It’s been a couple months since we released episode 250 of the Leading Learning Podcast and we’re excited to be back with a new, revamped series approach to the podcast (rather than single, independent episodes as we’ve done in the past).
With our new approach, over the course of several episodes—seven in this case—we’ll explore a topic from a variety of viewpoints, drawing on multiple interviews as well as offering our own thoughts and providing context for the conversations with others.
And the first topic we’re going to explore is that of the learning business in disruptive times. In other words, what’s going on in the world right now in 2020.
We are all experiencing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change and, of course, a major reason for that is the coronavirus pandemic. But there are also major social, political, and economic issues deeply impacting how we live and work.
In this first episode of the very first series of the Leading Learning Podcast, we explore these key areas of disruption and their implications on learning businesses. We also preview the interviewees we will feature in the series and the varied perspectives they will bring to the topic of leading learning in times of disruption.
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A Series Approach
Now we’re moving the podcast to a series approach rather than single self-contained, one-off episodes. With our new approach, over the course of several episodes, seven in this case, we’ll explore a topic from a variety of viewpoints, drawing on multiple interviews as well as offering our own thoughts and providing context for the conversations with others and connecting dots.
In this first series, we’re tackling the subject of the learning business in disruptive times, AKA the times like we’re living in now, in 2020. While our focus and point of view is on the current moment, what the series covers will be useful in future times of disruption—i.e., we can learn from the past and the present and apply those lessons to shape the future and respond to its demands and opportunities.
[01:31] – We’re calling this series “the learning business in disruptive times,” so let’s talk here at the outset of episode 251 about the idea of disruption.
We’re pretty happy with something close to the dictionary definition.
Disruption is a break in the normal course of some activity or process. So disruptive times are periods where the normal course is thrown off.
And we’d like to pose the question, do you see disruption as a good thing or a bad thing?
We see disruption as a thing, not inherently good or bad. Depending on what process or activity is disrupted, it could be good or bad or something else.
Four Categories of Disruption
[02:51] – The four categories of disruption we had in mind as we framed this series were:
- Systemic racism
- Economic situation
- Political contentiousness and uncertainty in a major election year
[03:20] – The pandemic is clearly a force disrupting living and working worldwide. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, at the time of this recording, there are more than 35 million confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, and approaching 7.5 million confirmed cases in the U.S.
Worldwide more than 1 million have died; in the U.S., over 209,000 have died. Those are sobering numbers.
As a point of reference, during the 1918 flu pandemic, the most severe pandemic in recent history according to the Centers for Disease Control, 500 million people (about a third of the world’s population at the time) became infected. So that’s 500 million vs. 7.5 million today.
During the 1918 flu pandemic, the number of deaths was estimated to be at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,000 occurring in the U.S.
So more dire than what we’re seeing at this point, but, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic is unrolling as we speak, and we don’t know what the final numbers will be. Only that they will be higher than the numbers we just shared.
2. Systemic racism
[04:58] – Systemic racism is another disruption we had in mind as we framed this series, and many have likened racism and COVID, calling them both pandemics.
And signs saying “Racism Is a Pandemic” were seen at the Black Lives Matter protests that surged in the summer of 2020.
Between May 26, the day after George Floyd’s killing, and August 22, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) records over 7,750 demonstrations linked to the Black Lives Matter movement in all 50 states and Washington, DC.
The New York Times reported that on June 6, half a million people turned out in nearly 550 places across the U.S. That’s half a million people protesting in a single day.
And they also reported in July on four polls that suggested 15 million to 26 million people in the U.S. participated in demonstrations over the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others this summer.
As the Times points out, those figures make this summer’s protests “the largest movement in the country’s history.”
The Times quotes Deva Woodly, who teaches politics, and she says that the civil rights marches of the 1960s were considerably smaller in number—all the protests in that period added up would amount to hundreds of thousands, but not millions of people.
So the scale of the response to racism is unprecedented. And, as with the pandemic, we’re not dealing with something that’s done. Demonstrations aren’t over. They’re still happening.
3. Economic situation
[06:56] – The third disruption, the economic situation, is also ongoing.
The pandemic plunged the global economy into a recession. The lockdowns and shutdowns took their toll, but there are already signs that the U.S. economy is recovering.
In a MarketWatch article, the St. Louis Fed President James Bullard says the U.S. is out of the recession but uses an analogy to explains our situation.
It’s like the U.S. economy has been in the hospital and is out now, but it’s still recovering.
And it’s important to note that the impact of the recession has been unevenly distributed—not just across countries and regions, which is true, but also across types of people.
