L&D Leader Brandon Carson: The Revolution of Work & Learning in the Digital Age

We're thrilled today to chat with Brandon Carson, VP of Learning and Leadership Partner at Walmart. Brandon is an award-winning learning and development executive with extensive expertise in developing learning strategies and learning technology implementation for Oracle, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, Intel, and other global companies. Brandon is also a keynote speaker and best-selling author of Learning in the Age of Immediacy: 5 Factors for How We Connect, Communicate and Get Work Done, and the forthcoming L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age.

You have an incredible career in L&D! Can you tell us more about your background, how you get into learning and development, and what have been some career highlights for you?

Thank you so much. I've just hit a quarter of a century in this career, and it amazes me that so much has changed and yet at the same time so much has NOT changed. I stumbled into this career without planning for it. Living in Silicon Valley during the rise of the internet gave me an easy entry into corporate training because so many tech companies were on the cutting edge of leveraging this new publishing channel to disseminate information to the workforce.

So, I luckily got involved in a lot of cutting-edge work back in the day, from working on the first LMS and eLearning initiative at Intel to working directly with Macromedia as it was creating its new web-based authoring tool, Dreamweaver, and consulting with Adobe as it invented what became the PDF. I remember being a charter subscriber to Apple eWorld, it's online competitor to AOL. I'll tell you, the "streets" of eWorld were lonely, since it was a Mac only online community at the beginning of the internet. I remember sneaking a new 2400baud modem into my house under my wife's nose so that I could get a "faster connection" to enjoy the "heavy" graphics in eWorld.

So, at the dawn of the digital age, it was great to be in the Valley and experience it as it unfolded. We took the work of taking training online very seriously and did our best to construct reusable methods and standards as we went, although, at best, it was like the wild west most of the time.

What’s your favorite part about working in L&D?

I've always loved building capability in others. I look at it as a mission. To me, it's the best thing about working in the corporate environment today. We have entered into an interesting period -- where the very idea and meaning of work is being rethought. And we have a great opportunity to rebuild almost from the ground up what work is and what we expect from it. There are two critical challenges we face in this era: the massive skills gap that the digital age has brought us and what experts like Laetitia Vitaud call the "unbundling of work."

When we look back on 2020, we'll always remember it as a pandemic year, but we will also look at it as a year in which we began to completely redefine work. Many of us transitioned our work to our homes and by doing so, we started to talk about having more flexibility in how we work. And, interestingly enough, when you think about it, for most of human history, we have indeed worked from our homes -- as craftsmen, farmers, builders, family business owners and so on.

Most economic organization happened where we lived. And then after the Industrial Revolution, in the 19th century, we separated home from work and constructed offices, factories, stores, warehouses, and so on as we built what John Hagel refers to as work environments based on scalable efficiency, which accelerated productivity and wealth-building. And work quickly became completely separated from our home lives and we purposefully constructed dual lives, in a way. And as manufacturing rose, we constructed these permanent pillars of work being this "other thing" we went to. And frankly, this was new to humans. And we rapidly built an entire infrastructure to support this work model -- as wealth grew and we began to consume more, we needed to generate more income which led to both adults in the household to seek incomes outside the house, so we created a child care system and we created a system to assist us with elderly parents as we left them to go to work.

As work evolved and became more complex due to the rise of technology, we needed more training which led to the almost $300 billion dollar a year spent on corporate training. And from the get-go, training focused on helping to build the capabilities necessary for people to get their work done. And this system was chugging away until it began to be disrupted by the increasing speed in which technology was evolving.

As the new century began, we realized that the work model we've been toiling under for almost 100 years was not keeping up with the pace of change. And as we moved from the industrial age to the digital age over the last two decades, the speed of change has continued to accelerate even more. And then we were hit with a global pandemic, which brought to us the need to reevaluate almost every aspect of how we conducted our lives. We began to question globalization, how we were constructing urban environments, how we shared medical advances across the world, how we worked, and what we expected from each other in our societies.

