CrowdThinking Project on L&D Professionalization

At the L&D Conference 2020, which starts in a few days (seats still available), we are hosting the CrowdThinking Project, a two-pronged crowdsourced exploration designed to create a future-vision for the L&D field.

You and I, as learning professionals, are effective–but certainly, if there were more and better structural supports within the industry, within our organizations, within ourselves; you and I might be even more effective in our work.

First Part

The first part of the CrowdThinking Project is a survey of people like you to gather data along seven factors that influence our effectiveness and professionalization.

  1. The competencies, skills, and abilities we have as professionals
  2. The requirements and training/education needed to enter the L&D field
  3. The feedback we get on our effectiveness (learning evaluation)
  4. The support we get from our trade organizations
  5. The support/guidance we get from our graduate programs and universities
  6. The support and constraints from our business/organizational stakeholders
  7. The effort, direction, and perseverance we lend to our own development.

I developed this survey with the help from Fernando Senior.

This survey is open to all L&D professionals. I ask you to share it widely with your colleagues and friends in the L&D field.


Second Part

The second part of the CrowdThinking Project will take place within the L&D Conference (sorry, only if you’ve enrolled). Fernando Senior will take us through a modified world-cafe-style dialogue, focusing on four key questions.

  1. Consider your current circumstances in your L&D work situation—and more importantly, how those circumstances will change as a result of future trends in learning, technology, business, and society. Given the future you imagine, what will be the most important challenges to your work in L&D?
  2. What capabilities will L&D professionals like us need to acquire in anticipation of these upcoming challenges—to maximize our level of professionalization and our effectiveness?
  3. Whether today or in the future, how can we L&D professionals evidence and document our level of professionalization or maturity—in ways that will be understood and respected, and in ways that will add to our effectiveness.
  4. What other factors—besides our knowledge, skills, and attitudes—influence our ability to maximize our effectiveness? And, how will we be able to utilize these factors in the future to support our effectiveness?


Third Part

We will generate a report or reports on the findings of the survey and the discussions with recommendations for how the L&D field can continue to maintain and develop professionalization standards and practices.

How You Can Help

The most important thing I’d ask you to do right now, if you are in the workplace learning field is:

  1. Complete the survey (it’s not short. It takes 30 minutes)
  2. Ask others you know in L&D if they would consider it.

Joining the Conference

The L&D Conference 2020 runs over six weeks, it’s going to be truly amazing, and it starts in a few days (June 22 to July 31). Here’s the conference website:

This is my conference. I’m the co-host along with my podcast partner, Matt Richter.

I know it’s last minute, so if you have trouble getting the funding figured out from your organization and want to get started, feel free to contact me to see if I can help.

Use this contact page to email me:

The L&D Conference—a quixotic attempt to reinvent conferencing. Aligning conference activities with how we humans actually learn. It’s an online conference, taking place over six weeks. It enables attendees to learn in the flow of their work. So they can use what they’re learning, share with their teammates back in the office, try things out, get advice, stay motivated and inspired to apply their new learning. The conference is the brainchild of Matt Richter and I, and we are now joined by marketing guru Ashley Sinclair. We are so excited to share this with you!

Unfortunately, when people think of online conferences, they think mediocre webinars strung together over one or two or a few days. THIS AIN’T THAT! We would NEVER design a conference that ignored the fundamentals of human learning!

We think you’ll like:

  • our global conference
  • our world-class speakers
  • our research-inspired sessions
  • our rollicking debates
  • our panels
  • our discount house
  • our sponsorship opportunities

BUT IF YOU NEED MORE CONVINCING—or you think YOUR BOSS might need convincing, we can help.

Download this gorgeous document. It makes the business case for joining us in the first L&D Conference.

And actually, the document does more than that. It persuades, in glorious detail, why this will be the best, most effective, and boldest L&D conference ever.


Click this Sentence to See the Detailed Document


Click this Sentence to See the Less Detailed Webpage


Conferences can be beautiful things—helping us learn, building relationships that help us grow and bring us joy, prompting us to see patterns in our industry we might miss otherwise, helping us set our agenda for what we need to learn more fully.


