Training & Learning

Standing on the Shoulders of L&D Giants With Mirjam Neelen

The Learning and development field is constantly evolving. But at the same time, we as L&D professionals tend to revisit and reinvent what has come before. In addition, we have myriad viewpoints and influences on how to conduct learning all fighting for our attention.  

But what if we told you that it doesn’t have to be complicated? That all it takes to start making an impact is to follow an L&D trailblazer–a giant in our profession who has already done the hard work and research. 

In this podcast recap (check out the full episode here), I speak with Mirjam Neelen, Head of Global Learning Design and Learning Sciences at Novartis, about the emerging trends that have their origins in the past and the pioneers that we all need to pay more attention to.

Read on to hear more about why in Mirjam’s experience, standing on the shoulders of L&D giants is so crucial when trying to make an impact.

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Standing on the shoulders of L&D giants

As Mirjam explains, we should draw on the fundamental theories and evidence that researchers have already contributed to understand more about how people learn and what that means for how we should design learning experiences. 

“We should become more knowledgeable about these giants so we can see that when we come up with some new ‘innovation’ or bandwagon we all jump onto, we can understand that this is actually old wine in new bottles.” she says.

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Climbing the beanstalk towards L&D

After completing a masters in psycholinguistics, Mirjam started her career as a speech therapist. However, she became very frustrated because, at the time, the speech therapy practice was not evidence-based. 

“I attempted to get up to speed on the evidence, but there was not a lot of interest in the field yet,” she says. “So, I quit and started learning about learning theory and instructional design theory, and the models like Dick and Carey, and the ten steps to complex learning.”

Mirjam was aware that there was a lot of research out there, though she admits that when she started working as an instructional designer and did a lot of eLearning development, she had to learn a lot about practice.

“I also fell into traps,” she explains. “I was a 70/20/10 believer and thought that adults were good as self-directed learners. I think it was mostly when I started working with Paul Kirschner, about six years ago, when I really started to realize that there is so much out there that we can use.”

So, what are we missing if we don't have that foundation in evidence? In Mirjam’s experience, we lack the focus required to effect change.

The two elements needed to find focus

If you don’t have any knowledge of the evidence out there, of L&D’s history, and how things evolve, Mirjam explains, then it becomes challenging to find focus. 

For example, a growing trend is people incorporating neuroscience into the mix. They leap from a study on rats to human behavior to what that means for our design practice. “Yes, it is interesting to understand this type of research, but it doesn’t help us to find the focus that we need,” she says. 

To Mirjam, focus comes down to two elements: why L&D exists and to focus on design according to need.

1. Why is L&D here?

First, you need to ask yourself why L&D exists in an organization.

“We exist to help people do their jobs better so that the business can get better results,” says Mirjam. “And if we do it really well, then we also help people to have a job in the future and ideally have a job that they enjoy.” 

We exist to help people do their jobs better so that the business can get better results. If we do it really well, then we also help people to have a job in the future and ideally have a job that they enjoy.

Next up, you should focus your design on the problem you’re trying to solve. 

2. Where do we focus our design?

Second, Mirjam explains that L&D leaders should consider where to focus their energy.

“We need to ask ourselves: do we need all this content we continuously hammer out? Do we need to make it slick, or can it just be very simple?” she says. “To me, what's most important is: if you understand what the research tells us about how we learn, then it helps you define focus in terms of the type of need you’re dealing with.”

For example, if it's something people need to access on a day-to-day basis to do their job, you can offer performance support. However, you then need to determine the type of performance support. Is it rule-based support? Or is it a more systematic approach to support? 

“So, you should be making these distinctions,” says Mirjam. “I haven’t seen that happening in any organizations I have worked in. People tend to stay at a very high level, and then design.”

“The skills trend is a good example, and it makes me laugh and super frustrated at the same time. Why is this suddenly such a trend? What have we been doing all these years if it wasn't about upskilling people?”

If we believe that skills are so critical, as Mirjam explains, why is nobody talking about task analysis? Why is nobody talking about cognitive task analysis? Why aren't we trying to understand what this skill looks like in practice and what it takes for someone to develop it?

But why does L&D appear to have a blind spot when it comes to analysis? According to Mirjam, it starts with a lack of L&D entry-level standards.

