We’re using the wrong word to describe our vision for L&D fairness.
There’s a shortlist of words that, when mentioned in relation to workplace learning and performance, make me shudder. This includes terms like …
The first four words on the list shouldn’t be surprising. They’re all buzzy nonsense when it comes to L&D. But “democratize?” What’s wrong with the idea of democratizing learning? After all, isn’t the whole point of a modern learning ecosystem making sure everyone has access to the support they need to do their best work every day?
Yes … but it’s still the wrong word.
The accountability shuffle
To be fair, I shudder anytime I hear “democratize” used to justify a new idea. Cryptocurrency is going to democratize finance. Gig work is going to democratize economic mobility. The McRib is going to democratize seasoned boneless pork.
On paper, it makes total sense to use this word. We want people to have more access to financial services and economic opportunity and tangy barbecue sandwiches. In practice, the word “democratize” tends to be accompanied by a lack of forethought, governance and context. We’re so sure this idea is going to make things better for everybody that we don’t step back and ask if this is what EVERYBODY actually needs.
“Democratize” has been thrown around within L&D for years alongside lots of different concepts. MOOCs were going to democratize learning. Then it was social platforms. Then user-generated content. Then LXPs. Now it’s AI. It all sounded great at the time, but have any of these ideas truly lived up to the definition of the word?
Too often, efforts to “democratize learning” quickly transform into unwelcome and ineffective shifts in accountability. We give everyone licenses to an online course catalog and now expect them to close their own skill gaps. Or we launch a social platform and expect everyone to share their knowledge so we don’t have to build content. Everyone may have access to the same resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right resources for EVERYONE.
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Equity, not equality
I outline the six tenets of a modern learning mindset in my book The Modern Learning Ecosystem.
Make learning a critical part of work(flow).
Take advantage of the full ecosystem.
Apply data to accelerate decision-making.
Provide a personal experience at scale.
Drive clear business impact.
Foster persistent organizational agility.
The first three tenets cover the HOWs while the last three articulate the WHYs behind adopting this mindset. But here’s the thing I hate about my book: I can’t change it now that it’s been published. Two weeks after it dropped, I recognized the need to update one of the tenets - specifically the idea of providing a personal experience. It simply didn’t go far enough. So, if you already bought a copy of my book, turn to page 14 and make the following edit:
a personalan equitable experience at scale.
The modern learning mindset is grounded in the belief that everyone - regardless of role, tenure, location, background or status - deserves the opportunity to do and be their best every day. Unfortunately, we cannot achieve this outcome by simply democratizing learning - providing everyone with equal access to resources.
People experience work in different ways. They work in different locations, use different technologies and manage their tasks differently. What works for a corporate employee may not work for a contact center agent or delivery driver or manufacturing plant worker. Sure, providing everyone with access to the same social platform so they can share their knowledge sounds like a great idea, but it simply doesn’t work when a huge chunk of your workforce doesn’t have the time or devices needed to contribute.
We should park the word “democratize” and start leaning into “equity” instead. Our goal must be to foster equitable opportunities to learn, grow and perform. This means providing right-fit resources based on the real-world needs of the people we support, even if those needs are different based on role, location and other factors. We must take advantage of the entire workplace ecosystem, including tools, tactics and technologies outside L&D, to foster this opportunity. And we must partner with stakeholders to prioritize the time needed to benefit from these resources and make learning part of the job instead of a distraction from it.
So the next time you hear someone claim their new idea will “democratize learning,” challenge them to explain how it will benefit different people who do different types of work. Apply an equity lens when making strategic decisions to ensure everyone is properly represented.
Remember, giving everyone a bicycle so they can get where they want to go more quickly sounds like a great idea … until you realize how hard it is to ride a bike that doesn’t fit you.
John Hinchliffe. “I believe he is a man of passion and integrity. A man for whom learning is not a job but a calling. A man whose authority and credibility have made him one of the greatest influencers in our industry.”
Event host Edmund Monk nailed everything you need to know about John Hinchliffe as he revealed the winner of this year’s Colin Corder Award for Outstanding Contribution to Learning at the LPI Learning Awards in the UK last week. Here’s the link to a fun video of the moment John realizes Edmund is talking about him. John is a wickedly smart, fun and giving L&D pro whose effort to start the Global Learning and Development Community has empowered thousands of his peers worldwide. He’s also one of my favorite ITK guests.
Kudos, John Hinchliffe!
Talkin’ L&D. Last week, I carried a giant case full of audio equipment to the Walt Disney World Resort to host the first episode of Talkin’ L&D live from the Training 2023 Conference. I was all set up and ready to go … then my laptop wouldn’t connect to the LinkedIn Audio event. I ended up hosting a great conversation about skills strategies and fostering employee connection with 45+ L&D pros using my phone and a $15 pair of Skullcandy headphones. The show MUST go on!
Talkin’ L&D is back this Monday (02/20) at 10am ET. Join us to share L&D stories, get your questions answered or sit back and geek out while you work. Just don’t try to sell anything (except my book, of course)!
Next week, I wanna talk about interviews.
Be well. JD.