Learning Technologies 2011 Conference (2 of 3) – how real is the upstairs/downstairs divide?

There was a common theme to the discussion generated after January’s Learning Technologies Exhibition and Conference, which I chaired. It could be best summarized in this way: there is a gulf between the vendors in the exhibition and the practitioners in the conference.

Plenty of people agree that a gap is there, that the conference discusses leading edge technology and practice, while the learning technologies on the exhibition floor seem only to change very slowly year-on-year. I agree the gap exists. But I would add this caveat: the gap is neither as large, nor its impact as profound, as might be imagined. And there is a very good reason why the gap is there.

The gap between conference and exhibition is perfectly natural.

While I have chaired the conference since 2000, I have also been over the same period a non-executive director of a talent management software company (sold to a US company in 2008), and in the vendor community before that, so I can see this from both sides.

At the conference, I decide, with input from a wide range of colleagues, what are the leading edge topics of interest that deserve an audience. Sometimes the presentations are theoretical, sometimes case-study based, but they should all, as far as possible, be new and different. That’s what people come to a conference for.

Looking at this in terms of Rogers’ work on the diffusion of technology, the conference always aims to be working with learning technology’s innovators and early adopters:

Graphic credit: Natebailey

In our field, we are familiar with this idea of different technology adopters not through Rogers, who did his original work on the adoption of hybrid corn among Iowan farmers, but through Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book Crossing the Chasm which called this the technology adoption lifecycle.

Moore introduced the idea of a chasm between the early adopters and early majority. For any technology vendor this chasm is crucial, because it’s where most good ideas fail. This is where start ups crash and burn, when they can’t move their technology (and their company’s internal processes) from a niche to the mainstream. The reason could be poor marketing, a lack of supporting technologies, incremental changes by competing technologies or simply that the timing wasn’t quite right.

Whatever the reason, the cost of failure is real, and it is usually counted in years of work wasted and people laid off. I have spent most of my life working in companies where a poor decision on whether to go with a particular product development will result in not being able to meet the rent and pay roll at the end of the month. It’s a sobering thought that – even for the most gung-ho company – sharpens the mind and leads to intensive analysis of potential new developments.

So where are the vendors on the technology adoption lifecycle? They are almost all on the other side of the chasm from the conference, among the early majority and late majority. Not just because that’s where the money is, but also because that’s how they can sustain their business.

I can guarantee that right now in learning technology vendors across the world intensive conversations are taking place about the development of additional product lines involving the current game-changers in learning: social media and mobile learning. Passionate voices will be heard both for and against development, but the ultimate say will come down to one question, raised by the CFO: ‘Will it sell?’

Until the management team is convinced that the new technology has crossed the chasm to the early majority, where it will sell, development will be piecemeal, and you shouldn’t expect to see the new technologies appear on any exhibition floor.

This isn’t a blame game, though. I don’t want to suggest that if vendors aren’t at fault for not producing risky new technologies, the customers are for not demanding it. The customers need proof that this stuff works before they commit their budgets (and, often, their careers) to taking a chance on a new way of doing things.

And that’s where the conference comes in. It’s our job upstairs to demonstrate that there are new ways of doing things and to play our part in helping the learning and development community grow its understanding of what is possible.

Like I say, the gap between conference and exhibition is perfectly natural, and I expect it to continue.

All of this was brilliantly summarized in a single, anonymous comment at the bottom of one of the many blog entries after the conference:

Anonymous said…
A very quick reflection… it doesn’t pay to be a thought leader downstairs.

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

That particular blog entry (which I recommend reading) was by official conference Twitter wrangler Karyn Romeis. In the final part of this trilogy of #LT11uk blog entries I draw on her work, and others, in the importance of reflecting on any event.


A footnote on the title of this blog entry: the conference takes place on the third floor of Olympia 2. The exhibition is split over the first floor (technology) and ground floor (skills). As a result, this perceived gap between the conference and the exhibition has been dubbed the Upstairs, Downstairs divide, after the 1970s British TV series in which the aristocracy is upstairs and their servant workers downstairs.

15 responses to “Learning Technologies 2011 Conference (2 of 3) – how real is the upstairs/downstairs divide?

  1. Well said Don, a very clear explanation.

  2. Hi Don, But don’t those who visit the exhibition also expect to see and hear about the latest in Learning Technologies – rather than only be exposed to “late adopter” technologies? They also won’t/don’t realise there is actually an upstairs/downstairs divide, because they are not aware of what is being discussed in the conference, and therefore probably leave the expo believing what they are seeing is the “state of the art”. It would be nice to see some “thought leaders” in the seminar rooms downstairs to help expo visitors get a taste of the “new ways of doing things”.

  3. @Don We really need to get together for that lunch. I have some ideas to bounce off you in order to perhaps address Jane’s point. It would be nice to see the conference having a greater influence on the field, and I think it could be done…

  4. Thanks for the comments. Jane, I appreciate your points about the seminars downstairs, and that’s something to consider next year.

    Karyn – yes, I owe you lunch, and more! I have your new number and will call.

