Revolutionize Learning and Development with Clark Quinn

22 minutes

This episode of iSpring’s Leadership Series was so compelling, we produced a full text of the interview for your reading pleasure. You can expect full transcripts of all our Google Hangouts in the future. Here, Clark Quinn and Gina Schreck discuss the all-too-common stagnation of Learning and Development culture in organizations, and the steps L&D personnel can take to initiate a change in that culture: in so many words, a revolution.

Here’s the full video for your viewing pleasure:

Gina Schreck: How long have you been in the learning environment?

Clark Quinn: Learning and technology, I’ve been in for over 35 years. I noticed the connection between computers and learning as an undergraduate, and I ended up designing my own major, and it’s been my career ever since, and my passion, and what I love.

GS: Which is ironic, with the topic we’re going to talk about today, because you have been in this learning and development space for so long, and you wrote a book called The Learning and Development Revolution, and you’re really on this mission to help change the way organizations do learning. Is that right?

CQ: Well, indeed, it is, because my first job out of college was designing and programming educational computer games. I realized that we didn’t understand enough about how we think and learn to design them well, so I went back to get a Ph.D. in what was, effectively, applied cognitive science. And since then, I’ve been geeky about how to relearn — that’s my passion — and then how we can leverage technology.

Now, I’m a boy, I like toys, I like shiny objects, and so I’ve always been looking at how we meld these together, and for a long story, I came out of the academic world and into the corporate world. You know, we have the resources to do it well. I looked at what they’re doing, and I go, “Oh, OK.” And this was over a decade ago, and nothing’s really changed.

GS: I’m always thinking the learning environment is on the forefront — typically, you would think that — but why do you think that is not the case?

CQ: Because it’s also not the case outside of technology, so you look at corporate learning; the training events, by and large, they are based upon an industrial model going back to how we turned schools into factories to produce workers for factories, and we didn’t really care about success, we were just happy to filter through the ones that could learn in that way, and succeed despite schooling. And we really haven’t gotten rid of that.

The corporate executives go “I went to school, I know what learning should look like,” and L&D folks go “Well, this is cost-effective,” and nobody’s measuring whether it’s actually effective. They’re seeing that it’s efficient, but nobody’s really measuring if there’s any effectiveness. And so I think it’s easy to delude ourselves that what we’re doing is what we’ve always done, without noticing that it’s worthless.

GS: The sad thing is, like you said, for over ten years, I feel like we’ve been talking the same talk, singing the same song: you go to every conference, and they talk about “We need to change the way things are done,” and “We need to make these drastic changes,” and “People no longer learn the same way…” What do you think are some of the more major changes that need to be done in the L&D space?

CQ: The technology has changed, but the underlying model hasn’t changed, so what we need to do is get back to the underlying models. So, like I was just saying, one of the first things we need to start doing is measuring in terms of meaningful impacts, not how much does it cost per bum/per seat/per hour, but are we increasing sales, decreasing time to solve customer problems, are we actually increasing customer satisfaction: we’ve got to measure the right things. Then we’ve got to go back and look at how we really learn: the notion that knowledge dump and knowledge test is going to lead to any meaningful change is just barking mad.

We need to understand that we need meaningful, situated practice; that’s why we did the Serious eLearning Manifesto. Four of us were just so frustrated, like you and I are expressing here, and we decided we’d at least try to put a stake in the ground, and say “Hey, this is what good learning really looks like, and this spills over into informal learning and innovation and a whole bunch of areas that organizations need, and L&D can be really facilitating.” So I had this short mantra that says “What L&D is doing is not near what it could and should be doing, and what it is doing, it’s doing badly.”

GS: “And on that happy note, here’s what we need to do.” Yes, that is interesting, because you kind of look at it and go, “OK, it seems pretty logical: we need to measure what’s working and what’s not.” What are the results that you’re getting from your learning now, and then identifying — and I think maybe this is where the helplessness comes in, is — people feel like “I don’t know what to do different.” And then, “Do I have the support to do it differently?” Do you think that’s one of the big challenges?