Conferences can be ugly things—teaching us myths, reinforcing our misconceptions, connecting us to people who steer us toward misinformation, echo chambers of bad thinking, a vendor-infested shark tank that can lead us to buy stuff that’s not that helpful or is actually harmful, pushing us to set our learning agenda on topics that distract us from what’s really important.

Given this dual reality, your job as a conference attendee is to be smart and skeptical, and work to validate your learning. In the Training Maximizers model, the first goal is ensuring our learning interventions are built from a base of “valid, credible content.” In conferences, where we curate our own learning, we have to be sure we are imbibing the good stuff and avoiding the poison. Here, I’ll highlight a few things to keep in mind as you attend a conference. I’ll aim to make this especially relevant for this year, 2018, when you are likely to encounter certain memes and themes.

Drinking the Good Stuff

  • Look for speakers who have a background doing two things, (1) studying the scientific research (not opinion research), and (2) working with real-world learning professionals in implementing research-based practices.
  • If speakers make statements without evidence, ask for the evidence or the research—or be highly skeptical.
  • If things seem almost too good to be true, warn yourself that learning is complicated and there are no magic solutions.
  • Be careful not to get sucked into group-think. Just because others seem to like something, doesn’t necessarily make it good. Think for yourself.
  • Remember that correlation does not mean causation. Just because some factors seem to move in the same direction doesn’t mean that one caused the other. It could be the other way around. Or some third factor may have caused both to move in the same direction.

Prepare Yourself for This Year’s Shiny Objects

  • Learning Styles — Learning Styles is bogus, but it keeps coming up every year. Don’t buy into it. Learn about it first. The Debunker.Club has a nice post on why we should avoid learning styles. Read it. And don’t let people tell you that learning styles if bad but learning preferences is good. They’re pulling the wool.
  • Dale’s Cone with Percentages — People do NOT remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they read, 30% of what they see (or anything similar). Here’s the Internet’s #1 URL debunking this silly myth.
  • Neuroscience and Learning — It’s a very hot topic with vendors touting neuroscience to entice you to be impressed. But neuroscience at this time has nothing to say about learning.
  • Microlearning — Because it’s a hot topic, vendors and consultants are yapping about microlearning endlessly. But microlearning is not a thing. It’s many things. Here’s the definitive definition of microlearning, if I must say so myself.
  • AI, Machine Learning, and Big Data — Sexy stuff certainly, but it’s not clear whether these things can be applied to learning, or whether they can be applied now (given the state of our knowledge). Beware of taking these claims too seriously. Be open, but skeptical.
  • Gamification — We are almost over this fad thankfully. Still, keep in mind that gamification, like microlearning, is comprised of multiple learning methods. Gamification is NOT a thing.
  • Personalization — Personalization is a great idea, if carried out properly. Be careful if what someone calls personalization is just another way of saying learning styles. Also, don’t buy into the idea that personalization is new. It’s quite old. See Skinner and Keller back in the early 1900’s.
  • Learning Analytics — There is a lot of movement in learning evaluation, but much of it is wrong-headed focus on pretty dashboards, and a focus only on business impact. Look for folks who are talking about how to get better feedback to make learning better. I’ll tout my own effort to develop a new approach to gathering learner feedback. But beware and do NOT just do smile sheets (said by the guy who wrote a book on smile sheets)! Beware of vendors telling you to focus only on measuring behavior and business results. Read why here.
  • Kirkpatrick-Katzell Four-Level Model of Evaluation — Always a constant in the workplace learning field for the past 60 years. But even with recent changes it still has too many problems to be worthwhile. See the new Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM), a worthy replacement.

Wow! So much to be worried about.

Well, sorry to say, I surely missing some stuff. It’s up to you to be smart and skeptical at the same time you stay open to new ideas.

You might consider joining the Debunker Club, folks who have agreed on the importance of debunking myths in the learning field.

Next week, I'm headed to Denver, Colorado for ATD's Annual Conference for 2016. The largest conference in the workplace learning and development field, it brings together all kinds of folks for a wondrous bacchanal of learning.

I'll be talking about smile sheets (learner response forms) on Tuesday May 24th, 4:30 – 5:30 pm
TU420 – Utilizing Radically Improved Smile Sheets to Improve Learning Results at Room: 708/710.


I'll also be joining a "Science of Learning" panel on Monday May 23rd, 1:00 – 2:00 pm
M1CE – Community Express: Science of Learning Fast Track
along with Sebastian Bailey, Justin Brusino, Paul Zak, Patti Shank at Room: Mile High 1c.


If you're there at ATD's ICE — and you want to meet to discuss your organization's needs for a practical research-based approach to learning or evaluation design — send me a note at

Over the last year or so I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about learning at conferences. I’ve also taken to the conferences-on-conferences circuit to speak on the issue.

All too often, conference speakers don’t follow science-of-learning prescriptions. Conference sessions may make the audience happy, but may not provide the kinds of supports that help people remember and apply what they’ve learned.

This is bad for conference attendees and their organizations — because they never realize the benefits of what was learned. But it’s also bad for conference organizers as well — because their customers may not be getting all the value they might be getting.

A few days ago, Michelle Russell, editor at Convene Magazine, wrote a great article on implementing the science of learning in conferences. She interviewed me and Peter C. Brown, co-author of the wonderful book, Make it Stick, and winner of the Neon-Elephant Award last year.

Here’s Michelle’s Article:

It’s a great read. Michelle does amazing work. I recommend you read the article now and then leave your reflections here so we can get a conversation started.

Making changes to conference learning is not easy. Traditions and expectations push against innovations. Still, in attending several recent conferences, I’ve noticed some very different formats being used to great acclaim.

Jeff Hurt

My go-to expert on conference learning is Jeff Hurt of Velvet Chainsaw. Indeed, it was Jeff who got me thinking seriously about conference learning. We’ve even co-presented on the topic a number of times.

Here are two blog post by Jeff that describe typical dangerous assumptions about conference learning:

Improving Keynotes

Here’s an article I wrote on how to improve the learning benefits of Keynotes:

Learning Coaches

In Michelle’s article above, Peter C. Brown recommended that conferences have learning coaches to help support speakers and attendees in learning. I’d love to take on that task.

And I’m curious. Have you seen anyone play that role? What works? What doesn’t?


What are Your Reflections on Conference Learning?

Also, I’m wondering what your experiences are around learning at conferences…Leave comments below…

I just read a great blog post by Dave Lutz of Velvet Chainsaw, a conference, meeting, and trade association consulting firm.

He makes the point that many vendors/suppliers don't attend the conference-education sessions in the conferences for which they exhibit their goods and services.

This really intrigues me because it cuts to the ideational health of an industry. Vendors control a large part of the information bandwidth in an industry. They’ve got sales people out talking to folks, they do a ton of content marketing, they produce the most webinars, white papers, and conference sessions in many industries. If they’re not learning and up-to-date, if they’re not hearing how ideas are connecting to practitioners, if they’re not hearing pushback from those who are debunking faulty information, a whole industry can suffer.

How Are We Doing?

How are we doing on this in the workplace learning industry?

I'm going to investigate this at the conferences where I speak. I'd love to hear what others know about this. Please let us all know in the comments below.




Some conference keynotes are great, inspiring, and difference-making; but too many are filled with exhausted cliches, empty entertainments, and low-importance ideas.

Okay, everybody knows that. A more nefarious problem is that hardly any keynotes are designed with learning in mind. Fortunately, I have a radical solution, which I’ll share below.

First, let’s analyze why keynotes fail. I’ll use my Training Maximizers model, which is based on the scientific research on learning and training.



We’ll take these one at a time.

A. Valid Credible Content

Most keynotes are okay on this…not always great in providing valid, important content, but okay generally…

B. Engaging Learning Events

Most keynotes are great at this…not all, but most are at least somewhat pleasing and attention grabbing.

C. Support for Basic Understanding

Most keynotes are pretty good at helping people comprehend the main points, often through story-telling.

D. Support for Decision-Making Competence

Most keynotes completely fail in this regard, never asking audience members to make decisions or relate the learning to real-world decision-making.

E. Support for Long-Term Remembering

Most keynotes are poor in this regard. Supporting remembering requires such learning factors as (1) utilizing contextual cues during learning that will be later encountered on the job, (2) providing learners with substantial amounts of memory-retrieval practice, and (3) spacing repetitions of key concepts over time. Most keynotes provide near-zero learner-relevant context, absolutely zero retrieval practice, and only minimal spaced repetitions.

F. Support for Application of Learning

Most keynotes do absolutely NONE of this.

G. Support for Perseverance in Learning

Most keynotes do absolutely NONE of this.


Most keynotes completely fail to provide learning that will survive the trip back to audience members’ workplaces.

And keynotes aren’t the only problem. Many regular conference sessions also fail as learning events.


One Radical Solution

Most keynote speakers are simply not capable of making their pearls of wisdom relevant to audience members’ workplaces. Why? Because more than 95% of keynoters come from outside the industry to which they are speaking. They don’t know the day to day reality of the audience members. Yes, some keynoters make attempts to connect, but though they may know the broad outlines of relevance in an industry, they can’t know the situational cues or issue sets that are relevant. Without this insider knowledge, keynoters can’t provide the following:

D. Support for Decision-Making Competence

E. Support for Long-Term Remembering

F. Support for Application of Learning

G. Support for Perseverance in Learning

Before I come to my final glorious point, let me debunk a myth, because I know some of you are thinking, “to hell with learning, I pick my keynoters to sell tickets to my event.” Just this month, I was speaking to Jeff Hurt of VelvetChainsaw, conference-industry guru, who told me that conference organizers don’t believe that people choose conferences based on big-name keynoters. In the most recent survey research, only 28% of respondents said that big-name keynoters were critical to drive registrations.

But Dr. Thalheimer, smartypants, why is learning so important in conferences? Well, the assumption is that people who come to conferences not only want to get jazzed with ideas, booze, and networking — they also want to take new ideas and skills back to their workplaces and implement them successfully. Without such value-creation, the cost-benefit calculus of conference costs and the time investment just won’t compute for prospective attendees. Without learning-to-performance value, the conference-industrial complex folds tomorrow.

Now, on to my radical keynote solution. The problem is that outside keynoters just can’t create the kinds of learning supports that insure job-relevant value creation. So, instead of hiring outsiders as keynoters, hire insiders! Yes, insiders — people within your industry — probably won’t be as motivating, sexy, etc., but their weaknesses can be compensated for, whereas outsiders weaknesses (D, E, F, and G above) cannot be easily overcome.

How could this work? Simple, you take the gobs of money you’re going to save by not hiring outside keynoters, and you hire learning coaches for your keynoters! Impossible? No! Think TED talks. Those folks are coached out the kazoo to be much better speakers than they normally would be. Yes, we’re talking about going beyond the idea-sharing methodology of TED talks, but the point is the same. It’s probably cheaper to train up your insider keynoters than to hire outsiders. And insiders can be so much more persuasive because they are authentically similar to the participants.

Am I available to train your keynoters? Absolutely! I’ll also recommend Jeff Hurt, who is just brilliant at thinking about conference learning design.

More Radical Solutions

By using the Training Maximizers Model, other solutions will suggest themselves. For example, suppose you do find a great outside keynoter. Given that you know they’ll be bereft of D, E, F and G; you can hire a facilitator to guide decision-making practice, support remembering, support on-the-job application, and support perseverance in learning.

Am I available to help you do this. Absolutely!

Am I available to provide a keynote that provides all seven of the Training-Maximizer steps? Well, in the workplace learning field, I’m absolutely ready!


Sorry for the shameless plugs (but even sharp, good-looking people have to make a living — they tell me). The points you should remember are these:

  1. Most keynotes are not supporting learning, remembering, and on-the-job application.
  2. Thus, most keynotes are not maximizing benefits to conference attendees.
  3. Thus, most keynotes are not providing maximum value to conference owners.
  4. Moreover, most keynotes are not helping associations meet their educational mission.
  5. Keynotes can be made more effective by hiring industry-insiders and coaching/supporting them.
  6. Keynotes can also be augmented with other learning supports to make them more effective.

Feel free to contact me at 617-718-0767 or at info (at) worklearning (dot) com.