The Washington Post recently reported on the coronavirus recession’s inequality.
It has been “a mild setback for those at or near the top” while those at the bottom have been delivered a “recession-like blow.”
And while that’s historically been the case—the rich can ride out an economic downturn more easily than the poor—but the Post found this more recent recession is the most unequal in modern U.S. history.
4. Political contentiousness and uncertainty in a major election year
[08:14] – The fourth disruption we have in mind is political contentiousness and uncertainty in a major election year.
In a poll conducted by The Economist and YouGov at the end of September, in response to the question “How much confidence do you have that the 2020 presidential election will be held fairly?” 28 percent of registered voters said they had only a little confidence or none at all.
And voters who identify as Republicans have less confidence than those who identify as Democrats: 30 percent of Republicans in that poll have only a little confidence or none at all vs. 24 percent of Democrats.
And another poll, this one done by the Pew Research Center, speaks to how divided our political parties are becoming.
Roughly four-in-ten registered voters in both camps [Trump supporters and Biden supporters] say that they do not have a single close friend who supports the other major party candidate, and fewer than a quarter say they have more than a few friends who do, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in July and August.
And this too is an evolving issue and situation. Just a couple of days before we’re recording, President Trump was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The complications and new twists are stacking up to make this an unprecedented election season.
Is Disruption Good or Bad?
[10:02] – We had four categories of disruption in mind as we framed this series: (1) the pandemic, (2) systemic racism, (3) the economic situation, and (4) political contentiousness and uncertainty in a major election year.
What do you think of those categories of disruption? Are they inherently a good thing or a bad thing?
A lot depends on your perspective. The pandemic is like the definition of disruption—it’s upended things and thrown off normal activities and processes.
While the coronavirus on its own strikes us as a negative thing, we’ve experienced some positives as a result—a somewhat slower pace to life brought about by activities like kid sports getting cancelled for a time.
And that could be true with the economic situation too. It depends on your position.
Certain businesses are thriving—online learning designers and developers and virtual conference providers, for example.
The other two categories of disruption we mentioned—systemic racism and political contentiousness—those both, as we phrased them, are negative, but we could see them having positive effects.
The Black Lives Matter protests and their coverage in the media may be educating more folks about systemic racism and the need to take action.
And political contentiousness and uncertainty may push individuals who sat out past elections to vote this year, which would be a positive in our book.
Because disruption isn’t inherently good or bad and because point of view matters so much, we sought out folks to have conversations with who we felt could comment on one or more of the four—or even other—categories of disruption that we’re all feeling personally and as learning businesses.
Interviewees in the Series
[12:13] – Four conversations are part of this series.
Jeff spoke with Seth Kahan of Visionary Leadership. Seth has been on the podcast three times before talking about leadership, innovation, and collective impact.
Check out our previous episodes with Seth:
- Episode 157: Leadership, Innovation, and Collective Impact with Seth Kahan
- Episode 23: Leadership and Innovation with Seth Kahan
- Episode 5: Getting Innovation – and Learning – Right with Seth Kahan
We reached out to him again because he’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking guy, and we knew he’d have an informed and nuanced view of these current disruptive times, in part because he’s proactively sought out conversations with leaders.
He undertook a 100 CEOs in 100 days initiative back in the early days of the pandemic.
And Celisa spoke with Shilpa Alimchandani. She’s also been on the podcast before, in an episode focused on implicit bias.
Shilpa is a consultant specializing in diversity, equity, and inclusion. She’s hands-on with instructional design, facilitation of learning, and coaching, and her goal in working with organizations is to address diversity, equity, and inclusion so that it can make a lasting change.
She’s clear about not wanting to be part of a DEI undertaking if it’s to be a Band-Aid.
She wants to engage when there’s an opportunity for long-term change because that’s what it takes to dismantle systemic racism. It takes commitment over time—which makes complete sense of course.
Change requires learning, and real, deep learning takes time and repetition and practice. Not one-off workshops.
Jeff also talked with Tracey Steiner, senior vice president for education and training at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade association based in Arlington, Virginia.
He’s had the good fortune to know Tracey for a number of years now as well the opportunity to work with her and her team at NRECA.
She’s someone who is always very proactive and very strategic about navigating challenging circumstances, and because of what NRECA does, she’s in the position of helping a far-flung network of rural, community-based cooperatives successfully make their way through these disruptive times.
And Celisa also talked with Shawn Boynes, executive director of the American Association for Anatomy.
As the leader of AAA, Shawn is on the frontlines of an organization in the learning business actively working through how best to respond and serve its learners in these disruptive times.
