Balancing Points in the Business of Lifelong Learning

BY Jeff Cobb

Given the interactive and collaborative nature of the Leading Learning Symposium, there is only so much of it that works well for video capture. We are, however, starting to release recordings from parts of the 2015 symposium where some of the value can be conveyed by video. This clip is from comments made during the opening Community Assembly. Below is a rough transcription – modified somewhat to make it work better in written text.  You can also access the slides referenced here.

Stay tuned over the coming weeks as we release additional recordings, in particular from the Content Pods™ at the event. And be sure to check out the site of the 2016 Leading Learning Symposium.


As a result of putting together an event like the Leading Learning Symposium, I spent a lot of time thinking about lifelong learning, the market for lifelong learning, the business of lifelong learning. Clearly, we are at a point where there is tremendous opportunity. The need and demand have never been larger. At the same time, there is a lot more competition. The dynamics of the market are a lot different than they were even a few years ago.

As leaders in the market, as we look at the pressures of competition, at all of the opportunity out there – a lot of which has been created by technology – we are at a point where really have to strike a balance between sometimes conflicting ideas and opportunities.

In thinking about this, I came up with several balancing points – areas in which I think we need to be careful as we move forward.

Product and Process

We focus a lot on creating the “right” product with the idea that if we just get the right mix of content, of features, then everything will work out. We’ll get the customers and learning that we want. But we have to balance this against the reality that learning is not an event, it’s not a product, its not just “content.” It is a process.

Learning requires context, it requires time. Learning is messy. A lot of learning is highly informal. So, strategically, we need to balance how we approach the creation of learning experiences and put a a good bit more weight on process than on product moving forward.

Personal and Communal

Personalization is, of course, a huge buzzword these days. You can probably think of instances in which you have pushed for personalization within the context of your own business. You may, for example, aim to be like the of your market – we hear a lot of organizations say they want that. That’s a seductive and admirable idea. We do want to be able to personalize experiences for our learners, to make sure they fit the specific needs of the learner.

But there is also the danger of narrowing so much that it becomes an insular experience in which the learner has little opportunity to see broader perspectives and insights. We have to keep in mind the communal aspect of learning – the very thing we are engaged in at the Leading Learning Symposium. We must ask ourselves how we make sure the sharing of ideas, the introduction of new ideas, the creating of connections is at least a much, if not more a part of what we do with our learning experiences, with our learning businesses as the drive toward personalization is.

Application and Reflection

Learning experiences need to be highly relevant – a key word in the world of adult learning – and immediately applicable. People need to be able to get their takeaways and apply them right way when they get back to the office.

Again, an admirable impulse, but it needs to be balanced against the fact that reflection is often the space where the most, the best, the deepest learning occurs. We have to balance it with the need to provide white space.


The time for people to absorb and then be able to integrate over time into what they are doing . Again, the idea of process.

As leaders, we need to make sure we are factoring this into the types of experiences we are providing out to our market place.

Convenience and Effort

A fourth balancing point is between convenience and effort. There has been a big emphasis in recent years on making things as convenient as possible for the learner. Again, an admirable impulse. We’re all busy people. We want things to be as convenient as possible. We want our learning served up to us so we can access it immediately and get on with it. We want to be able to buy our year of CPE for $500 or our lifetime CLE for $750 and just be able to get it and get done with it.

And that’s admirable, but again, we have to balance that against the fact that we know – particularly those of you have read some or all of Make It Stick – that real learning is almost always effortful. You’ve got to put your head into it. You’ve got to put your heart into it. You’ve got to put some effort into it. You usually have to take some risks. You usually have to get a little bit uncomfortable. And that stands in opposition, most times, to the idea of convenience. So, we have to be careful to strike that balance.

Competency and imagination

The next balancing point is between competency and imagination. Right up there with personalization, competency is another one of those buzzwords that we hear all the time now. Organizations want to create competencies. They want to design their learning around competencies. They want to design the path to competency that their learners can follow to get all of the answers and to have all of the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their careers.

And, again, this is an admirable impulse. We want to be able to help people recognize the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a particular field or industry. But as I think about the concept of competency, the poet T.S. Eliot comes to mind. Eliot wrote that we often dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” And I think of competencies as systems so perfect that we don’t need to think outside of them at all.

But, of course, that’s not the way to move a field, profession, or industry forward. You have to be able to think outside the boxes. You have to be able to apply imagination. So, we should by all means be focusing on competency, but we have to balance it with the need for imagination.

Machines and Humans

The last balancing point I’ll highlight – the one that rules them all – is the balancing point between machines and humans. Depending on how much you have been following advances in areas like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and deep learning you may be more or less aware that machines, for the most part, can do everything in the left column better than we can. In terms of providing and delivering learning experiences that focus on product, that focus on personalization, on application, on convenience, and on competency – machines are going to be better at that.

So, as we think about how we balance going forward and where the opportunities in the market for lifelong learning are going to be going forward, I think we have to be competent – as the left column suggests. We have to learn how to leverage the technology to make us more competent in the areas on the left side, but that’s going to be the price of entry in many way. It’s going to be the right column, the human column, that’s really going to represent the opportunity in the market for lifelong learning and the business of lifelong learning.

Our hope is that we have designed this event to strike a balance between the columns. That we are covering both in one way or another. But I think you will see – you probably already have seen – we’ve got a little bit more of an emphasis at the symposium on the right column as we think about the concept of leadership and what it really means to be leading learning as we move forward.

Now I’m going to step aside and Celisa’s going to talk a bit about what we have put together for the Leading Learning Symposium. (View Celisa’s comments.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *