Today (21 December) is – according to some misunderstood readings of one type of Mayan calendar – supposed to be the end of the world. If you’re alive to read this, you’ll know that’s nonsense.
In fact, it’s millennialist nonsense.
Millennialism is a religious term, first used by Zoroastrians, who saw history in thousand year periods, each of which ended in a cataclysm. The cycle would end when good at last triumphed evil at the end of the final millennium.
Learning technologies are a bit like that.
We go through cycles of believing that a particular technology will be the special one, the one to change everything. It will revolutionize learning at work. The old methods will fall away. Good will at last have triumphed over evil.
Our own cycles of millennialism are shorter – measured in single years, rather than thousands – although the last major surge did indeed occur at the time of the millennium. In 1999 Cisco CEO John Chambers opined that elearning would be so huge that its impact would make email seem like a rounding error. (Remember this is when email was considered a good thing.)
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
What happened instead was that the elearning of the time – crude, linear and unengaging by today’s standards – had its millennial moment, with soaring sales of simple learning management systems driven by C-suite level decision makers deciding that low costs, combined with the glittering promise of speed and geographical reach – the sheer, previously unimaginable scale of the whole thing – meant it was the way of the future. They bought. They were disappointed. Things turned out to be a little more complicated.
We’ve seen the same pattern repeated all too often since with specific technologies. Virtual worlds, for example, have their value, but they are not going to revolutionize workplace learning for most people.
So, what will transform learning at work? The answer is in the question, and it isn’t technology: it’s a better understanding of work and of learning, more interaction with leaders and managers, and a better grip of business issues; a clearer grasp of the science of the mind and how people really learn; an idea of when learning is the answer to a problem, and when it is not. There are no technological silver bullets in that list, just the long, steady, incremental journey towards L&D doing its job better.
The L&D profession is already on the right path – we don’t need the false promise of technological millennialism to succeed. And when have our successes, we should feel justified in celebrating what we ourselves – rather than any technologies – have created.
Let’s celebrate success. We just don’t need to party like it’s 1999.
Adapted from the preface to the November 2012 issue of Inside Learning Technologies Magazine.