And he came up through the learning line of business, overseeing professional development and continuing education and learning at other associations before becoming an ED—so learning is a passion for him.
Shawn is also an individual, of course, as all the interviewees are—he’s an individual figuring what it means to live in these disruptive times. After George Floyd’s killing, Shawn and three other Black executives started a podcast called Texts to Table that helps examine and share what it’s like to live and lead in a Black body in the U.S. in these times.
You’ll get to hear from all four of these folks—Seth, Shilpa, Tracey, and Shawn—in upcoming episodes in this series.
How These Disruptive Times Are Impacting Learning Businesses
[16:10] – We see disruption as an important topic to address on the podcast because learning always happens in context—a critical point for all learning businesses to always have in mind—and the broader context for all of us, including our learners, has changed significantly and that can impact a learning business in multiple ways.
So these disruptive times are having concrete and extensive impact on learning businesses.
If we look at the pandemic, for example, COVID meant a swift shift away from in-person to online learning and all the issues that come with that, from ensuring the quality of the learning experience to opportunities and challenges related to participation and access to business models and financial implications.
And the changing nature of work is producing an urgent need for new learning in many contexts. In the medical and healthcare fields, for example, there has been an urgent need for learning related to how to deliver health services remotely.
Systemic racism is taking a toll on staff and learners, particularly Black staff and learners—hard to focus on learning the basics of anatomy when an existential threat like racism is top of mind.
It also relates to fostering engagement in our offerings, a topic we have talked and written quite a bit about.
See a few of our past episodes related to learner engagement, 3 Conditions of Learner Engagement and Learner Engagement – What It Is and How to Foster It.
Safety is a condition of engagement.
As learning businesses, we have to examine and question the extent to which our offerings support an environment with which people of color can identify and in which they feel welcome—from the marketing of them to the actual learning experience.
And, by extension, we need to examine the diversity of our staff and our SMEs/presenters.
The economic situation is impacting what learners can spend, impacting what learning businesses can afford to develop and provide—and what to charge (a lot of free offerings in the pandemic world).
And the economic situation may alter the emphasis in our portfolios.
What learning experiences do we need to provide to help people reskill, upskill, and, in general, navigate successfully through economically uncertain times?
The political contentiousness and uncertainty make it hard to plan for the future, when so much seems unclear. Depending on the focus of your learning experiences, the contentiousness may make it harder than it has been before to address certain topics and issues in a productive way.
Learners may be more “dug in” on their points of view—on either end of the political spectrum—and less willing to engage with diverse viewpoints, a willingness that is so critical to true learning.
Organizations and their subject matter experts, and presenters may find themselves unexpectedly in more of an adversarial position with segments of their audience, a position where making demands may replace engaging in dialogue and may create an atmosphere in which the openness necessary to learning is just diminished.
[20:28] – And, of course, it’s not just each kind of disruption of its own—it’s the swirl of them all.
The quick pivots to online learning and online conferences necessitated by the pandemic are complicated by the economic situation.
The political contentiousness in the United States is focused in part on systemic racism. Systemic racism mean Black bodies in this country are more susceptible to the pandemic and more likely to suffer economic disadvantages.
We think there is also something to be said here about what it means to lead learning and how important taking broader context into account is to that.
Related, we think there is also something to be said about the importance of the culture of learning an organization fosters in collaboration with its audience.
There is an opportunity and, arguably, a responsibility for learning businesses to not simply help learners acquire new skills and knowledge but also help them cultivate the behaviors and attitudes that enable them to navigate these disruptive times with an open and receptive mind and an ability to engage with and apply learning in context.
Organizations that have a strong culture of learning will be able to do that, and that will benefit their learners, and those learners will benefit those they interact with, and so it’s not, we think, an exaggeration to say there’s a chance in these disruptive times for learning businesses to positively impact society, to make the world a better place.
[22:16] – Wrap-Up
Because disruption isn’t inherently good or bad and because point of view matters so much when seeking to understand disruption and its effect, we want to invite you to reflect, and we offer four questions:
- What are the types of disruption you and the learners you serve are experiencing now?
- How are you responding personally and in your learning business to those types of disruption?
- How can you assess the effectiveness of your response?
- What else do you need to do to respond?
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[24:16] – Sign off
Other Episodes in This Series:
- Leading in Disruptive Times with Seth Kahan
- Diversity and Disruption with Shilpa Alimchandani
- Possibilities and Complexities
- Cooperative Learning and Leading with Tracey Steiner
- Risking Innovation in Disruptive Times with Shawn Boynes of AAA
- Beginning Again
Episodes on Related Topics: