Our discussion topic for the February meeting of the Fredrickson Roundtable for Learning Leaders is: Leading Learning to What’s Next – Industry trends and your aspirations for 2015.

I’m looking forward to this discussion and listening to the trends that our Roundtable members are encountering and thinking about in 2015. I also have my own list of trends that I’ve identified through working with Fredrickson’s clients and I’m looking forward to hearing if others have encountered these.

“Trend” Defined

In order to start the discussion of this topic of learning and development trends, I thought it might help to define what we mean by a “learning and development trend”. There are many and varying definitions out there, but, here’s what I came up with:

A trend is a concept or direction that is significantly changing some aspect of society, culture, or business and therefore, impacts the future direction of learning and development.

One aspect of this definition that I believe is significant is that trends in learning and development are very often shaped by other trends in business and society. For example, at Fredrickson Communications, we’ve noticed increasing demand for “learning at the moment of need”. I believe that this trend is related to the the fact that we are now all connected to the internet at all times. We can use Google or YouTube to get information about virtually any topic and that expectation now carries over into our business lives. We want the information we need, when we need it.

Trends vs. Fads

We can’t really have a discussion about learning and development trends without also addressing fads. In my view, there’s a very fine line between a trend and a fad. My Fredrickson colleague J. Hruby sometimes describes it this way, “Trends are directions, fads are distractions.”

A fad tends to be widely adopted, but also tends to have a short life. The level of adoption will often be broad, but shallow. In other words, most fads catch on quickly, disappear quickly, and seldom leave any lasting impression.

The final criteria, the part about leaving a lasting impression, makes it especially difficult for us to decide if we are following a trend or responding to a fad. This can make it difficult for us, as learning leaders, to advise our company on the trends that we need to adopt to support our business. Some of the finesse lies in being able to discern the “bright, shiny object” from the initiatives that impact our business strategy. And another piece is determining whether the organization is ready to adopt a trend as part of planning for the future.
Ultimately, you are going to have to decide when to pursue the trend as part of your role in advising the business. The important thing is to be reasonably sure that you are following a trend and not a fad. Here are some indicators to help tell the difference:

  • The reason for the rise. You can usually identify and explain a trend by the need it addresses and it also usually dovetails with an overall lifestyle trend. Think “I want to take my music with me, but not be tied to its source,” as the reason for the portable electronic device trend. A trend also has agility, meaning it will expand across platforms, yet still maintain its authenticity. By contrast, fads are generally driven by an emotional need, usually based on hype, and often don’t fully deliver on what was promised.
  • Incubation period and lifespan. Trends tend to have a slow rise and generally morph and change as they continue to grow. Sticking with the portable music analogy – the cassette tape Walkman morphed into the CD-playing Discman, then into the MP3 or digital music player, and now many of us use our smartphones as a music player. Fads, on the other hand, spike and die out quickly, and you can point to the beginning and end.
  • Scope. A trend encompasses several brands or products and appeals to multiple customer segments. Fads are generally confined to a single product and a narrow customer segment.

I’d be interested in hearing other’s definitions of “trend” as it relates to learning and development. And also your ideas on how to separate trends from fads. I think we’re all looking for the same thing, we want to position our organizations so that we benefit from the trends and avoid the false-starts and distractions of the fads.

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