How Big Data, neuroscience and technology shape L&D with Nigel Paine

Nigel Paine has been a leading light in L&D for over 20 years, so he knows a thing or two about the challenges facing L&D professionals!

Written by Rachel Salaman
Published 13 September 2018
How Big Data, neuroscience and technology shape L&D with Nigel Paine

He headed up the BBC's Learning and Development operation for many years before striking out on his own to focus on leadership, learning technologies and organizational development.

In that time, the L&D landscape has changed dramatically. Learning and development is "not an isolated operation any more," he observes. "The learning leader has to be part of the business, has to be out there, talk the language of business, understand the issues in the business, and be fully conversant with what learning can do for the business."

In our podcast, Paine discusses his book, "The Learning Challenge: Dealing with Technology, Innovation and Change in Learning and Development."

He explains how "work is learning and learning is work," grapples with the 70:20:10 learning model, and identifies the three big "game changers" that affect L&D: big data, neuroscience and technology.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview, or read the transcript, below. 

Listen now: Click here to download the podcast

Interview transcript

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to this edition of L&D Insights from Mind Tools with me, Rachel Salaman.

Today, we’re going to be taking a broad look at some of the innovations that have transformed the learning landscape in recent years. Our guide is Nigel Paine, a corporate learning professional, who worked as the head of the BBC’s learning and development operation before starting his own consultancy firm. His book, “The Learning Challenge: Dealing with Technology, Innovation and Change in Learning and Development,” pulls together tips and observations from his 20 years of working in this field. Nigel joins me on the line from London. Hello, Nigel.

Nigel Paine: Hello there, Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: Thanks very much for joining us today. Now, you say your book is built on one assumption: that what’s going on in corporate learning at this time is markedly different from what has gone on before. So what are the most significant changes?

Nigel Paine: There are quite a few, in a way, and I suppose I can summarize it and reduce it to three.

The first one is that there is a huge amount more pressure on learning and development professionals financially, and really to be more transparent, to actually prove that the investments made in learning and development are actually delivering something, and delivering value to the organization.

The second thing is there’s been an explosion of technology. So L&D is, I suppose, saturated in technology, and it’s hard to decide where to invest, what is going to last, be useful, what is just a “flash in the pan.”

And the third thing is that there is a much greater need to get data from learning and learners, and use that data in an intelligent way to help, not just evaluate the impact of learning and development, but help steer the whole organization.

So learning, instead of being separate, becomes much more integrated into work, much more part of the overall development of the challenges and the changes in the workplace. So if you add those together, it’s a transformation, really, of the role and the impact.

Rachel Salaman: How are these changes affecting the role of the learning leader?

Nigel Paine: Well, I suppose again in three ways. The first is that it’s not an isolated operation any more. The learning leader has to be part of the business, has to be out there, talk the language of business, understand the issues in the business, and be fully conversant with what learning can do for the business, not for itself.

Secondly, increasingly, it’s a facilitative and enabling role. You don’t do it all, it’s too complex, there’s too much going on, but you make sure that it’s happening in the right way.

And thirdly, that you’re not just focusing on learning events, but you’re looking at the whole spectrum of learning – informal and social learning. You’re looking at the way stretching and challenges can affect performance; you’re looking at how you can help people in the moment of their work need, to survive and deal with issues and problems on a day-to-day basis. So it’s a more complex job, basically.

Rachel Salaman: Now, let’s talk a bit about 70:20:10. Can you tell us a little bit about that model of learning, including its origins?

Nigel Paine: I think it actually goes back to the 70s – the 1970s that is! The origin is really a very simple one and there’s been a lot of “hoo-hah” about why 70:20:10? Why not 60:25:15? And I think that’s a completely erroneous argument. 70:20:10 is basically saying that learning is not a single event. Learning is based on perhaps some formal structured learning, but it’s also based on “sitting next to Nelly,” getting information on the job, and it’s based on challenges and stretched assignments that go beyond the job and beyond the learning event.

So it’s really taking a holistic approach to the whole concept of learning, and it’s saying that, to get the best impact from your 10 percent, i.e. the stuff that costs the money, you’ve really got to think a lot about the 70 and the 20. So I suppose the 70 is what we would call the experiential learning, and we’d say that the 20 is the more social learning, and the 10 is the formal learning. Combine those and you end up with not just one plus one plus one, but you end up with massively more impact and massively more “bangs for your buck.”