Along with this new era, we began questioning equality, inclusiveness, labor models, and our expectations of what we want from the work we engage in. And this is where the legacy L&D practice is being asked to rethink how it operates, rebuild a new model to support the rapidly evolving needs of the business and the workforce, and to focus more holistically on the employee experience and help re-define work models. The conversation is bringing us whole new work archetypes -- work focused more on what employees want. So, it took a pandemic to jolt us back into our homes to conduct work. Which is where we are more natural at conducting work. And so, now the conversation about work and where we DO work has shifted. Additionally, research shows that people who work from home are much more deeply invested in the work -- they willingly construct work areas in their homes to ensure they can focus and perform well. So, all this suggests that employees are requiring the business to engage in a conversation with them about the future of work. And this puts the L&D practice on center stage to completely rethink its value proposition as our fundamental work models evolve.

Your new book L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age has just come out this month, what can learning professionals expect in this new release from you?

In the book, I discuss the urgent need for Learning and Development to reassess its value proposition and, quite frankly, look at what we need to do to create a better employee experience, provide more proactive, relevant, and meaningful learning solutions, and, as work gets more complex, construct a new operating model where we are less of a cost-center order-taker and more of a leader in architecting performance-based solutions. I'm asking us to construct a new playbook that is adaptive and flexible so that we can expand our capability and truly impact how the work gets done. And that's a critical element -- it's time for L&D to be more involved in how the work environment is designed, to deeply assess what needs to change to make learning in the flow of work easier, and to design the physical and digital systems in which we expect the work to get done to motivate workers to continuously learn, adapt, and innovate.

As we live longer (since the 1840s we have been lengthening our life spans) we will work longer. Soon the 6-decade career will be normal. And as work becomes completely consumed by digitalization, the shelf-life of skills will shrink. So lifelong learning is not only an aspiration -- it's critical for people's success and for competitive advantage. This new dynamic requires L&D to become much more digitally-driven, much more focused on the new essential skills of collaboration, communication, influence, negotiation, and leadership and discover more creative ways to deliver learning the way workers need it.

What’s a key takeaway you want people to learn from this book?

It's critical that we continue our focus on ensuring L&D is having the right conversations with the right levels of leaders across the enterprise. Since the pandemic we are seeing more willingness for senior executives to invest in training, which was actually declining before the pandemic. L&D was much more visible during the pandemic because for many companies, training became an even more essential service to help fuel business continuity. So, let's don't squander this new visibility and investment. Let's ensure our learning leaders have the right balance of digital, business, and learning acumen to make the right decisions and construct a strategy to not just align to the business strategy, but in many ways, BECOME the business strategy. In some ways, we have a blank canvas to reinvent the practice of corporate learning. So the key takeaway, I hope, is to generate new thinking as it applies to how L&D is structured, where it sits in the enterprise, it's own capabilities, and how it can reconstruct its operating model to truly drive impact.

The last year has been transformative for L+D. What do you think the biggest shifts have been, and how do you think the role of the learning leader has changed?

It's been a challenging year. I worked at a global airline during the pandemic, so you can imagine how challenging that was. We didn't have a playbook for a pandemic, and 2019 was the busiest travel year in recorded history -- so it was a jolt to our system to lay the business to rest as we navigated the fallout. Coming out of that is the stark realization that we must change our practice to focus much more intentionally on how work gets done, and focus on it from the lens of the worker so that we can construct more equitable, inclusive, and meaningful work for humans and give up the burdensome tasks and manual labor to automation. We are on the precipice of a complete revolution in how we work, and L&D has a lot of decisions to make on how it is either a constructive part of that revolution, or how it slides into irrelevance.

To learn more insights from Brandon Carson, join our AMA on August 3rd in The Lyceum - apply here today. We will also be giving away his new book ‘L&D’s Playbook for the Digital Age’ to the first 15 people who ask questions when the AMA opens!