CQ: It is, because the existing structures are put in place, and comfortable and well-tested, and people don’t resist change — that turned out to be a myth — people make changes all the time, they change jobs, they decide to get married (I mean, there’s a change for you), but they choose the change. And when we try to force change — I heard a really clever guy named Peter de Jager talk about change, and he said, “Give them the choice, and say ‘Well, we can do it the old way that doesn’t work, or we can do it this new way.’”

But there’s a lot of factors, and you know, the tools are aligned to doing this old stuff, the market has come to serve it, and has a vested interest in perpetuating itself, rather than have to invest money to support change as well. So there’s a lot of factors mitigating against the change we need, so that’s why I’m a little bit almost strident in the book. People have accused me of it: they’ve said either “Thank you for not pulling any punches,” or “You’re pretty much in their face, aren’t you?”

GS: Well, I think it’s frustrating. I always say it’s exhausting being an evangelist after a while: you try and preach it, you try to convince people they need to change, and when you still see people resisting, it’s exhausting. So that’s probably where that comes from, from you feeling that same way. But I’m trying to understand why, if you’re in this L&D space, where is this resistance coming from?

So if you say “OK, how do you convince people that we need to do it differently, and there’s going to be work involved, and yes, there’s going to be costs involved?” So I can see the reality of why it’s easy to do things the way we’ve been doing them for 20 years. But you’re saying some of the steps: identify how you’re going to be able to measure that, and that might be a huge undertaking all on its own. How do you measure the right things, and go about that? Are there other steps that you feel that you’ve identified that people can take? What are some of the other things we should be doing?

CQ: Well, in parallel, several things: measuring is one, and getting strategic, and saying “One of the reasons we haven’t gone into measurement is because we don’t own the measures that we need to be impacting. We need to be in more of a partnership with the business.” Right now, they come and say “I need a course on X,” and we don’t go back and challenge, “Is that related to the problem?” So we need to do more performance consulting. And we need to work with their measures, not our measures. That’s a challenge, but we need to do that.

We need to start focusing on not offering courses, but saying “What’s going to make a difference?” Sometimes, it doesn’t have to be in the head; it’s really hard to get stuff in our head. So we should save that for when it’s really needed. You’re not going to remember 500 different router configurations, you’re going to look it up. What’s going to make a difference to organizations is not just optimal execution; that’s going to be the real cost to entry. The real differentiator is going to be continual innovation. What can L&D do? It turns out, a lot! People aren’t necessarily good innovators, don’t know how to work and play well together. We can facilitate that innovation.

You’re a guru of social media, you know the power you can get out of people interacting together, and the myth of individual innovation is busted. It’s not that one person goes away and comes back with the genius, it’s evolution on people’s thoughts and creative friction, and we can facilitate that. And we should. So we need to start looking on this as a continuum from formal learning through performance support, out to social interaction and informal learning, and look at that as a whole, align our strategy for it, align our culture for it and develop an infrastructure to support it, and then be facilitators.

GS: Which is interesting, when you say the whole thing of consultative and being facilitators, and even within your own company, it’s not just “Here’s a laundry list of courses we offer within our company,” it’s really challenging that thinking of “No more laundry lists of generic courses,” as to what are we really trying to accomplish, and what change are we trying to make within this organization? I’m curious, because typically we think of large organizations are harder to see change happen, and we always think small organizations are nimble.

I’m curious on your thoughts, and I’m just thinking out loud here. It’s interesting: when I talk to people within a small organization, they get stuck in [that there’s] one person who’s the L&D department, who doesn’t have time to think outside and get creative. They seem to be more networked on social media, within different groups online to look for resources. Large organizations, they tend to have a group of people who could be brainstorming, and being more innovative together, but may be harder to get to buy into change. Is there something to large companies versus small companies?

CQ: Yes and no. The mindset shouldn’t be different (how you have to navigate it). The interesting thing is, you’d think that the large company L&D would be more innovative, but when you look at the data, what ASTD reports about the penetration of social media into L&D, it’s like less than 30%. It’s amazing that they are not the ones who are experimenting and trying stuff out to see if they can bring that to their people. And it’s, again, just that factory model, and they’re measuring the wrong things. They’re measuring how efficient they are at producing courses, which leads to courses that are very efficient, and completely ineffective.

