful tech, not a trend.

A technology executive recently told me employees are feeling “software fatigue” as a result of being forced into applications and systems that take them out of the flow of their daily work. Good learning technology, he argued, should push content where they already are, into systems like Salesforce, Slack or SharePoint, and make that content easy to share and edit.

The wave of new technologies continues to rise and the ensuing predictions about how they will reshape the learning landscape crest along with them. But beyond the trends, at its root, technology should enhance employee experience, not subtract from it.

Fail to do that and I boldly predict your new technology will flop.

Mike Prokopeak is editor-in-chief of Chief Learning Officer

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