  5. Mmm, Donald, I’m not sure about this supposed gulf. I hear the rhetoric from the conference, but not sure the reality is so different. Despite your best efforts to get new speakers and content, informal soundings with colleagues about the corporate sessions at the conference often reinforce the similarities of experience rather than any major new insights.

    Dangerous though anecdotes might be, I think we need to be wary of believing the hyperbola of the commentators upstairs; myself probably included. My day job is to research what companies are doing with learning technology, and the vast majority of their investment is still focused on delivering many of the same things represented downstairs, rather than the visions upstairs.

    The problem is maybe not the exhibition, but probably the sense of reality amongst some of the commentators. I’m personally not sure this is just a function of product lifecyle and adoption. Maybe, its more the vested interest of advocating the next “new idea”!?!

  6. LOL David! If it was all about making money, there would be far easier ways of doing it! As Don implies in his posting, it’s easier to sell products and services “behind the curve” than it is in front of it!

  7. I can’t resist hopping into the fray, Don.

    The “crossing the chasm” curve is apt. That’s precisely what’s going on. However, within learning technology, there’s a new twist to consider. There are other curves to consider….

    Learning technology is no longer solely the province of learning technology companies. The ‘consumerization ‘ of high-tech is creating lots of general-purpose tools that companies use to support learning. Look at Jane’s Top 100 Tools. Twitter, YouTube, GoogleDocs, Wikipedia, Skype, Glogster, Moodle, Facebook, Prezi, Dropbox, Slideshare, Prezi, and Diigo top the list.

    Are they going to exhibit at Learning Technologies? No, they serve a much broader market. They don’t think of themselves as learning companies. Neither do the people who sell flip charts and markers, but that doesn’t keep us from buy these things to support training.

    Learning is converging with work, and in the workplace, companies adopt whatever helps them carry out their mission. Training departments that stick with technology that’s strictly for training are being bypassed by other functions that are pushing collaborative technology and web-based solutions. David, maybe you need to move up the food chain in your research. 🙂

  8. Jay/Jane

    Maybe I have hit a nerve here. The interesting thing is I agree with much of the sense of the original article, but guess it comes down to the interpretation of the underlying problem, if indeed it is a problem!?

    Jay – I think you will find that our research is already high up on the food chain, and in many very large companies that are genuinely interested in the next generation learning. The problem is maybe though that whilst they are are trying to be forward thinking, they also have a lot of practical day to day challenges to address. For good or bad, much of these solutions are very firmly current generation learning technology … hense much of the downstairs activity and upstairs case studies. Over time this will change, but I think it’s wrong to be critical of the exhibition vendors when this is where the priorities are.

    Jane, I’m not sure how to interpret your comment. Who was talking about making money? Money largely follows need. That’s called economics. I’m not criticising your desire to push organisations to think differently, this is a laudable aim. But I’m not sure it’s your or our role to be selling any solution in the conference – whether it makes it makes any money or not!

    The debate is positive though, because it highlights the balance between challenging de facto thinking and challenging the reality of market trends and the sometimes inevitable hype. I’m all for pushing boundaries and trying to recallibrate the way demand and supply side approach both the opportunity and delivery of learning technology solutions.


  9. David, while I appreciate that your “research is already high up on the food chain, and in many very large companies that are genuinely interested in the next generation learning,” what sort of people are you talking with at those companies?

    While you and I have talked on half a dozen occasions (and even debated for the same side at the Oxford Union!), I’m not privy to your research findings. Are you assessing what’s going on under the purview of HR and training? Or in the broader realms of operations, internal communications, and senior execs?

    I hear what you’re saying. I think of it, to use David Gelernter’ wonderful term, as “paradigm drag.” In the end, you can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s technology. The very nature of business is in the midst of a phase change from industrial-age thinking to taking advantage of networks. The future survivors are boarding the train to the 21st century, and the bewildered folks who stay behind will perish.

    That’s just my opinion. I might be wrong.

  10. Jay, I’m not sure this going anywhere. I am happy our corporate research is based on a real understanding of what companies are a) really doing, and b) the challenges they are facing. This also includes specific research on how companies are rethinking people and learning to respond to their emerging challenges.

    But why do I even need to say this? Elearnity is an industry analyst not a vendor. Research is what we do. There are lots of things we agree on, including most importantly, the need for different models of learning in the future. Its therefore disappointing that the main response to me expressing an alternative view on a related issue seems to be to question our research, rather than debating the issue itself.

  11. Hi Don

    Thanks for the excellent post. To lay out clearly the philosophy behind the LT events is very helpful.

    I would like to comment as someone relatively new into the community and who experienced the whole LT thing for the first time.

    First, where do I stand? My research over the last 18 months puts me firmly “across the chasm”. However I do not wish to take sides in a narrow area of the debate. My intention is to provide a perspective and to suggest a way of taking things forward to ensure that the incredible work being done by everyone in the LT community leads to real improvement in the organisations with which we are connected. That there is a divide was immediately noticeable, as was the polarisation of views I gathered from both Upstairs and Downstairs

    Upstairs is clearly gaining huge insight. My research over the last year, and which has extended far beyond the L&D community, tells me that the Upstairs community is largely correct in its analysis and vision of what is happening and emerging in the global community. That insight is being well received in organisations where the communication is done well.

