News story

AI tools leave learning and development nowhere to hide (and that’s good)

Lars Hyland, Managing Director EMEA, TotaraLearning NewsTotara

The hype cycle and emotion of generative AI feels like a black hole at times. Will the amount of low-quality content produced become infinite? Will all our jobs fold into nothing and vanish from this universe? Or can a global super-intelligence finally deliver on the 4 hour work day that’s been promised since the 1920s?


Like many, I’ve been ‘on the tools’ and experimenting. I’m a learning technologist, with some historic AI experience. Beyond the hype I want to understand the real implications for human development in the workplace, and for L&D professionals in particular. 

So here’s my personal AI snapshot as of May 2023: across L&D it’s time to let go of rigid structures and rote content planning. The machines will gobble those up within months. But there’s vast potential for advanced learning design, focused on outcomes, to shift behaviour and meet business goals like never before. 

To me, applications like ChatGPTMidjourneyDall-E and others seem to be having the same impact as browsers and search engines did on the 1990s internet. Everything becomes more accessible, more accelerated. Old use cases vanish (have you sent a fax or bought a MiniDisc recently?), while others change (how many in-person conversations do you have each week now, vs someone in 1993?). 

Time and cost dynamics get upended, and it’s hard to predict how that will play out. On the one hand there’s the obvious, and in my view well-founded, concerns that AI’s remapping of the skills landscape will disrupt jobs at speed across the economy. On the other hand, humans have adapted through many, many waves of technological innovation going back to the discovery of fire. 

Our responsibility as L&D professionals is to understand and help shape that adaptation process. The nuts’n’bolts of it from an L&D perspective are that content production will become much quicker and more easily scalable. But the complex, human nature of the industries we sit across means broader transformation will be lumpy. Reality is stubborn: look at the legal profession, for instance, where AI has seemed on the verge of replacing junior research functions for more than a decade, except it still hasn’t quite happened. 

What will happen for us in L&D is a sharp focus on whether having abundant learning content generates any real tangible outcome. Which is a question very much worth asking. 

At every L&D conference or meetup I’ve ever been to, as an L&D profession we talk about sophisticated learning designs that will genuinely shift behaviour. About customised pathways, personalised experiencescontinuous feedback, always-on coaching. About the ways we know we can lift careers & organizations together. 

But after we leave those conversations, full of ideas and energy, too often we fall back into the same old routines, the same old patterns. We design familiar content in familiar ways (click-next and sheep-dip) as the only safe or acceptable option. The “default” position. 

Well, that’s precisely what AI will expose. This “L&D default” will be even more ubiquitous. As Martha & the Vandellas said – or was it Vin Diesel? – we’ll have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. 

And for me this is cause for great optimism! When I work with the new wave of AI tools, and see what my colleagues at Totara are experimenting with within our learning technology platform, I see so many achievable innovations:

  • AI is already helping create tailored learning paths and adapt learning experiences to the individual learner’s needs. This level of personalisation is impossible with traditional content creation methods
  • Radically simplifying content production and curation frees designers from ‘engagement’ which was always a weak proxy for effectiveness
  • Scalable coaching-mentoring conversations use chat technology to assist manager-team dialogue
  • Surfacing hidden skills that exist across the organisation and leveraging them to positive effect 
  • Usefully spotting patterns that suggest individual support is required in terms of wellbeing, learning, or coaching

The upside of these learning tech advances, and the many others to come, is that we will finally have the time and resources and incentives to focus on what matters. To genuinely shift behaviour and measurably meet business / organizational goals while improving lives.

Isn’t this the challenge we always wanted? 

My suggestion for anyone in L&D, if you haven’t already, is to jump on the AI tools and get familiar with their capabilities and limitations. Then use their power as leverage for your own thinking, productivity, and innovation: a way to make space for more sophisticated learning design that will more reliably deliver real results. 

The world of work is evolving rapidly, and technology is driving this change exponentially. As L&D leaders it’s our job to push through the hype, find the substance, and help your people do their best work. Now’s the time. That is how you escape a black hole.