Are people the biggest barrier to an effective organizational learning strategy?

This week on the Train Like You Listen podcast, Brian and Heather sit down with JD Dillon of LearnGeek to discuss big picture learning strategy for organizations. Whether you work in a small training team, are embedded within a huge organization or are an outside consultant working on learning strategy, JD offers some nuggets for you.

In this episode, JD shares what a modern learning ecosystem is, how organizational issues are best supported, and how learning fits in with professionals during the flow of their workday.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Transcript of the Conversation with JD Dillon

Heather Snyder: Hello, and welcome to the Train Like You Listen podcast, weekly short podcasts about learning and development. I’m Heather Snyder and today we’re having a conversation with JD Dillon and Brian Washburn about learning ecosystems. 

6-Word Introduction

Heather Snyder: We like to start each week with a six-word summary of ourselves today. Let’s start with you, JD, what is your six-word memoir? 

JD Dillon: I would go with “help people do what they do,” pretty much sums up the reason I do this professionally. 

Brian Washburn: That that is a good one. If I had to put a six-word memoir together for today, I would say “tweet chatting with JD is life-changing”. 

JD Dillon: That’s an over-promise. 

Brian Washburn: Well, let’s some of the questions. JD, thank you for joining us. And, you know, I had a chance to see you in November at the ATDs Core 4 Conference in Miami. You talked about learning ecosystems then and I want to get into that. But before I do, I would love to hear your thoughts in terms of what you think is the single biggest area for improvement when it comes to the way that most organizations organize their L&D strategy?

What is the Single Biggest Area for Improvement In the Way Most Companies Organize their L&D Strategy?

JD Dillon: I’d say the biggest thing I see is that the strategy tends to align to what we, as L&D, are capable of or want to do or prefer to do, or the way that we will tackle a problem, based on our experiences, versus the reality of the people who are doing work every day that we’re trying to support. 

Brian Washburn: So, you’re saying that we shouldn’t be solving our problems. We should be solving other people’s problems. 

JD Dillon: We should be structuring the way that we look at solving, kind of, organizational problems through the lens of the people we’re trying to support, not through the lens of a learning person.  Because I have a relatively harsh opinion that most people just don’t care about learning. Learning is a way to get to a goal. It’s about how to help people. 

Brian Washburn: I don’t think that’s harsh. I actually think it’s a pretty fair assessment, right? People aren’t paid as learners. They’re paid as doers. 

You know, the word “ecosystem” is– it’s a word that was introduced to me in, like, school science class. And I’ve seen it used a lot in the corporate world over the past few years. It’s one of those words that seems like it can mean very different things to pretty much everyone. How do you define a learning ecosystem? 

How Do You Define a “Learning Ecosystem”?

JD Dillon: Sure. It’s actually, I would say one of the terms in learning and development that I actually see decently consistently used. For the ecosystem, I look at it as just the reality of the interconnected nature of the workplace, right? And in order for an organization to be successful, there has to be kind of a shared alignment going in the same direction and leveraging the best of what one another can do versus acting in silos. That’s how I look at it. 

And then you apply it to learning and development. It kind of matches what I said earlier around how do we leverage all of the things that are happening around people, the tools and resources that they use, the people that support them in order to help them get better and achieve their goals and achieve organizational goals versus put ourselves in a silo and become another person or entity who is pushing things at a person who already has too much to do with their day?

Brian Washburn: Is this a new concept or is this something that organizations have been doing for a long time but it just seems to be hitting the literature now? 

Is the Concept of a “Learning Ecosystem” New?

JD Dillon: Yeah. I don’t think it’s necessarily new. I think a lot of things that come off as trendy in learning and development are actually older ideas with new dressing or new terminology put on top of them.

And I think, in this case, it’s better contextualized into the reality of how work functions today. I think work has become less and less siloed. You’re more and more reliant on different departments. Synergy’s a big term, right? I think it’s an explanation that is, one, better matched to the reality of how work functions today. And, two, I think it’s timely because learning and development departments are figuring out more and more that they can’t do things the traditional way. They have to play with the bigger picture in order to keep pace with how organizations are moving.

Brian Washburn: What do you think holds organizations back from being successful at breaking down these silos and, kind of, being more aligned, having L&D more aligned, with the rest of the organization?

How Can Organizations Have More Alignment Between Their Learning & Development and the Rest of the Organization?