    I have a concern that Downstairs does not seem to be listening to and supporting what Upstairs is saying and discovering. If that is correct then are they not guilty of both closed mindedness and also of trying to take a free marketing ride on the back of the “names” who are providing their thinking upstairs – and in doing so building their own redundancy and risking hanging the Conference speakers out to dry?

    What I can see happening is the vendors scrambling to patch old concepts that in the end will not work and will be rejected by business leaders in the new paradigm – thus losing all the ground that those who have crossed the chasm have worked so hard to achieve – that of learning becoming a true added value performance support stream within the business. LMS vendors assuring us that their systems will capture social learning is one example of a false concept. Another is the scramble to add on integrative desk tops to LMS – which in reality is the realm of the Enterprise system and should not be part of learning’s scope.

    There is a risk that Downstairs is moving too slowly to respond to the discoveries being explained Upstairs – and that the gulf is widening as the pace of change increases.

    Jane’s suggestion of Upstairs speakers doing some presentations in the Downstairs seminar rooms in order to bridge the divide is one that I am sure would have merit – so long as the vendors attended the sessions to hear what was being said!

  12. I know of learning technology vendors where the CEO writes blogs and books, makes appearances, appears to be the visionary, yet the company’s technology offerings are several eons behind current state. OK, I exaggerate. Still, customers will buy in to the company on account of the CEO’s vision because even if not today, they like the picture and anticipate its fulfillment in the future.

    Upstairs, aren’t we getting people to buy in to the learning technologies vision or at least to keep the faith, in anticipation that one day, hopefully soon, they will see its fulfillment downstairs?

    As Don says, the gap is perfectly natural.

  13. Don – a late entry here ….

    One of the challenges in bringing the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ folk together is the need to incorporate disparate ways of thinking about providing ‘full and rich learning and performance environments’.

    If you’re a CLO or L&D leader – having to navigate through the vagaries of corporate IT and culture, and deal with the limitations of both while at the same time trying to get the ‘best’ possible result for your organisation – you’re probably thinking ‘solutions’ – from the conceptual level through to the nuts-and-bolts that will enable the vision.

    If you’re a vendor you are probably product-focused and believe that your product is ‘the one’ (otherwise why would you be there?). So you’re approaching the CLO’s problems from the nuts-and-bolts end only and thinking ‘products’.

    If you’re a commentator, consultant or independent at the ‘bleeding edge’ you’re probably looking at the intersections between emergent thinking and possibilities and at how CLOs and L&D managers can build their practical solutions using the best tools for the job. Often this involves looking beyond and outside bespoke learning technologies tools to the more generic platforms and environments that are emerging or available – i.e. at the conceptual end of the CLO’s problem and bleeding into the product end.

    If the January event was called (or even just more clearly directed towards) ‘Learning Environments’ or ‘Learning Ecosystems’ or ‘Learning Solutions’ rather than Learning Technologies it may help bring the exhibition and conference closer together. There may be a problem with the event branding of course, so it may have to be a change in focus and mindset only – but many providers are starting to move away from being perceived as pure technology jocks anyway – I’ve noticed that LMS vendors now tend to refer to their technologies as ‘learning platforms’ and will often run a mile rather than use the term ‘LMS’ as it conjures up negative thoughts among many L&D people and their CFOs 😉

  14. For the record, in reviewing the seminar presentation schedule for the two “downstairs” levels, I actually see quite a number of sessions that were on the kinds of topics you are talking about. So I agree with you Donald, that the gap isn’t as large (nor as profound) as I’ve heard some others trying to make it out to be. I count five sessions on social learning / informal learning / collaboration, at least one on the use of games in learning, one on 3D/Virtual Worlds… and no less than ten different sessions on mobile learning (including mine). And then there were many other sessions that covered such “early adopter” or “cutting edge” topics but in a way less recognizable from their session title (one example is my colleague’s session on L&D trends, which covered social, mobile, etc., albeitly briefly each given the 30 minutes.)

    I’d have to do a lot more analysis to determine the overall mix of such topics as a % in the downstairs program vs. the upstairs conference program — but on a quick first glance, I’m not seeing a huge dichotomy between the two. I see *both* as having a good percentage that are, to use the above terminology, early adopter, early majority, and late majority. I actually think Donald and team did a great job — both upstairs and downstairs — in covering the “current” and the “future” of our industry, and not allowing for sessions that are stale and backward looking.

    Beyond the downstairs *sessions*, I can’t really speak to what was being talked about the most at all the vendor stands — but that is because I was so busy demo’ing Mobile Learning on a variety of devices at our Element K stand. The interest was so strong, for good chunks of the show I was doing demo’s non-stop, even with multiple people huddle around my Android phone or iPod Touch, or viewing my BlackBerry simulator. But perhaps other stands were mostly selling old-stuff? I wouldn’t know…

    — Tom Stone

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