Great Minds on Learning: Expert Insights From John Helmer
Training & Learning

Great Minds on Learning: Expert Insights From John Helmer

Many L&D leaders began their careers in different fields before settling into learning and development roles. That’s the beautiful thing about L&D—it attracts people from a wide range of professionals.

On the other hand, one could argue that this makes L&D a relatively young field, with limited theory behind it. And as my guest this week, John Helmer, Host and Founder of two outstanding Learning & Development podcasts: The Learning Hack and Great Minds on Learning says, the L&D space can be seen as less professionalized than disciplines like law, economics, or marketing.  

In this L&D podcast recap (check out the full episode here), John shares his insights on the L&D discipline and the people and approaches that have informed so much of the L&D profession.

Read on to hear about John’s L&D journey through his conversations with Donald Clark on the Great Minds on Learning podcast, the importance of grounding any discipline in theory, and how to apply a marketing lens to your L&D practice.

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Representing the learner to ground an expert’s insights

On the Great Minds on Learning podcast, John sees himself as a barometer of general ignorance to slightly ground Donald Clark as Alan Davies does opposite Sandi Toksvig in the television series QI.

“This is something that comes up as part of learning theory,” he explains. “An expert who knows everything doesn't know what they don't know and finds it very difficult to engage with people who know a lot less. Experts tend to seal off their access to the state when they knew less.”

As I previously discussed with Dr. Richard Clark on the Learning and Development podcast, this is called Educated Incapacity—when you know so much about something you find it difficult to empathize with those who are much earlier on in their journey.

“This is very true when working with SMEs,” John explains, “you have to interview several SMEs to get the full picture of the topic. You can't just interview one because they'll leave out a lot of information that has become so embedded and automatized in their practice that they no longer even notice it.”

John sees his role on the podcast as being there to help the expert, Donald, unpack his expertise and knowledge to help the listener along their learning journey. But what has been John’s perception of L&D, and how has it changed from episode to episode?

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L&D can be a challenging profession 

As John and Donald’s discussions moved forward, John grew to understand how difficult L&D can be. 

“One example,” he says, “focusing on an upcoming episode on evolutionary psychology, is the discovery that our brains are evolved to do a very different job to the one we call on to do today.”

“We actually have two brains,” he says. “This feeds into Daniel Kahneman's theory about thinking fast and slow. We have these knee-jerk biases and reactions to people in situations that come from the hunter-gatherer's brain, and those have to be overcome regarding the more developed brain that sits on top of that.”

“I can see that some L&D leaders who lack this knowledge might be working with some less authoritative models they picked up along the way,” John explains. 

The trouble is, if you only have these less authoritative models, L&D professionals will struggle. The whole remit of what learning is within an organization depends on the knowledge of why learning can be complex. 

“There is an inherent problem, first of all, in increasing people’s knowledge and then communicating that knowledge to other people,” says John. “It’s worth looking at the best Chief Learning Officers and how they navigate these situations—there are some very impressive people in the profession.”

So, why does John believe that L&D professionals may not be aware of the learning theories and science needed to make a difference?

Related: Expert Insights Vol 3: How to Become the L&D Leader You've Always Wanted to Be

The importance of grounding a profession in theory 

One reason John believes why L&D professionals aren’t aware of learning theory is due to the L&D field not being as highly professionalized as other disciplines.

“Other professionals such as lawyers, economists, and marketers, have studied these subjects at university,” he explains. “It's worth saying that perhaps the core discipline of L&D is psychology, which seems a fairly important discipline to engage with if you're going to go into the L&D field.”

As John and Donald have discovered on the Great Minds on Learning podcast, psychology is a young science compared to economics. As he explains, Kahneman says that economists have to deal with highly contestable knowledge divided among different schools or strands, which is valid for other disciplines such as law and marketing. 

It's worth saying that perhaps the core discipline of L&D is psychology, which seems a fairly important discipline to engage with if you're going to go into the L&D field.

“Educating oneself in a professional discipline is all about dealing with the fact that people don't agree with one another. That is part of learning a professional discipline that isn't necessarily appreciated within L&D. When you begin to engage with all this stuff, that becomes abundantly clear.”

But how, from an L&D professional’s perspective, does the theory wrap around, support, or supplement learning and development as a discipline?

