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:
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.