2018 – the year of AI in L&D?
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01 June 2018

In the 2018 L&D Global Sentiment Survey, I asked over 1,000 people world-wide what they thought would be ‘hot’ in workplace Learning and Development (L&D). Respondents chose up to 3 options from a list of 15 (they could also suggest alternatives).

On examining the results, two things struck me.

First, ‘Personalization/adaptive delivery’ topped the poll, above ‘Collaborative/social learning’ for the second year running. This year, however, both of these options – which have shared the top two positions for four years – reduced their overall share of the vote.

At least part of that is down to an increase in votes for one particular option: Artificial intelligence (AI). This was the only option focused on technology that rose in comparison with 2017 (moving from eighth to third position), picking up an extra 2.9% of the overall vote on the way.

From interest to impact?
In the five years I have been running this survey, no option has risen so far, so fast, from one year to the next. AI, it seems, is an object of both unprecedented fascination and fear. But the Global Sentiment Survey is concerned with just that – sentiment. It sees how people feel about a trend in L&D. It makes no attempt to predict what will actually happen. So we have to ask, will this increased interest in AI actually amount to anything?

Just PR?
The closest any option on the survey has come to this level of interest is Micro learning, which gained 2.6% of the vote moving from #5 in 2016 to #3 in 2017. Looking at the data, it was clear that this interest was driven from North America, and it seems to have been driven by a flurry of investments in US micro learning companies around 2014/15. This brought an associated uptick in PR and wider messaging around micro learning, which then spread globally. Micro learning dropped to #5 on this year’s poll.

In contrast, interest in AI is growing across all the different territories in the survey, and of course AI has far broader applications than just L&D, unlike micro learning. So I think it unlikely AI in L&D will experience the same PR-driven, temporary surge in interest. The question remains, though: even if interest in AI is maintained, will it deliver?

Time for a bandwagon?
The answer is that AI is already delivering in learning and development. Three examples from the UK: Wildfire creates memorable content; Filtered‘s magpie makes intelligent learning recommendations (disclosure: I am a non-executive director) and Learning Pool uses a smart chat bot as an interface to learning materials. These are all smart, useful applications of AI in learning that are being used in earnest today in L&D.

Success, of course, breeds imitation. In 2016, a slew of vendors jumped on the micro learning bandwagon, claiming that they, too, offered it. In contrast to existing vendors and services like Duolingo, which had been creating coherent learning programmes delivered in small chunks, these new vendors were offering only bits of short, unconnected content. But hell, when something is hot, everyone wants a piece of it.

If, in 2018, enough vendors spuriously claim their offerings are underpinned by AI, we could see a backlash against artificial intelligence in L&D. My guess is that this will most likely happen with chat bots. You can create a chat bot quickly. Designing one that works well and delivers value takes rather more knowledge, time and experience.  And that last bit – experience – is invaluable. Jamie Good wrote a great piece on creating a chat bot for L&D professionals. It’s the accumulation of two years’ experience in this field and shows how knowledge builds over time by the constant testing of ideas.

This need for considered experience, will not, however, prevent some vendors this year adding a chat bot feature to what they already do and claiming they are now ‘powered by AI’. In so doing they will not only weaken their own proposition, they will encourage a wider scepticism in AI in our field.

The price and the prize
Whatever happens with AI and learning technology vendors this year, however, I believe that the longer term picture is very clear: Artificial Intelligence is going to revolutionize our lives, including learning. In particular, the traditional role of L&D in creating and distributing content will change for ever. The huge amount of content available both inside and outside the organisation (see 6 types of learning content) will lead to our role as L&D professionals being far less about creating content, and far more about supporting learning. This will mean a shift towards, for example:

  • Finding ways to find, filter and share great User Generated Content (UGC)
  • Using systems to embed learning content in the workflow
  • Working with managers to identify performance issues
  • Integrating systems to allow faster, more useful, internal knowledge flows

The good news is that with AI, the L&D function can support learning far better. The bad news (for some) is that this does not look like today’s L&D function at all. It is strategic, fully integrated with the business and has very little to do with content creation. All this is made possible by software doing much of the heavy lifting around the finding, creating and distributing of content.

The prize is better learning at work, and we should welcome that. The price, for some, will be a radically different environment for L&D.

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