An interplay of theory and practice is crucial for leadership roles

In any discipline, John explains, a professional needs a balanced interplay of theory and practice to obtain a top-level position.

In marketing, for example, when John recruited a marketing executive straight out of college who had studied marketing strategy, they tended to need more practical skills. 

“I would say to them, ‘Look, that stuff isn't much use to me right now. It isn’t much use to you right now, but as you progress in your career, you will find that you'll lean on it more and more’,” he says. 

“The reverse is people who are naturally talented marketers, who instinctively understand how to market to people. These professionals will progress quickly through their careers. However, at some point they’ll hit a wall because they don’t know any of the theoretical background.”

In John’s experience, as people level-up, they will need to deploy strategic skills based on theory. “If you don't want it to stop your career, you have to engage with the theory,” he explains.

“I think that because L&D is a less professionalized discipline, people are often backfilling. We thought the Great Minds on Learning podcast would be helpful to people when we set it up. And thus, that’s proved accurate—I'm constantly being told that we're doing a great service to the profession.”

As people level-up, they will need to deploy strategic skills based on theory. If you don't want it to stop your career, you have to engage with the theory.

Applying a marketing lens to L&D

When reflecting on applying a marketing lens to learning and development, John sees marketing communications strategy, or Marcomms, as the most relevant to L&D. 

“As learning and development methods have moved out of the classroom, many of the activities have become digital media in a sense. So, anything that helps you use digital media more powerfully and appropriately will help you, and Marcomms is great for that,” he says. 

As John explains, in Marcomms, you want to get people’s attention, engage their interests, and provoke their desire. The aim is to get people involved with the content and to take action afterwards. 

“On the other hand, there are aspects of marketing that aren’t as relevant for L&D. There is no buy button on a learning program. In L&D, we are not trying to sell people something,” John says. “We're trying to make people's lives better. There's a lot of counterintuitive stuff involved that we have to get around to make learning work, stick, and transfer into performance.”

In L&D, we are not trying to sell people something. We're trying to make people's lives better. There's a lot of counterintuitive stuff involved that we have to get around to make learning work, stick, and transfer into performance.

One aspect L&D professionals should consider when it comes to making learning work is when to reinvent the wheel and when not to.

Disentangle the new from the reinvented

To illustrate how the L&D profession tends to reinvent what’s been and gone, remaining in stasis versus genuine progression, John uses a recent conversation between L&D industry titans Nick Shackleton-Jones and Guy Wallace on Twitter. 

“Nick Shackleton-Jones said that people keep denying when new things come up because they're scared of newness and innovation—we've heard this all before,” he says. 

“Then, Guy Wallace replies that it is true, but that there is this tendency in L&D to repackage old approaches to try and flog it as something new. He has an acronym for this, WOINA. What’s Old Is New Again.”

Over the last two decades, John has seen this issue coming up again and again. In his experience, approaches will return due to the profession having a short memory, without entrenched professionalism grounded in theory.

“I'd like to say that both Nick Shackleton-Jones and Guy Wallace are both right. Our job as professionals in any field is to disentangle what is valuable about the new, not to be scared of the innovation and disruptions it causes, and to recognise when people are trying to pull the wool over your eyes,” John explains. 

So, what about strategies for learning? How should L&D professionals approach learning?

Drink deep: a strategy for learning about learning

When it comes to learning about learning, John’s experience is that you need humility and ambition for your profession

When he talks about humility, John means that we shouldn’t jump on the first model or theory we come across, using it solely to try and make an impact. There will always be other options around the corner.

“You've got to be careful about latching onto one thing, thinking it is a magic bullet, and be aware that a little learning is dangerous. You need to ‘drink deep’ to quote Alexander Pope,” he says. 

Once you start trying to learn, John explains, you need to be heads-in. Although you will pick up bits and pieces all the time while you learn, if you are at the beginning of your journey, it will take a while before you begin to really get a map of the territory. 

“The strategy for learning has to be an understanding of the thing that you're engaging with, and how contradictory, confusing, rich, sprawling, and interesting the L&D field is,” he says. “The ambition you should have is for your learning, but also for the elevation of your profession to where it rightly belongs as at the heart of driving modern economies.”

Thanks to John for sharing his insights and learning from the conversations he’s led with Donald Clark and other guests! Keen to learn more from Donald Clark? Check out my conversation with him about AI models that will transform the L&D function

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