Why L&D entry-level standards are crucial

“People enter the field with the best intentions: with passion, enthusiasm, and often with a lot of subject-matter expertise in a certain domain, which is fantastic, especially if you collaborate,” Mirjam explains, “but as a consequence, we end up with a group of practitioners who are not professionals.”

“That has a snowballing effect as they're unable to have the right conversations with stakeholders, which is why we're still stuck in an order-taking situation because we don't have the capabilities to explain to our stakeholders why things need to be done a certain way.”

Mirjam goes on to explain that throughout her career she has seen L&D folks frustrated because they can't convince their stakeholders. But after hearing the discussions, she understands the reason why stakeholders don’t offer their support because sometimes L&D leaders fail to approach the situation in the correct way. 

“L&D leaders should be approaching the situation by highlighting what their stakeholders are trying to achieve and showing them why there’s a gap between what they want to achieve and what they are asking for,” she says.

L&D leaders should be approaching the situation by highlighting what their stakeholders are trying to achieve and showing them why there’s a gap between what they want to achieve and what they are asking for.

So, what do you need to do to get to the right place in your practice? Mirjam explains that it begins with capability.

Start with enabling skills

When it comes to standing on the shoulders of giants, Mirjam says it’s all about L&D teams’ capabilities.

“The way to think about this is through the lens of complex skills,” she explains. “Stakeholder management is not a separate skill–it's an enabling skill. And there are a couple of enabling skills, knowledge, and attitudes.”

1. The knowledge of how people learn

The key enabling skill focuses on performance consulting, analysis, and perhaps a little system thinking.

“We need to think more holistically,” says Mirjam. “I don't think that every one in learning and development field needs to be able to do performance consulting well—we also need people to focus on what types of expertise we need to run learning and development departments effectively.”

“But we should leverage performance consultants in our groups. We need to rely on people who know a lot about how people learn and how to design for learning, especially in cases where the performance consultant identifies that the organization does need a learning solution, but performance support.”

2. The design phase

Next is the design phase–prototyping, testing, co-creating, and partnering. 

“In my experience,” explains Mirjam, “when you partner with various stakeholders, you end up with a better solution because you understand what is needed in the reality of people's jobs and the business.”

“Then there’s the deployment and the portfolio management that's critical to ensuring you invest strategicailly and to remain in budget. You need to know what to focus your energy on and what not to. Often, new ideas will sound interesting, but won’t be important for the business at this point,” she says.

Mirjam has some practical advice to help you stand on the shoulders of giants and appreciate the work of pioneers that have come before us.

Finding your L&D giants

If you’re looking to start standing on the shoulders of L&D giants, Mirjam has some great expert tips for where you can begin.

First, Mirjam recommends reading How Learning Happens by Hendrick and Kirschner. “I'm recommending this book because it discusses key classic research articles everybody should know. When you are aware of these articles, you will recognize quickly how much other work is related and how things are connected.”

Some L&D giants

Mirjam recommends that you follow Guy Wallace as he helps you focus on the right things and talks about performance improvements. And Paul Kirschner, who she calls her partner in crime, is very knowledgeable. 

“Donald Clark is also highly knowledgeable in many areas,” Mirjam says,” He is well worth following, and so is reading his book on learning experience design and AI in learning. And 

Jane Bozarth is doing great work for the Learning Guild. Her research reports are excellent.” 

“I also recommend Will Thalheimer’s LTEM model and smiles sheet work, but he also has a lot of practical things based on research that you can use,” she says.

Strip it and flip it

When you run into content on social media, Mirjam suggests that you read, listen, and watch through a specific lens. 

“Make a distinction between research asking leaders for their opinion, which is not a very high-level quality of research–it’s just people’s opinions. And keep an eye out for pseudoscience and what I said about neuroscience. Be careful with making leaps, big claims, and nice-looking numbers,” she says.

To help you think about the quality of a post or video, Mirjam says that applying Daniel Willingham’s ‘strip it and flip it’ steps help you approach the content with a critical eye.

Thanks to Mirjam for sharing her insights on standing on the shoulders of L&D giants. Keen to learn from more L&D experts? Check out my conversation with Nigel Paine about his methods for implementing evidence-based L&D practice and how to avoid falling for the latest L&D craze.

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