Somewhere Over the Rainbow – Reflecting on Learning 2016

The Axonify team joined 1,600 learning and performance professionals earlier this week at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida for Learning 2016. We had great conversations, attended a variety of insightful breakout sessions and keynotes and shared our approach to fostering a modern learning ecosystem and continuous learning experience.

This conference is unlike many other L&D events in that presentation proposals are not openly solicited. Rather, event coordinators invite specific organizations and practitioners to share their ideas on desired topics. As a result, I noticed a definite set of recurring themes. Here’s a summary of messages that really stood out as essential principles for today’s workplace learning professionals.

Access Impacts Perception

CNN’s Anderson Cooper was the premiere keynote speaker for Learning 2016. Unlike many industry conferences, Learning keynoters don’t really present. Rather, they sit alongside Elliott Masie for an informal interview that explores their background, work and personal experiences with learning. I was already a fan of Anderson’s and found his conversation super interesting. For example, I had no idea Gloria Vanderbilt was his mother and that he has an awkwardly-close friendship with comedian Kathy Griffin. He also spoke about the 2016 U.S. presidential election and his recent role as a debate moderator, which he compared to wartime combat reporting.


Sketchnote of Anderson Cooper’s on-stage interview

While talking about his extensive work abroad, Anderson addressed the pervasive public opinion that the world is in horrible condition. In his informed opinion and as supported by a variety of metrics, the world is a better place than ever before. He credited our new and unrelenting access to information for enabling this gloomy perception. He spoke about negativity bias and the fact that negative news stories unfortunately foster better TV ratings.

This made me think about the impact increased information access has on today’s employees. Now that we work in a highly-networked world, it is nearly impossible for organizations to control information flow to their employees. Rather, people now have the tools necessary to push and pull information as needed and therefore exert greater ownership over the way work is done. Organizations must adjust to this reality and support knowledge sharing in a way that promotes autonomy and engagement.

The Value of Outside Inspiration

Katie Rose Clarke of Broadway fame performed throughout Learning 2016, including a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to introduce Anderson Cooper. What does she have to do with workplace learning? Well, nothing really. Elliott Masie is a theatrical producer and tends to integrate his interests into his events. Along the way, he also referenced the value of including performance art in the workplace as a way to energize and inspire people.

Am I going to start suggesting musical numbers as part of my learning strategies? Probably not. However, I do find the point regarding outside inspiration to be extremely valuable. As learning professionals, we should not limit ourselves to industry-specific conversations and resources. Rather, we should branch out to related fields and find new routes to innovation. For example, game designers have mastered a variety of psychological tactics that can be applied directly to workplace learning initiatives. Marketing professionals are also great sources of information related to design, engagement and motivation. To quickly and effectively improve our workplace learning practices, we should leverage existing ideas that have successfully changed behavior and yielded results.

Failure is Essential

Anderson Cooper is a journalist. Scott Kelly is a retired astronaut. Melissa Daimler is a talent executive. Karl Kapp is a professor and gamification expert. They all spoke to the critical importance of failure as part of the learning process. This isn’t a new message for learning professionals. However, it’s a message often missed by the people we support. We preach the value of failure in the workplace only to punish it with tricky assessment questions and poorly-delivered feedback. I faced this challenge when I first introduced question-based learning, as people were scared to get the questions wrong due to their past experience with tests.


Melissa Daimler (SVP – Talent, WeWork) sharing her insights on workplace learning with Elliott Masie

Productive failure must be built into our learning and performance strategies. People must be provided with clear expectations and understand the difference between acceptable and critical failure. Training should be challenging, but not tricky. Incorrect answers should be positioned as learning opportunities, not signs of inadequacy. Immediate feedback should be provided along with access to additional support information. As Karl noted, players never beat the game in the first try. It takes turn after turn to master the skills needed to defeat the boss and rescue the princess (for those Mario Bros. fans out there).

Learning 2016 stands apart as a unique entry in the industry event calendar. Broadway performers, horserace highlights, and real (Scott Kelly) and imaginary (George Takei) space travelers sat alongside some of the field’s most promising (30 under 30) and seasoned learning professionals for three days to share their insights and experiences. Like any conference, the real value isn’t just in the conversations that happen on-location. It’s about what we do with important messages, like those above, when we get home and face the day-to-day problems of the modern workplace.

Did you attend Learning 2016 or follow the conversation via the backchannel? How will the information shared during event influence your ongoing work as a learning professional?

JD is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. His practical approach integrates science, technology, storytelling and pure common sense to enable employees, improve performance and drive business results. For 20 years, JD has executed strategies for global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company.

Looking for more information? We’d love to talk.