The independent person really faces the same challenges, because unless they can manage to educate their customers… There are a few people: I think of Mark Britz, who was tasked with creating a corporate university — that’s what he was brought on for — and his notion of a corporate university was a social network. And he managed to sell that for a while, and had been fighting that, so [there was] that case study. So an individual has the opportunity to be more of an agent of change, because, except for their manager, they can manage up and make it of their own initiative. I think larger companies find it more difficult to change unless somebody high up in the hierarchy says, “We will change.”

GS: Yeah. I think it’s just easy to keep things going the way they are, but you would think right now, in this time period, we have to look at every single aspect of a business to say, “It’s change or die.” I mean, you’re seeing companies go under that you never thought would go under, because they’re not nimble and they’re not willing to change. Or just look at things: “Is this effective?”

If you had to take away three nuggets, are there things that today, I can tangibly write down and say, “This is my to-do list”? If I work in L&D, what can I do, action items, starting next week?

CQ: So there’s several connected things, and the difficulties are something in each area. So there’s more than just a couple of things. I guess a couple of things would be look at each area, and figure out which one you’re going to address first. The path forward for any one organization isn’t going to be the same as any other one; it depends on where they’re already at. Some have some social networks.

Just briefly, the threat — you were saying that organizations aren’t nimble — a lot of the efforts to get around that, to start bringing in enterprise social networks, to be using performance support, are already coming from outside L&D, and unless L&D gets involved there, they’re on a path to extinction.

So what do you do? The first thing is, stop accepting requests for courses, start being a performance consultant, saying, “Wait, what’s the actual problem? Is it just that they can’t find the information, but it’s there? Does it really have to be in the head?” And the second thing is, could it be coming from an internal network? If somebody has the answer, we shouldn’t be trying to do it all. So, a minimalist mindset: I have this mantra I call the Least Assistance Principle: “What’s the least I can do for you?” is not a rude question!

People don’t want everything; they just want enough to get back to the task. If you set the right culture…

GS: You just have to word it properly.

CQ: People don’t want everything, so you really have to start going minimalist, and saying, “What’s the least I can do to get people going back?” And that includes, “If the answer’s in the network, I don’t have to create a course on it.” Resist creating courses — look for the easiest way to get people functional, whether it’s a job aid, or just connecting to the right person.

There’s a small social media company here in the Bay Area that says, “We’re not creating courses for anything but our own culture. You have a problem with X, there’s the book you should read on it; you want to know about this here, go watch this video. We’re not creating.”

GS: That’s such a great point. There’s so much out there already, but most people think, “Oh, we need to create our own project management course, we need to create our own time management course,” and it’s already out there.

CQ: Yes. A colleague just resisted a client who wanted them to create an ergonomics course. They exist: you don’t need to create your own. There’s nothing unique about your company.

We’re doing too much because that’s what we know how to do, instead of being willing to stretch our boundaries; and yet, being learning folks, we should be continually learning, getting the culture, getting the strategy, and beginning to measure probably the three biggest things you should be looking at. And I realize culture change is hard, but really, the elements that lead to the most effective organizations are cultural. They’re about creating a learning organization where it’s safe to share, and where diversity isn’t just tolerated, it’s valued. You definitely want to look at new ideas where you can experiment and fail.

I heard this lovely story, and I always love to tell this story: A small company rang a bell, not when a mistake was made, but when the lesson was learned. And sharing the lesson means nobody else has to make the same mistake. But it was ok to make mistakes, because you could learn from it — just never make the same mistake again. By sharing it, by ringing the bell, by celebrating the lesson, you were sharing it, and it was less likely somebody else would make the same one.

GS: I love that, that’s a great story. I don’t know how you start that within a culture if it’s not started from the top. You have to encourage it, you have to celebrate it, you have to reward that innovative thinking; going out and trying something different. I just think that’s a hard thing, because usually, again, we know that we should do that from the bottom — we sense that we should do that — but unless it’s starting from the top and really enforced and celebrated, it’s a hard one to move.

CQ: Yeah, L&D should be doing it internally, just walking the walk, but absolutely, at the end of the day, the leadership needs to not just be paying lip service to it, but doing it themselves. They need to start blogging and tweeting and sharing their thinking, even just internally. Sharing thinking is such a powerful thing.

