Last week, we opened the Global Learning Forum at the InsideNGO 2017 conference by discussing the trends affecting learning in international NGOs (INGOs). While many of the 120 participants in the session had specific responsibilities for learning or capacity building in their organizations, it was also exciting to see a diverse group of HR, finance and compliance professionals engaged in the discussion.

We looked at four trends areas:

  1. The use of digital tools for learning in the workplace;
  2. The methods and priorities for leadership development;
  3. Learning design methods and the changing perception of the profession;
  4. The evolution of the learning and development function.

We used several activities to capture participants’ views. It was exciting to quickly see how people reacted to various discussion topics. Here, I summarize those insights into the “state of learning and development in the INGO sector.”

INGOs are generally mapping to private sector trends by adopting digital learning tools with a few curious exceptions

I opened the session by presenting data around the use of digital tools for learning, gathered from a quick survey of the hot topics at recent learning conferences, excerpts from various articles, blogs and industry reports. Yes, there are the frontier topics of augmented reality and chatbots.  But the consensus of my unscientific survey of the 2017 trends confirmed that self-directed learning on multiple devices is growing fast.

Content is no longer king because context, curation and social tools are becoming more important. First generation e-learning is still widely used, and it is becoming less favored compared with shorter bits of learning (aka microlearning). Video learning is on the rise. And mobile is here now. A recent Towards Maturity report highlights that at least 2/3 of workers learn on their phone. Seventy-five percent of that learning is happening in collaboration tools or Google, and 64% of workers are accessing self-paced elearning.

So, to get a feel for the participants in the room, we used Kahoot! to gather flash reactions about 18 different tools or trends. When asked to rate a trend as “here to stay,” “passing fad,” or “what’s that?” some interesting insights emerged.

Participants generally agreed that self-directed e-learning, mobile-first learning, social, and video were here to stay in our sector—consistent with private sector trends.

Many felt that gamification, serious games, and virtual reality were a passing fad. But, this response was somewhat contradicted by three other workshops in the conference, each of which showcased a new use of games for learning in our sector and attracted an energetic response. So, perhaps games are still in the early adoption phase.

More curious were three trends that generated a high response of “passing fad” or “what’s that?” The use or understanding of data analytics in learning was well below 50%. This shows room for improvement in a sector that is becoming even more focused on quantitative outcomes. Curation was poorly understood with lots of “what’s that?” responses. Yet, curation should enable us to better share learning resources amongst NGOs and to adapt them to local communities and context.

Lastly, the use of social messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram was rated by many as a passing fad. I know of significant use of these tools for short courses and learning communities in both the global south and in conflict zones—so perhaps the ranking reflects the demographics of the participants in the session. Beyond the US, these apps are more commonly used in daily life, are low cost and are secure. Yes, the particular apps for real time messaging may change, and I would challenge all of us to experiment with them as part of our toolkit to reach the hardest to reach learners.

The complexity of our work and the need to engage employees are top priorities for leadership development.

I shared several blogs and articles highlighting the most pressing trends for leadership development in 2017. We then broke people into small groups to debate the results of the 2017 Forum Report on leadership development trends. They ranked the trends by relevance to development and humanitarian work using Survey Monkey.

Not surprisingly, 83% of the groups rated complexity in the environment as one of the top three trends (and challenges) facing organizations in our sector. This confirms our reports that INGO leadership are under tremendous pressure to transform their operating and business models. Also, 70% of the groups ranked employee engagement in the top three. This likely reflects the pressure that our work, and the stretch on funding and staffing levels, is having on individual employees.

Most groups ranked talent shortages in the bottom third which is a contrast to the talent wars in the private sector. Most surprising to me were the low rankings for investing in line leaders and the transition away from boot-camp style leadership development programs. The way we asked the question obviously forced something to fall to the bottom of the rankings. However, we also need a new generation of leaders. We need to also invest in those leaders most able to have an impact on employee engagement. Research always shows that this is our direct supervisor. And, those leaders are less interested in developing their leadership skills in the same way previous generations did. They want shorter, more interactive, and more digital programs.

The need for measurement and outcomes—especially for donors—may be preventing INGOs from moving faster with adopting new learning tools and methods.

According to a recent LinkedIn report, only 25% of learning professionals would recommend their programs to their peers. When I presented this data point at the conference, it was met with uneasy smiles, nods and few eye pops. ATD’s data that shows that despite the dramatically changing tools for learning and the significant increase in do-it-yourself (DIY) learning by learners and content creators alike, learning professionals are relying on the same approaches to design and development. What did our community have to say?

We collected a wide range of handwritten comments on large post-its making the case for learning design in the future. Most the comments defended the need for professional learning design. They used traditional arguments such as research-based methods, consistency/quality, the ability to help subject matter experts translate their knowledge etc. Yes, maybe. But, guess what? Our employees are sending a strong message that they may know better what works. They are using the DIY tools available to them to develop informal learning at an accelerating pace.

Two other sets of comments appeared multiple times—and both are interesting in the context of other trends. First, several people made the case that our donors and funders are expecting us to prove the outcomes of our investments in learning and capacity building. They argued that we needed professionals to do that work and make sense of the data. I agree—which is why I was concerned that the use of data and analytics scored poorly in the Kahoot! survey.  In addition, the needs of donors seemed to be causing some to defend more traditional learning approaches. The ability to measure and prove effectiveness may actually be easier as we move ahead with new tools and methods, than with traditional approaches. So, let’s not be afraid to experiment.

Secondly, many people said something like, “sure anybody can create content, but what about meaning, context, and connections between that content.” That is curation. Again, about 50% of the Kahoot! responses to curation were “what’s that.” Luckily, there are great resources from Julian Stodd and David Holcombe that can help anyone get up to speed quickly as a learning curator.

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