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Why You Need a Learning Experience Manager

This is the second in our #LearningPerforming blog series. When a learning scientist and a technologist get together, there are endless debates on the “whats and hows” of L&D today and in the future.

By Barry Stern and Russ White

In our previous blog, Kim Kardashian, Twitter, and Leadership – Part 1, we used a model to recast the learning transfer issue given the enormous and largely unrealized promise of technology. We described three disparate vantage points: individual perceptions, solution dynamics, and environmental support, which point us towards harnessing the true synergy of technological advances and research-based learning science. So, now what? Let’s tackle some of the “how” of harnessing that synergy.

Traffic jam: How technology gets us stuck problem solving

A colleague recently described an experience in China that occurred while facilitating an interesting exercise called Traffic Jam. Two teams are put into squares facing each other, one space between each team, and the task is to switch team positions following a specific set of rules for communication and movement. It required extensive team collaboration to solve the problem. As originally conceived, the exercise required the teams to problem solve based on their collective insights, without any external information beyond instructions. However, in today’s connected world, such rules are increasingly under assault.

“We split the group of 70 into six groups for the Traffic Jam experience. As it happened, one group of highly diverse cultures and languages quickly became frustrated and, despite the stated rules, three minutes into the exercise had their smartphones out looking for the right answer,” my colleague shared. “When I re-explained that their job was to solve the problem without any outside help and that the real point was for them to reflect upon the dynamics of problem solving with each other, they just politely smiled and continued searching for the right answer, mostly silent, glued to their devices.”

My colleague was frustrated, but she chose not to ask them to hand in their phones as she could see the other five teams were making better progress doing the exercise correctly. As it turned out, the other teams worked through the exercise successfully while the smartphone-enabled group failed.

So what’s the moral of the story? The unexpected debrief was much more fascinating and contemporary as they talked through the dynamics of having the “right answer” available through technology yet still not being able to physically move people to the correct spots by following the rules in the allotted time. We agreed that when she conducts this exercise again, she will use debrief questions to make some more relevant points about the role of technology in communication and problem solving. The exercise, which she had done so many times before, rewrote itself in the context of today’s world.

Today’s learners-in-charge

As we see in the above example, technology offers great opportunities both for misuse and learning. As if relying on a crutch, we can search Google or ask Siri for the answer to all our challenges. This approach works well as a first step for fact-based questions. Yet it is precisely that over-reliance that derails much of our attempts to virtualize the softer side of leadership development.

In the Traffic Jam exercise, although the group with the technology had the “right” answer at their fingertips, they were unable to bridge the #LearningPerforming gap between the knowledge they gained and the group performance needed. In fact, having the right answer actually hindered the performance of the group.

The response of modern learners to a situation like Traffic Jam is extremely understandable. Assaulted with instant information available at their fingertips and being relentlessly trained by the brilliant technologists “eating our world,” as Netscape founder Marc Andresson so famously wrote in 2011, today’s learners have responded in a most Darwinian-like and appropriate manner. To create personal meaning, modern learners have taken charge. When, where, what, and how they absorb and act on information and instruction is their choice, one which is increasingly intimate and personal, not to be dictated by an “instruction giver” or for that matter a “learning journey provider.” The learner-in-charge wants options and chooses when, where, what, and how to learn.

This reality forces a re-examination of the profile for those of us tasked with designing experiences for our learners. Recognizing the huge unrealized potential of virtualization, many of us have created blended learning journeys or provided learners with a series of microcourses, which are certainly a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, many of us are not yet equipped with all the new skill sets necessary to make meaningful enough learning experiences for today’s learners.

Time to step up to a new role: Why you need a Learning Experience Manager

We did a quick poll at last month of about 80 or so people at ATD TechKnowledge Conference to check what L&D folks want to see more of when designing learning experiences. Here’s what they had to say.

Learning Experience Manager

Note that the highest percentage (33.3%) reflected agreement with the premise that they need to provide more options to learners for consuming the same information. The other responses also lend support for the mobile, social, and learning journey enhancements discussed in our last entry.

Given our evolving learning landscape, we think a new role is in order, one we call the Learning Experience Manager, which will both enrich our approach and inform the skill sets we need to create greater impact. For those of you familiar with DDI’s approach, we have created (and continue to refine) a success profile which identifies the knowledge, experience, competencies, and personal attributes which comprise this role.

One way to characterize the role of the Learning Experience Manager is by referring to eight fundamental shifts in both the mind and skill sets of those of us creating impactful learning experiences. We’ve outlined some of the major shifts we think noteworthy in the table below.

From To
Controlling Meaningful Learning Experiences Unleashing Engaging Learning Ecosystems
“Content First” Learning Design Mentality Simultaneous Consideration of Content, Access, and Technology
Sequencing Content Sequencing and Searching Content
More Static, Text Driven Content Video/Animation Driven Content
One Size Fits All/Limited Consumption Options Self-Insight and Science-Driven Personalization
Designing and Launching Programs Launching and Iterating Assets
Longer Face-to-Face Interactions Injection of Shorter/Flipped/Spaced Interactions
Learner Focused Learner and Community Focused
“Rear View Mirror” Impact Measurement Experience Analysis and Predictive Impact

The good news is that many of us recognize the importance of these shifts. The voices of our learners are loud and many of us have been listening. Yet, largely due to the speed with which technology has invaded our space, many of us have been trained for a reality that has shifted dramatically under our feet. As a result, we find ourselves too far to the left in the table above.

What other fundamental shifts would you add to our list? Are you transforming into a Learning Experience Manager? How are you addressing the needs of today’s learners? In our next blog post, we’ll expand on these themes further and share opportunities to narrow the #LearningPerforming gap.

We want to learn from you. Connect with us via email at and or join the #LearningPerforming conversation online.

Barry Stern, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President of DDI’s Leadership Solutions. Russ White is Vice President of Technology Strategy in DDI’s Global Technology Group. They are committed to have more heated debates over many beers on the nexus of learning science fueled by technology.

Posted: 02 Feb, 2016,
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