Imagine, if you will, a room with over 10,000 excited, smart, and hopeful learning and development professionals, many of whom operate on their own in their daily work life, finally coming together and sharing stories, goals, and strategies. That was the ATD 2019 experience.
Right from the opening keynote delivered by Oprah Winfrey, the inspiring media tycoon, the focus was on preparing for the ever-increasing speed of change in the world of work by creating truly engaging and meaningful learning opportunities and supporting the workforce with dedicated and involved leadership. This is the time to get ready because, as several presenters acknowledged, we are right now experiencing the slowest rate of change than we will at any point going forward. We need to strike while the iron is hot.
The underlying thread tying the week together was undoubtedly rapid change, though there was great diversity when it came to discussions surrounding the areas of impact. However, some key themes started to emerge in the sessions, on the expo floor, and in conversations throughout the hallways, lobbies, and coffee shops around the convention center. They included:
- The importance of growing soft skills, or human skills, to adapt to a world with expanding automation.
- The opportunity to shift mindsets that encourage ongoing growth through leadership that supports the freedom to try new things, whether they work or not, and learn from those experiences.
- The developing understanding of the neuroscience behind how learning happens and the approaches that can be used, both at the instructional design and the business strategy levels, to support the capture and retention of knowledge.
Discussions about automation and AI in the workplace are no longer theoretical or future based. The technologies and practices are part of our world, and their reach is growing. The transition has, understandably, prompted anxiety and conversations about the future of many jobs. Yet the exchanges taking place at ATD 2019 were far more positive and focused on the potential this world of automation could bring. As author, thought leader, and all-around phenomenal guy Seth Godin said during his keynote, any job you can write down all the steps for can be automated, which means we have an amazing opportunity to free up our mental resources and focus on the more valuable aspects of work rather than the repetitive parts. Automation is, in a sense, opening the door for us to get back to applying our true skills, our human skills, to what we do and is also bringing with it a whole new contingent of jobs that currently don’t exist. The message was that AI is not something to fear. It’s something to embrace and is something that, provided we stay adaptable, presents all kinds of exciting possibilities.
To prepare not only our workforce but also our businesses and economies to adjust to the swift changes in work, we need to shift our mindsets and practices to ones of continual learning. This will support ongoing development and progress by empowering us to try that innovative method, use a cutting-edge approach, seek the next frontier, and push it forward at every step. A significant number of discussions at ATD 2019 focused on the importance of setting up for real change—having leadership rather than management and developing psychological safety in the workplace so people have the freedom to try new things, fail and try again, learn to face uncertainty with excitement rather than fear, and make learning new things part of everyday life.
Another aspect of the rapid change that is happening in the world of work is the rising emphasis placed on learning opportunities that are intelligently structured to drive faster behavioral changes. Using neuroscience to understand how to accelerate learning and strengthen memory was not only a topic of debate during sessions but also an obvious focus of several booths on the expo floor. Another was designing learning interventions that use game play to encourage learners’ abilities to overcome challenges, deal with conflict, and allow for the freedom to try, fail, and try again, all while gathering rewards and creating strategy. These themes all relate back to the importance of developing soft skills that are automation proof. Using techniques that teach people how to use their best judgment, be human, and apply their true skills will drive home lessons and make learning stickier than ever before.
It was a busy week full of discussions, idea exchanges, and aha moments that drove up the excitement about where learning and development are headed in this rapidly changing world.