Perhaps it’s because a bit of spring seems to be nipping through occasionally over the past week, but I’ve got baseball metaphors on my mind. I’m also deeply steeped in our annual Learning • Technology • Design™ (LTD) virtual conference, so those metaphors have been mingling with thoughts about adult lifelong learning.
There has always been an important third sector of education operating quietly outside of the spotlight, one that serves millions of adult learners globally as they move beyond K-12 and higher education and into what we call “the other fifty years.” This sector has become more critical than ever as technology has transformed how information is managed, how knowledge is created, and – more recently – the role human beings play in those processes.
Even as we strive to improve K-12 and higher education, millions of adults exit these systems each year with another 50 years or more of life and work in front of them. Some have inadequate knowledge and skills; most have knowledge and skills that will become less valuable or even obsolete within a short period of time; few are prepared to be the effective lifelong learners they need to be.
Barring the unlikely emergence of the massive government involvement that characterizes (and sometimes plagues) K-12 and higher education, this third sector will continue to be the province of internal training departments and of businesses – both commercial and nonprofit – that serve the market for adult lifelong learning customers. It is the latter group – what I call learning businesses – that is the focus of this post.
To be a learning business in this day and age represents a tremendous opportunity. The demand and need for lifelong learning has never been higher. Already we are seeing companies that have reaped huge financial returns from serving this market. (Exhibit A: Lynda.com, purchased for $1.5 billion by LinkedIn.)
At the same time, given the nature of the work involved, to be a learning business is also a tremendous responsibility. Learning businesses are an increasingly important part of our global social fabric. To the extent that they are successful, not simply in generating financial returns, but also in achieving real learning impact in the markets they serve, we all benefit tremendously.
So what does it take to be a successful, high impact learning business? The formula, while certainly not easy to execute, is relatively straightforward. It involves a focus on three fundamental areas:
- Business: Having a clear vision for creating positive change through learning in a well-defined target market. Having a coherent strategy for pursuing the vision along with the quantity and quality of resources necessary to implement and sustain it.
- Instructional: Finding, developing, and retaining high caliber design and teaching talent capable of facilitating high impact, measurable learning experiences. (In some cases this means traditional teachers and instructional designers, but in many – perhaps most – cases it will mean volunteer subject matter experts and entrepreneurial individuals who possess subject matter expertise, often acting without any professional instructional design help.)
- Individual: Actively supporting customers and prospects to help them become more capable, effective lifelong learners, empowering them to exercise much more control over identifying, pursuing, and achieving the learning outcomes needed to support their life and work.
To focus on and excel in each of these areas is – to get back to baseball metaphors – to load the bases. To push the metaphor a bit further, the “grand slam” – batting all those bases in with a home run – comes when a particular field or industry reaches the point of being served by multiple learning businesses with the kind of “bases loaded” focus I describe above – preferably with many of these businesses operating in collaborative and complementary ways. The future for any such field or industry is bound to be bright.
Based on decades of experience advising learning businesses, I’d say very few think – much less act – in this way. Many are intensely focused on the business component, many on the instructional component. Too few combine these components well, and almost none give serious attention to the third component – active support for the individual lifelong learner.
This situation needs to change if learning businesses are going to play the role they can play. Grand slams don’t happen all the time, of course, but we should always be playing with the knowledge that they are possible – and needed.
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