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An Interview with Elliott Masie: Learning Next Practices, and Why Social Learning is BS

Elliott Masie has been in the learning industry for over 40 years and is widely regarded as one of the foremost thinkers in the field. His knowledge, expertise, and understanding of where organizational learning must go next are just a few of the reasons we asked him to present at the i4cp 2016 Conference, March 29 – April 1, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona (sign up now here).

With a theme of "Next Practices Now," the conference is poised at the brink of what's possible: looking ahead to what the future brings, while laser-focused on the people practices that drive market performance now. In advance of his session at the conference, we sat down with Masie, founder of the think tank The MASIE Center, to talk about what he sees as learning's next practices, the key things CLOs fail to do, and what learning leaders should stop doing right now.

You've been in the learning industry for almost your entire career. What's the most exciting development you've seen over that time?

One of the most powerful elements has been the shift from expensive systems to simpler and now available-on-our-phone systems that allow individuals or organizations to capture content--perhaps a video--to publish it, perhaps by uploading it to Jive or on a social platform, and access it anytime, anyplace, anywhere. It's the democratization of the tools of content, capture, creation, and publishing that are the most radical and exciting ones.

What's the next big development in corporate learning?

I don't know how quickly we're going to get there, but there are a couple things that get me enormously intrigued and excited:

  1. Under the rubric of machine learning, there is this concept that increasingly machines will be able to look at the data we generate about ourselves as we learn, or other data points, and that the machine will be more nimble in helping us perform and learn faster. In the simplest of senses, the spellchecking programs now watch what you have as your own pattern--if you type EL, mine will say Elliott, but yours probably won't--there's an element of machine learning. So, a) the machine is learning from its own behavior, and b) the machine is aiding my learning.

    It's not that companies will have their own machine learning group to start out, but it may be that we'll buy content that is perhaps delivered through machine learning mode or we end up seeing an LMS or LCMS that may have the capability to do some degree of machine learning around a user's preferences--or non-preferences. Let me tell you an intriguing one: if you look at a major marketer like a Google or Amazon--Amazon understands when you open mail and respond to it, so over time a profile is built that helps them optimize the marketing and triggering of your behaviors. We don't have that in the world of learning, but I think that's coming. That's what I see as the next wave ahead of us with machine learning.
  2. Another development--and it's an intriguing one because it has almost nothing to do with technology and people always associate me with learning technology---but I am enormously intrigued to see what we can do to get the managers of learners to get more engaged in a continuous process of support and to recognize that most people learn on the job and not when they go away to a learning event. We're going to have to actively rethink the skill set of a manager to support the continuous learning within her or his organization.

You recently had Sal Khan at your annual conference discussing Khan Academy; how can corporations partner with companies like this or with higher ed institutions in the future?

There are two partnerings with something like a Sal Khan or some of these other primarily online areas:

  1. There is compensatory learning, meaning whether we like it or not we're hiring people who may not bring all of the skill sets we thought they ought to have when they graduate high school or college, so we have to do some backfilling of knowledge.
  2. We should look at their models and be adaptive or even partner with their models. I would love to see organizations go under the hood and really explore what the underlying LMS infrastructure at Khan Academy is, because if Saba and all of the other LMS companies understood what Sal is doing there with learning personalization, it would be an enormous push forward.

What aren’t CLOs thinking about (that they should be) when it comes to learning--what important considerations tend to be overlooked?

I'll give you the biggest one: they're chicken to stop things.

In other words, you can't just add crap. If I'm a chef and I'm making a meal for people and I decide I really want to make that veal dish--at some point I have to take something off the menu, because we're either going to feed them a menu much bigger than their stomachs can afford, or we're not going to do it exquisitely because we're over-preparing. Learning is filled with posters and stickers at expos and emails that you and I and others get about adding stuff. If you listen to it, we're adding short video, gamification, competency mapping, blah, blah, blah.

Nobody gets the email that says "Stop!" Stop something.

The biggest mistake some learning leaders make is they don't put sunset elements into their learning strategies, which means we're going to do this for 90 days or two years, and at the end of 90 days or two years we're going to stop. Now we may decide to start again, but let's experiment with just stopping. But the reason they don't is because of ritual and compliance and marketing impact on them. That's their biggest problem: they're cowards about stopping.

We've done a lot of research about the future or evolution of work and a shift toward more high-skilled contract employees … how does learning need to adopt to accommodate workers that aren't traditional employees?

It's a great question. In some ways we have to get more granular, and in some cases we may say,"I'll hire you when you show this competency." I'll give you an example: I wanted to hire somebody as a contractor to do a piece of IT stuff, and I asked him, "How much experience do you have with Ruby on Rails?" I liked everything else he had done. He said, "Well, I haven't done much with that," so I said back, "You go take an online course in Ruby on Rails"--by the way, I wasn't offering to pay for it--"and come back and show me a project that you did from the course, and I'll hire you."

So what I essentially did is I made knowledge acquisition the responsibility of the contract employee--now granted I ended up paying him enough that it made up for the cost of the course and then some. So that's one mode.

The other mode is that we get more granular. Where this becomes important is if you are a large professional practice like Accenture or another group, you may hire 50,000 or 100,000 people--they're not even contractors but they may be more short-frame employees, in which case we need to adapt our learning around their anticipated time in their company. It doesn't mean we don't do learning, but if someone is going to leave us in a year, we're not going to spend three months developing them.

Now the final piece is that we're going to get more and more true contractors working with us. It will become an interesting question, even from a tax point of view, if I can even pay for your training? If you read the IRS tax code, part of hiring you as a contractor is that you already have the total skills to do this job. The moment I send you to a course, it raises the interesting issue that maybe you're not a contractor. It's no problem if you're a contractor from Accenture or Deloitte because you're an employee of them, then there's no problem--we're all covered. But if I hire you as a 1099 contractor the IRS rules are pretty explicit that I can't just go out and do a bunch of training on you.

You have many other interests outside of the learning field. You are a Tony Award winning producer, you have owned and own several thoroughbred race horses and you are an enthusiastic Tesla owner, among many other things. Each of these you've incorporated into your annual conference, the latest of which was Learning 2015. How do you see the other interests in your life intersecting with the learning field?

I'll put it in a simple set of three words: curiosity, experimentation, and learning.

If you're in the learning business, you better be curious, because learning has to be the fulfillment of curiosity from other people. You better be on some level an experimenter--I love to experiment, being in new fields lets me really experiment with stuff. And I'm a learner myself, so by going into a totally new field like horse racing or buying a Tesla or helping to produce a Broadway show, I suddenly go from a field in which I'm well known enough that you want to do an interview with me--it doesn't mean I'm not a learner in the learning field, but it's harder to be one because I am one of the voices of expertise in the field--on other hand, any time I show up at the racing track, I'm way down the expertise scale and even on Broadway, I'm modestly new to the field, so where it wraps for me if I'm effective for being a learner in these fields it helps me understand myself in learning to do a better job in the learning field.

And that may just be a good excuse for spending our hard-earned dollars on horse racing and electric cars, but it seems to pass muster.

What are some things that learning professionals love to talk about that they should just stop doing?

Let me give you two: one that totally died, and one that will need to die.

  1. The total death was when we all thought we'd all be in this high-grade animated virtual reality world called Second Life. We spent $50,000 building a Masie Center that was digital online, and it didn't work because things came along like Skype and WebEx that let me be there without having to be an animated cartoon of myself.
  2. I'll give you another one that seems weird coming out of my mouth: I'm not that active of a believer in the phrase "social learning." Now I think learning is social, which is different than social learning, which means that anyone who learns will, should, and could be incentivized to learn not alone but in collaboration, in proximity, or even in joint activities with other people. But I think social learning, where I weave people together into a social network like Jive or Yammer or whatever and expect that that network will radically help the learning process of employees, to me is not true from an evidence point of view at all.

    People throw around the term "social learning" and say if we build that infrastructure people are going to learn better because they can chat with each other. No. Now, I think people who learn ought to be connected to other people via informal and non-corporate networks, but that's about learning with a social slice to it than a phenomenon called social learning. So that's one of the problems, if not borderline BS.
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Erik Samdahl
Erik is the head of marketing at i4cp, and has nearly 20 years in the market research and human capital research industry.