Build it and they may not come

by Contributor05 Dec 2016
Mark Busine, managing director of DDI Australia, outlines the key shifts in leadership development

The field of leadership development and learning is moving fast. New technology, new approaches to instructional design and new content areas are all quickly changing the landscape in which we operate. At a broader level, a number of macro trends are impacting the workplace and the context within which leaders operate and learn. Table 1 outlines some of the major shifts that are informing our approach to learning design and leadership development.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with a group of individuals who I still regard as pioneers in the fields of instructional design and technology-based learning. While they themselves were early adopters of technologybased learning and understood its enormous potential, they were acutely aware of the risk of viewing technology as a panacea for all learning situations.

This early ‘schooling’ has continued to inform my own thinking and approach to workplace learning and, more specifically leadership development. While it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of exciting change, we, as practitioners in the field, should never lose sight of some fundamental workplace learning questions that underpin our practice. Before I address some of these questions, I want to highlight some of the risks I see as we look to embrace many of these emerging trends and technologies in the field.

Navigating risks
One of these risks is the tendency to operate from a platform of ‘build it and they will come’. In others words, provide the learning – in whatever form – and assume that people will readily embrace it. This is particularly so with some learning platforms where we assume that simply making a variety of technology-based learning assets available will be enough to support learning. Another risk is blindly embracing a broad set of assumptions or stereotypes about different groups of learners (eg, all millennials prefer mobile and social forms of learning). A recent report by McKinsey&Company found that “millennials benefit from hightouch learning no less than workers from previous generations do. Younger employees may spend more time online and be more comfortable with mobile applications. But they should not be forced – and, in our experience, don’t desire – to engage solely with digital learning tools”.

There are two questions we need to constantly remind ourselves of: why people learn and what draws someone to a learning situation. How do these relate to the learning needs of an organisation and what implications do they have for the type of learning and development resources we provide? Finally, what happens when there is a disconnect between the reason for learning and the approach or resources that an organisation provides?

So why do leaders learn and/or what draws them to a learning opportunity?


Just in time. Just in need. Often leaders need information, knowledge, or guidance at a point in time to do their jobs or complete a task. Think of this as the GPS of workplace learning.

Compliance. This is a legitimate and necessary reason for learning in many organisations and industries that operate under specific guidelines and regulations.

Curiosity. A desire to learn is often sparked by curiosity for a particular subject matter or area of practice. It may not be grounded in any specific workplace need, but it often helps to build an individual’s portfolio of knowledge.

Self-improvement. Leaders will often recognise the need to improve their knowledge or skills in a particular area. This is more formal than curiosity and often requires deliberate focus and practice. The drive for self-improvement is typically underpinned by a specifi c need to enhance certain skills and/or build one’s knowledge and understanding of a subject.

Advance to a new role/level. Leaders and organisations recognise the need to develop new skills and acquire new knowledge as people advance and/or move to a new role or level. This is based on the simple reality that the skills and knowledge at one level of the organisation may be very different to those at another level.

Prepare for future roles/levels. Leaders and organisations will often forecast the need for a set of skills and knowledge that will be important in future roles and levels. For example, leaders recognise the need early in a leadership journey to develop their approach to strategic thinking.

Knowing the context is not enough…
Understanding the contexts that spark learning is critically important as this should inform the type of development and development resources we make available to leaders. It also addresses the inherent risk of operating on the basis of ‘build it and they will come’. For example, if you are looking to accelerate leaders within your organisation, relying on curiosity and self-improvement is a real risk. Accelerating leaders is a business imperative and as such requires deliberate focus. This means putting in place structured development that prepares them for the needs of future roles and levels. Simply making a portfolio of learning assets available and ‘hoping’ they will access and make sense of these assets is a highrisk development strategy for an organisation focused on accelerating leaders.

In the end, all learning contexts will exist concurrently so it is not a case of choosing one or the other. However, when building learning assets and resources, it helps to direct our focus to the right areas and learning assets (which will often have multiple applications).

At DDI, we have been thinking a lot about the development of today’s leaders and how we organise and develop learning assets aligned to their need for engagement, learning and growth. Assets that engage are designed to address the need for a leader to commit to change and growth. Learning assets address the different delivery modes and instructional design approaches that support the acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Assets that support growth are those that sustain the learning and maximise the transfer of knowledge and skills to performance.

There is no doubt the future of workplace learning and leadership development is very exciting. New technology and new learning trends will profoundly reshape the way we approach leadership development. In the end, we must never lose sight of the fundamental purpose of what we are here to do – to support workplace learning and development and ensure it is grounded in sound thinking and rationale.

DDI stands for Leadership Insight and Growth. Obsessed with the science of leadership; four decades of experience and results, across thousands of organisations in 93 countries. Let us show you the art of leadership possibilities