1990 The year when everything changed

Around 1990 two significant things happened for the Learning and Development profession. Barely anyone noticed the first. It was an historic shift in the value of companies. For the first time the intangible part of their value – the stuff you can’t see or touch, such as brand, skills and processes – exceeded the tangible part.

Overnight, almost without anyone noticing, we moved from the industrial era where value was based on things, to a new era, where it was based on thoughts. Companies had more value than their competitors not because they had more land or plant or inventory, but because of the unique things they knew and their special ways of working. Skills and knowledge became an integral part of a new economy.

The second significant change was the invention of the world-wide web.

In November 1990 Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau published their short, seminal document ‘WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project’. It was the first time the term world-wide web had been used. It was the first glimpse of something that would revolutionize our relationship with information. And like the transition to a new, intangible economy, the moment passed largely unnoticed.

These two changes have transformed our economies, and are in the middle of changing our societies. They will completely alter the tools we use for learning at work, and the processes we used to support it.


Between them, these two changes will spawn any number of events which 23 years ago would have seemed madly improbable – such as the recent hugely successful flotation of a loss-making company which exists only to provide people worldwide with the ability to exchange individual sentences of unedited text which can be misguided, deeply offensive, inane and – occasionally – useful. In many ways, Twitter, in debt and yet up 72% in value on the day of its stock market floatation and now valued at $18bn, is the wide-eyed, brattish stepchild of those two seminal changes which showed the value of knowledge and gave us the means to move it around the world frictionlessly.

And, however unfathomable some might find it, the world and its future belong to tools such as Twitter.

The implications closer to home – in the Learning and Development function – are no less dramatic, and would have been no more predictable to us in our classrooms 23 years ago than Twitter’s phenomenal success. There are three major implications, and they leave us in L&D with an enormous task – but also with a huge opportunity.


The first implication is simple: training is no longer most people’s route to knowledge. The web saw to that. Since antiquity, there had been just two ways to learn. Read a book, or get face-to-face with an expert. Since 1990, the need to meet in person for knowledge transfer has been steadily ebbing away. Thanks to Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, information is now all but free.

Of course the web has not yet completely done away with training focused on knowledge transfer, but it will do, in time. This will leave classrooms to be put to good use instead, not for learning information, but for practice, for skills development, for inspiration, for roleplaying and for all the things at which faceto- face work excels.

The web provides individuals with a direct route to learning. And that has to be a good thing.


The Learning and Development profession did not bring about this change. It was individuals acting autonomously outside L&D doing what humans have always done – finding things out by asking. In the past we did this by conversation and correspondence. We do the same now, but we converse and correspond over enormous distances and with lightning speed thanks to the web. Little wonder that knowledge transfer in the classroom will become obsolete when it is possible to reach a world expert in almost any field from a computer you carry in your pocket.

As well as making information free, the web (in conjunction with today’s near ubiquitous connectivity) produced the second, transformative effect: today, everyone is connected.

As individuals we have adapted to this fundamental shift in society with a blithe ease that surely scotches the frequent claim that change is hard. The number of letters posted in the UK has fallen by over 20% in the past ten years, and continues to fall by over 5% annually. The post is simply too expensive and too slow for today’s pace of business. Change is hard? We’ve barely noticed our easy move from post to e-mail to IM to ‘face time’. No need for any change programmes here.


The third change is driven in part by the first two. The world moves faster now, too fast for the old methods of the Learning and Development profession to work. The best measure of this is the ‘topple rate’, the rate at which large companies lose their leadership positions. Between 1965 and 2010 the topple rate more than doubled. It’s tough to get to the top and now twice as tough to stay there.

In this fast moving, tough world, executives know intangibles are vital to the business – skills and knowledge in particular. They are the key way of remaining ahead of the game, which is why almost every survey of CEO opinion in the past three years has placed ‘talent’ or ‘skills’ in the top two of executives key concerns. They are fully aware of the implications of that first change in 1990. The value of their organisations, their competitiveness, relies on the intangible value of their employees’ skills, knowledge and attitude.

And this is the opportunity for L&D: to use the opportunities offered by the web to create an environment for the intangible side of the organisation flourish.


In this intense environment, can L&D deliver the skills the business needs? The answer is an equivocal ‘yes’. Equivocal, because the need for speed renders both classroom and traditional e-learning courses largely inadequate. They will suffice for slower changing organisational learning goals such as induction and compliance, but not for the fastest changing, mission critical, urgent ones.

And because they are mission critical, if we don’t tackle these problems, someone else will, someone from outside L&D, probably using a jumble of tools and methods, but they will get the job done just well enough to meet the immediate needs of the business.

That moment when we don’t deal with a business issue because we think we can’t (because it’s changing too fast and is illdefined) or because we’re not asked to (because nobody thinks about the training department as having anything useful to say about mission critical issues) is the moment when we have been consigned to the Training Ghetto. In Training Ghetto, L&D is seen as outside the cut-and-thrust of business, and that’s no place for L&D to be.

But if the business really is to make the most of the post-1990 world, it needs L&D’s expertise at developing skills and knowledge in a world of high-value intangible skills. To make the most of this opportunity, L&D doesn’t need to completely transform itself. It just needs some additional skills, some willing managers with problems to solve and – most importantly – some attitude, a confident swagger that will make the business look at L&D a second time and take it a bit more seriously, as I described in the October issue of this magazine.

The seeds of the tremendous societal change we see today were sown 23 years ago. Today they provide us with the chance to have more impact at work than ever. Let us make the most of this opportunity, liberate learning from the Training Ghetto and establish it where it belongs – at the heart of the organisation.