Rachel Salaman: So are those percentage allocations observations of what naturally goes on, or are they goals?

Nigel Paine: They’re neither, really. They come from some research that was done in the 90s that showed approximately that kind of breakdown between those three types of learning. But I think, if you start by saying, “We’ve got to get up to 70 percent of experiential learning,” that’s not the way to do it.

What you’ve got to do is have a look at all the ways learning can take place in the organization and try to make sure that it’s aligned, essentially. You’re not going to stop experiential learning, you’re not going to stop social learning, but what you’ve got to do is make sure that they’re all pointing in the right direction. So it’s really an audit, it’s a way of facilitating and enabling different kinds of learning in the organization.

And make sure that, for example, if you put someone through a leadership program, that they’re getting a mentor who will help them once they come out of the program. Make sure that they’re given some challenges so that they can practice what they’ve learned in the workplace and reinforce the behavior change that’s required.

So, instead of seeing something as, “Oh, this is two days, or so many hours, of e-learning,” you see it as something that starts a long way before the formal learning event and continues a long way beyond it.

Rachel Salaman: I’ve spoken to one L&D expert who thinks that the idea of allocating 10 percent of learning time to face-to-face courses provides a convenient excuse for L&D professionals not to invest more in that kind of training. So how can we see this model as helpful, rather than prescriptive?

Nigel Paine: Yes, it’s true and I’ve also heard someone say (not in the learning world), “If all of that costs all this money for just 10 percent, if I get rid of that, I’ll just take the 90 percent, thanks very much!” It doesn’t work like that, and I think that you should not be prescriptive.

This is about getting learning bubbling in the organization, all around, getting individuals to be much more responsible for their own learning, to see learning as a way of securing their jobs, securing the future of their organization. And it’s for the learning and development professional not to restrain themselves to just getting this formal bit perfect, but to ensuring that that formal bit ripples right the way through the workplace and right the way through the individual’s work experience.

So, in a sense, there’s another phrase that is coming increasingly to be used: “Work is learning and learning is work.” That is the manifestation of 70:20:10, getting that message and implementing that message.

Rachel Salaman: You devote a section of your book to measuring the impact of training, which of course is very important, and here you talk about the Brinkerhoff approach. What is that?

Nigel Paine: Well, it’s the success case method, it’s called. Brinkerhoff is a very interesting guy. What he discovered was that the vast majority of learning events are unevaluated in terms of impact, or underevaluated in terms of impact. So what he wanted to do was set up a system that would allow a more systematic measurement of impact, not just enjoyment.

So he basically moves a long way away from the notion that, “Did you like that?” “Yes, I ticked the box, I enjoyed that, it was a very good course,” or “The room was excellent,” to something that makes a solid attempt to measure the impact of that investment on the organization – and that’s in terms of improved work, in terms of improved efficiency, etc. And he does it, not through some complicated data gathering, but through simple procedures.

Such as, for example, if you take a leadership program and you encourage the people going on that program to keep a journal where they action plan what they expect to happen during that program, they focus on what they really want to get out of it. And then they keep a note of how they do, and what issues there are as they go through the program, and then implement the program.

They will have something like a 70 percent better opportunity to change their behavior permanently. If that action plan is undertaken with their manager, who takes an equal commitment to ensuring the behavior change, the impact doubles again.

So they are very simple things, not complicated things, and what Brinkerhoff does is he uses a lot of interview techniques. And Brinkerhoff’s belief is that, if you interview people, the ones you should focus on are the ones who do very, very well and the ones who do very, very badly: you learn most from those two.

And often, when he interviews people who have apparently got nothing out of a program, it’s got nothing to do with the program. It’s all to do with the conditions in which they tried to implement the learning. There is a hostility in the organization when they try to implement the program, that they were taken off a particular role and put somewhere else and therefore they couldn’t use the lessons from the program, and then they forgot them, basically, or they just withered away very quickly.

There are all sorts of reasons around the conditions for success and impact which don’t necessarily focus on the quality of the learning program itself. It’s all of the conditions around it that are very important. So he gets individuals to take a much more holistic approach and to focus on maximizing the success and the impact of the program, and therefore the value for money, and therefore the benefits that accrue.

