This is Part 2 of Will Thalheimer's interview in which he explains his views on how learning science and evaluation models and strategies are evolving in sync with the rapid changes presently influencing L&D.

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Will Thalheimer, PhD, does research-based consulting focused on learning evaluation and presentation design in workplace learning. He’s available for keynotes, speaking, workshops, evaluation strategy, smile-sheet rebuilds, and research benchmarking.

Founder of The Debunker Club, author of the award-winning book Performance-Focused Smile Sheets, creator of LTEM, the Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model, creator and host of the Presentation Science Online Workshop, and co-host of the Truth in Learning podcasts, Will tweets as @WillWorkLearn and blogs and consults at Work-Learning Research, where he also publishes extensive research-to-practice reports—and makes them available for free.

Will holds a BA from the Pennsylvania State University, an MBA from Drexel University, and a PhD in educational psychology: human learning and cognition from Columbia University.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.


Please note that this is Part 2 of the interview… Click HERE to read Part 1.

8. LEARNNOVATORS: We know that e-learning hasn’t yet started leveraging the incredible power of the internet or the web. For example, we still do not see successful e-learning implementations that are powered by real-time interactive and collaborative learning modalities. When it comes to e-learning, we are locked up inside a dreaded silo, whereas the games that keep kids as well as adults engrossed today are ‘real-time’ and ‘multiplayer’. Not a lot has changed with respect to e-learning in all these years compared to the advancements that have happened in other aspects of our lives. Would you subscribe to the thinking that e-learning is yet to evolve to remain relevant in this digital and social age? If yes, what would be your suggestions for e-learning to step up?

WILL THALHEIMER: Learning is hard and learning that is focused on work is even harder because our learners have other priorities—so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much. Also, research shows that elearning tends to be slightly more effective than classroom training—or equally effective if all learning factors are held constant. I reviewed the research on elearning a few years ago.

I do agree that online learning—including mobile learning—can get a lot better, and we need to work on that—but lots of people are very happily learning online, even for their university studies. I’m not sure that making Grand Theft Auto or Fortnite our yardstick is very useful, at least for the foreseeable future. I used to be a simulation architect, building simulations to teach leadership skills. Our simulations were crude by today’s standards—not visually immersive and only sort of multiplayer—but they worked reasonably well to make people feel immersed and to be invested in the realistic decisions they were making. I’ve always hoped for a more VR type management simulation—one that doesn’t distract with VR—rather one that puts people through hundreds of tough management situations, but I am still waiting.

9. LEARNNOVATORS: As we know, today’s workplaces demand life-long learning and continuous up-skilling from workers. The focus is on learning how to solve problems on the go. There is a fundamental shift in how organizations even perceive workplace learning. This has moved away from traditional approaches towards new paradigms such as ‘Learning in the Flow of Work’ and ‘Resources-First’ approaches. It is our responsibility, as learning professionals, to find and support newer ways for people to learn and perform at work. Given this scenario, do you think e-learning, in its original format, is dead or has become irrelevant? If yes, what strategies would you propose to retain the relevance of our learning programs?

WILL THALHEIMER: I’m a big believer that we should leverage workflow learning, but it’s damned silly to think this is new! The apprentice system has been around for hundreds of years, if not millennia! People who write that we are in a new era are just making stuff up. I like the emphasis on trying to see how to leverage learning at the worksite, but I think we are very unsophisticated about it. Are we really thinking that microlearning and blogs and Instagram-like tools and Slack and email and all the rest are monumental advances? I don’t see it. Microlearning as encouraged is not even very interesting. Largely it is recommended for just-in-time learning. Okay, so I’m an employee and I can’t figure out how to do something—and apparently, I have no one around I can ask—so I search (for how long?) for the right micro-learning video, and shazam, I learn what I need to know, and all is well. Twenty years ago, I might have taken the same steps—and probably someone would have been available to answer my question—but even if not, I would have gone to the manual, the handbook, the data sheet, and got pretty good information, maybe not in 4K video quality, but reasonably effective.

I think we’re undervaluing managers in supporting workflow learning. In my work in doing learning audits, I’ve often done job shadowing, and I’ve watched managers screw things up or do great things to help their teams to learn. Managers are leverage points and we learning people sometimes want to go to technology solutions when we’ve got embedded in our organizations a much more powerful resource.

I also think we in learning have missed an important mindset about learning. We tend to think transactionally—that all learning is intentional and all job performance is based on conscious, intentional processing. This is completely the opposite of what is true. As humans, most of our thinking and action is triggered by contextual stimuli. We think in these terms when we think of job aids and performance support—because we expect employees to go to these when they INTENTIONALLY KNOW they need them, but most of the time we humans don’t have these intentions, we are responding at a deeper level. The next major advance in L&D will be the recognition and leveraging of contextual triggers to prompt learning and performance. I don’t know exactly what this is going to look like, but I see evidence of things happening in the fields of behavioral economics, habit, and behavior design. If any of the readers here want to engage me in brainstorming on this, I’d love to be engaged in such a project.

10. LEARNNOVATORS: When it comes to learning innovation, we believe that debunking today’s pervasive myths about learning is a key challenge. We concur on the significance of questioning the status quo on our traditional beliefs about organisational learning (what, how, and why), and work with industry leaders to debunk these in the best possible manner. In this context, we are reminded of your message, “By utilizing the science of learning, we create more effective learning interventions, we waste less time and money on ineffective practices and learning myths, we better help our learners, and we better support our organizations.” What would be your advice to newbie learning designers to do justice to their profession, and be successful in their journey?

WILL THALHEIMER: Newbies have a tough job! Really tough! Learning is one of the most complex of human activities and unfortunately our field is filled with a cacophony of information—some good, some harmful. Our industry institutions are so weak and incented toward commercial interests that we have been unable to coalesce around good information and recognize the bad information.

I would recommend that newbies first educate themselves on evidence-based best practices. Look for books by the L&D research translators like Julie Dirksen, Patti Shank, Clark Quinn, Mirjam Neelen, Karl Kapp, me and others. Look for books on learning, like Kirschner and Hendrick’s forthcoming book How Learning Happens; Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s Make It Stick, Benedict Carey’s How We Learn, and Ulrich Boser’s Learn Better.

Newbies also need to learn to be skeptical and avoid the many myths and misconceptions in our field. They should read Clark Quinn’s book, Millennials, Goldfish & Other Training Misconceptions; and the two books by Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul Kirschner, and Casper Hulshof, Urban Myths about Learning and Education—so that they learn what to watch out for.

Also, newbies should do what they can to find initial jobs working with people who already follow research-inspired practices.

11. LEARNNOVATORS: The success of the NASA rebels shows that rebels are exactly what organizations need, and why more of them are needed. We too believe that, in today’s learning landscape, the community is in dire need of ‘learning rebels’, ‘agents of change’, and ‘learning provocateurs’ more than ‘learning conformists’. Because we are going through a time of major learning transformation, radical thinking that will help us get started on the transformation has become quite critical. Being a change agent yourself, what message do you have for our readers on the significance of being a changemaker in our profession?

WILL THALHEIMER: It’s huge! We need more change makers! But let’s please, FIRST DO NO HARM. There is a lot of change, but some of it is off target. All our learning innovations must align with the human cognitive and motivational architecture. We can’t have Dunning-Kruger progeny inventing tools or ideas or oversimplifications that do more harm than good. Even books get published that say stupid stuff about learning—like all learning is emotion-based or all learning must be microlearning or no training should be done—and to most readers, they don’t know they’re getting bad information.

So, my advice to change agents in the learning field is build up from a strong foundation, get lots of feedback from knowledgeable experts before you share your ideas widely. I’m knowledgeable myself, having studied and researched learning for three decades, but when I write a major work, I ask tons of smart people to let me know what my blind spots are—and then I improve it. Also, get yourself a good education in learning, but also get yourself experience working in the field, seeing how the practice really works. We don’t want brilliant ideas from the research that aren’t practical. We also don’t want practical ideas that science shows aren’t workable. Finally, as much as possible, test your ideas in practice, and see what really works.

12. LEARNNOVATORS: Here’s an excerpt from a thought provoking post by Marc Zao Sanders: “Learning & Development is the business function that time forgot. Technology is primitive: AICC and SCORM are 20 years old; even xAPI has been around since 2011; unsupported browsers like IE8 are commonplace in many firms; the UX of many learning systems is a 90s throwback. Content is stale: vast but substantially outdated content libraries sit unused on corporate LMSs, intranets, extranets, SharePoint etc. Research is outdated: Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve is 100 years old and that’s one of the few learning mantras with some research to back it up. But there’s a chance to catch up with and even overtake modern business. To do that we need to look beyond where workplace technology is now, at where it’s going. Who cares where the puck is now? We need to know where it’s going to be by the time we can get there.”Do you agree with these concerns? If yes, what are your views on addressing them?

WILL THALHEIMER: Oh Wayne Gretzky, organizations turn their lonely eyes to you, wo wowo. SMILE.

Hey Learnnovators, you sure are asking me to read a bunch of stuff. LOL. That’s okay, it’s interesting stuff except for this one, which is more of a dissertation on the benefits of Microsoft Teams. Anyway, I’m getting punchy answering these questions and I’m late for lunch, but the quote you found is good in making a clear point.

I don’t know. Yes, you can point to some legacy tools we use, but there are tons of new tools as well. Also, I must comment on the Ebbinghaus reference. Please, please, people! You can’t judge research the same way you judge technology. When we discover something fundamental about learning and human functioning, we should keep it in mind and not dismiss it because it’s old. Ebbinghaus’s findings about how people tend to learn and forget are timeless. And science has replicated the basic findings over and over! Forgetting the implications of the learning and forgetting curves is not recommended!

13. LEARNNOVATORS: Of late, we see an increasing trend wherein organizations prefer generalists over specialists for jobs. We see many thought-provoking posts such as this that takes us through real stories to inspire us to explore the concept of replacing ‘specialized workers’ with ‘problem-solving generalists’. We are aware that you also support the thought that we should focus on general skills and experiences rather than specialized skills. In this context, it is inspiring to note that you’ve recently handed out the Neon Elephant Award to David Epstein’s book, ‘Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World’, a book that lays out a very strong case in favour of acquiring broad skill sets for success. What advice do you have for workers on handling the challenges to become a generalist?

WILL THALHEIMER: David Epstein’s book is excellent. I recommend everyone in learning read it. He basically says that people who make transformational contributions or who reach excellence in a domain more often than not have experienced a wide range of experiences and learned a wide range of concepts. Interestingly, research on creativity shows the same thing; that creativity arises from people who don’t just focus on one area but focus on many areas—bringing disparate ideas together. As an aside, I talk about “Insight Learning” in my Presentation Science workshop and how we as presenters and learning architects can support insight learning, not just transfer learning.

The biggest challenge to becoming a generalist is that it takes time and perseverance. You must make yourself comfortable in new domains—where you are bound to perform not-great until you can spend the time to get better. You also must be comfortable seeking new information—”epistemic behavior” as the researchers say—being willing to learn that your original views are wrong. Only the bold can do these things. And we all need to be bolder. Indeed, outside of the learning field—in our politics and citizenship—partisans don’t seem bold enough to listen and learn from the other side.

14. LEARNNOVATORS: It is inspiring to hear you say, “We as Learning Professionals…We help people know what they didn’t know before. We help people do what they couldn’t do before, and sometimes we help people become who they couldn’t be before. Our work is important. We have a responsibility to do it well.” It is great to see you on this inspiring journey to help drive change. Just like you, we too are excited to visualize the future of learning; it looks very bright. We believe that learning will evolve much further than leveraging the power of emerging technologies to some incredible dimensions. What according to you is the future of workplace learning? And, what is your vision for the L&D community?

WILL THALHEIMER: Nobody is good at predicting the future, so I will share the vision I hope for. I hope we in learning and development continue to be passionate about helping other people learn and perform at their best. I hope we recognize that we have a responsibility not just to our organizations, but beyond business results to our learners, their coworkers/families/friends, to the community, society, and the environs. I hope we become brilliantly professionalized, having rigorous standards, a well-researched body of knowledge, higher salaries, and career paths beyond L&D. I hope we measure better, using our results to improve what we do. I hope we, more-and-more, take a small-S scientific approach to our practices, doing more A-B testing, compiling a database of meaningful results, building virtuous cycles of continuous improvement. I hope we develop better tools to make building better learning—and better performance—easier and more effective. And I hope we continue to feel good about our contributions to learning. Learning is at the heart of our humanity!

LEARNNOVATORS: Before we sign off, we thank you so much for your time today, Will. We’ve had an amazing time listening to your insights with many valuable take-aways. We’ll take these learnings to foster our commitment to practice and promote continuous learning and innovation at work. Thank you!

WILL THALHEIMER: My pleasure! And thank you for such a great set of questions! REALLY! You did some exhaustive work to pinpoint the contributions I am most proud of. Let me make one more shameless plug and invite people to listen to my podcast with Matt Richter, Truth In Learning at https://www.truthinlearning.com/. Check out my main website here: https://www.worklearning.com/. Please sign up to get an early copy of my book here: https://www.ceosguide.net/. And, if you want more stuff from me, sign up for my online newsletter at: https://www.worklearning.com/sign-up/.


Here are links to both parts of this interview:

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