Jane Bozarth’s new book, Show Your Work, is just so apt; Harold Jarche has been talking about it as “working out loud.” Work and learning are merging, and if the leadership makes it safe to fail by modeling it, you’re really going to have a powerful impetus to change.

GS: Yeah, which is great. And the whole concept of starting the sharing and the social learning together within an organization — do you have any suggestions on ways that companies who are not doing any of that can start? I mean, blogging seems like a natural one; it seems like that’s so easy.

CQ: Absolutely. I think one of the first steps is putting an enterprise social network in there. One of the lessons is, if you put it in and nobody shares, you’ve got a clue that your culture isn’t right. So that’s a message that you can carry forward. Then figuring out how to make it work rather than abandoning it is critical, so you’re going to have to manage to get the buy-in. When you sell the notion that “We’re going to put in this enterprise social network,” you’ve got to sell the values that go with it.

GS: And I think one thing coming from an outside perspective — why I’m always encouraging people to blog and share your knowledge and get that out there and quit being knowledge hoarders — is that people will start a blog, and they expect participation immediately. Just like in marketing, people start social media and they start blogging, and they expect people to walk in the door and want to buy things immediately.

Make sure when you’re in an organization and you’re citing an internal blog or a tool that you’re going to use to share, be patient. I always tell people, “Start, be consistent, but also be patient,” because it’s going to take a while for people to start saying “Oh, there’s some valuable information here.” Or maybe you’re asking people if they can participate, and it’s like pulling teeth to get them to do that. But be patient, and keep being consistent, and I think it’ll pay off.

CQ: Indeed. Mark Oehlert talks about “paving the deer paths.” They put in a building, and put in these fancy sidewalks and grass elsewhere, and you’ll see dirt paths through the grass, because that’s where the people actually walk. If you had waited to build the sidewalk till you saw where they walk, you’d know where you should’ve paved. What he means by that is, go to communities that are already working, and then bring the technology and get that working well.

I use an agricultural metaphor: you need to seed the network, and then you have to nurture it. If you build it, they will not come. Then you need to weed out those ineffective behaviors where people are being trolls, or nasty or stuff, and sort of subtly get the behavior set. And then once you seed it, feed it, and weed it — Dave Ferguson was the one who said, “…then you can breed it.”

Then you can carry that elsewhere; that’s that Scaling Up Excellence model. Nancy White has talked about that it can take as long as 18 months, she’s found, to get this critical mass for self-sustainment. And you know this as well as anyone, Gina: people worry “Oh gosh, what if they say inappropriate things?” Networks become self-correcting, but up until that point, you will have to be active, you will have to nurture, and it will take time.

GS: Yeah. You’re there every day, and people have got to talk, whether it’s on your internal site or not. They’re going to post it, or they’re griping about it in the breakrooms, or they’re writing about it on their own personal blogs outside, or writing about it on Facebook or wherever, about your organization, so make it a safe place for people.

But you correct it, and you’re managing it, and talking to people one on one. I think it takes over a year before you really start seeing it just take off on its own.

CQ: And so that’s the other strategy. Besides being a performance consultant, being that sort of interaction facilitator is the complementary role, and those two things together are the mind shifts that I think we’re trying to facilitate here.

GS: This is fascinating. Like I say, we almost need to shake the organizations, and say that it’s no longer acceptable to do things the way that we’ve been doing, and let’s create change starting right in the L&D groups.

If people want to find out more information, obviously you’re everywhere. If you just google “Clark Quinn” — for the longest time, I thought your last name had to be “Quinnovator” — on Twitter, I know you’re @Quinnovator, but where is your website that people can find more information about you and your book?

CQ: There are several places, but is me, so that’s where you can find me. There is a site for the book,, where you can find out about the book. 

GS: That’s another great place to get in there, find ideas, share ideas, and learn from each other as well, so everyone needs to start the revolution.

CQ: Absolutely. Start the revolution.

We were extremely pleased to have both Clark and Gina share their wisdom with us in this fascinating conversation about corporate learning culture and the L&D revolution. We hope you got as much benefit out of reading it as we did out of transcribing it.

Have some stories to share about your own L&D revolution in your company? Share them in the comments below!

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