JD Dillon: People. You know, it’s really easy to say “everyone should be aligned” and then actually making that happen in a large, complex organization is a completely different thing. Especially, you know, people love to talk about building learning cultures and all these types of ideas. And it’s a great concept, but there’s a lot of political pressures at play. A lot of, kind of, misalignment in terms of accountability, what people think is important, that then fundamentally gets in the way of entities that are sitting in the middle of it, like we are, in learning and development typically, just trying to help people do better, but at the same time, we have so many different people coming at us cause that makes it fundamentally challenging. 

For me, it’s never been a matter of going to the top of an organization and saying, “I’ve got a plan” and then pushing down and executing this grand strategy. I look at the way to do this as being much more grassroots and organic, to say “let’s start trying out new ideas with this mentality” and maybe a plan in the back of our heads to then show that there are different ways, show that it’s better for everyone if we support people in a different way, by taking a more holistic view. 

Brian Washburn: Seeing is believing. Yeah. And finding the champions around the organization who can buy-in early.

JD Dillon: You got to prove that you can solve people’s problems. Right? Again, most people don’t care about learning per se. So if you come at them as a learning and development professional, with tactics that we know are evidence-based and can work, they don’t necessarily realize will help me solve my real problem that I’m being held accountable for. There’s a disconnect. But, if you start to prove that I can help you solve the problems that are meaningful to you in ways that are not disruptive or less disruptive to your operation, I’ve never had an argument with an operational person that doesn’t want that.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you’ve worked for different-sized organizations. You worked for Disney, you worked for Kaplan. Whether an organization has all the money in the world, or whether it’s kind of a lean scrappy organization, how can organizations get the biggest bang for their buck in your opinion when it comes to investing in L&D resources? 

How Can Organizations Get the “Biggest Bang for Their Buck” When It Comes to Investing in L&D Resources?

JD Dillon: I think it’s, for me, it’s a balancing act in terms of workplace learning. It’s the– there’s one side where you have to fight the fires of the day-to-day, right? People are going to face problems they don’t know how to solve for, they’re going to need help to develop some of those more basic skills and knowledge points. And then there’s the other side of the coin, which is how am I developing myself for the future role? I think and oftentimes learning and development can get stuck in one or the other. It doesn’t necessarily find that balance. So for me, it’s how can we make learning at work and developing and finding help at work more like it is in everyday life.

And then only have to add our kind of programmatic heft and complexity to the topics and the skills that require it, while figuring out how we can make learning and development less about building stuff and more about fostering connections. And helping people find the help that they need or the information that they need rather than being a middleman who has to do the work, has to physically be there to make it happen. How do we more effectively foster connection? 

Get to Know JD Dillon

Heather Snyder: We like to wrap things up with a speed round of questions, JD, so our listeners can get to know you a little bit better, at least from a training capacity. Brian is going to ask you a few questions and we want you to respond with the first thing that comes to mind. Are you ready? 

JD Dillon: Sure. 

Brian Washburn: JD, what’s your go-to pre-training meal that you need to get going before you deliver a session? 

JD Dillon: I don’t. Same is true in terms of sports. I’m not a big eat-before-activity person. I’m more of a eat-later person. 

Brian Washburn: I’m with you. I get a little– get the anxious energy going and it’s really tough to eat. What book should our listeners be reading? 

JD Dillon: The one book I think everyone in this industry should read is called, Make It Stick. It’s a learning science principles book. I think everyone should start there because it just grounds what we do every day in the realities of how people actually learn. And then you can specialize what you actually do from there.

Brian Washburn: Plus one on that one. It’s really good science, written in a really digestible way. Last question. What’s one piece of training tech you cannot live without?

JD Dillon: I’ve been using the same PowerPoint remote for the last nine years, and I haven’t even changed the batteries once. And given the volume of presentations I deliver, that’s amazing. So, big ups to my Logitech PowerPoint remote that continues to go strong to this day. You can tell how old it is when I pull out the USB dongle. And it’s three times the size of any USB dongle in modern technology. But, it hasn’t failed me once.

Brian Washburn: I laugh, because that was my answer too, to the question.

Thank you so much, JD, for joining us. We’ll dive a little bit deeper into this idea of learning ecosystem on Thursday’s blog posts. Heather, anything else from you? 

Heather Snyder: Nope, that’s it for this week. 

Join us next week on the Train Like You Listen podcast. You can easily subscribe to this weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or any of the major podcast services. What do you want to hear from us? Leave us a comment in the blog or tweet us @train_champion.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at

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