Rachel Salaman: And the importance of getting buy-in from people throughout the organization, building alliances, if you like, before the training starts, comes through clearly in your book. Could you give an example of what that actually looks like in practice? How can someone go about doing that?

Nigel Paine: Let me give you an example, if we go back to that leadership program. If you agree with the chief executive or a senior member of staff that no one comes on that program unless their manager has supported the person coming on the program, and has agreed to work with that individual before, during and after the learning program, that alliance will massively increase the impact. And if that organization is so dysfunctional that managers point-blank refuse to cooperate, you are basically wasting your money putting people through the leadership program. So it’s a salutary experience.

Secondly: governance. Many organizations, the governance of learning and development is kept within the learning and development operation, or within HR. What I suggest in the book is that governance is much better if the organization takes a stake. So if you’ve got senior stakeholders from around the organization taking charge or adding their power and influence to the decisions about investment, to the nature of what is being learned and why it’s being learned, and the nature of the learning, you’ll end up with far more credibility and, at the end of the day, more bangs for your buck.

So it’s important to help the organization see that learning is of benefit to the organization in direct proportion to how much effort the organization as a whole puts into learning. And if you just dump it all on the poor small team of learning professionals, saying, “It’s your fault, you do it, it’s your responsibility,” then almost by definition it’s not going to work as well.

Rachel Salaman: So in practical terms, I suppose, does that mean that the L&D professionals within the organization should just set up specific meetings where perhaps they make a presentation pointing out the benefits to the organization, something like that?

Nigel Paine: That’s one thing, but it’s much more conversations. It’s not just a one-off, it’s much more having conversations around the business constantly, and get out there and listen. What are the real issues, what is it that stops people participating, what frustrates them at the moment, where can learning make the best impact? It’s being aligned and understanding what drives the organization rather than imagining that, simply because I’m doing it, simply because I’m launching it, people will love it and they will come and it will be sensational. It’s not always true.

The second point is that often you’re competing for headspace amongst employees, so if your brand is dull and unimaginative and unspectacular, then that’s exactly the way in which the workforce will see learning and development. So sometimes it’s about rebranding, using color, redesigning the physical space, redesigning the online space so it looks exciting, it looks contemporary, it looks something that people want to participate in rather than something that people are driven to participate in.

Rachel Salaman: In your book, you talk about performance support, which is a kind of on-the-job training. Can you elaborate on what this is exactly and how it can be used?

Nigel Paine: Performance support is essentially learning at the moment of need, so that if I’m doing something and I have a problem, I can’t proceed. Performance support is giving me at that instant sufficient, but not too much, help that enables me to continue with the job in the minimum amount of time and in the maximum efficient way.

A lot of performance support is online, so that, for example, if I’m working on a piece of software and I don’t know what to do next, something will pop up and say, “This is how you do this.” Or I can go somewhere very quickly and pull down a bit of learning. Occasionally, it’s going to a database of help and saying, “I can’t do this,” and up comes the solution. And even more occasionally, it’s having someone that you can phone up quickly, or email quickly, and say, “I’m stuck here, can you help me get around this?”

So performance support is a complement to more detailed, more complex programs of learning. But it’s incredibly important, because I wouldn’t like to guess how many hundreds of thousands of hours are wasted by people sitting at their desks going, “Oh, how do I do that, where do I go, wait a minute, I’ll see if Jean is there, she’s not there.” Just sitting there in pure frustration at just not being able to do something very simple that’s slipped your mind, or something has changed.

So it’s very, very important to be able to deliver teeny, bite-size nuggets of learning at the appropriate delivery moment so that the work basically continues and the frustration minimizes. And with technology, that has become much, much more sophisticated and much, much more intuitive, and you get almost like an intelligent software that knows where you are at any moment and sees the hesitation and can almost come up and prompt you at that point.

So I think performance support is a growing area of specialism that is very important and saves money – almost by definition, it saves money.

Rachel Salaman: You also give a great overview of instructional design. So what are your main points here?

Nigel Paine: The main points are that… what worried me, the reason I did the chapter was that, in many organizations, instructional design is seen as being very formal, very slow, a kind of one-shot approach. And therefore they’re doing without instructional designers, or buying in a teeny bit of instructional design from outside.

Whereas what I wanted to show was that instructional design is evolving, and evolving very fast, and that what I would call modern, new instructional design is an absolutely vital part of the learning and development process. And often the instructional designer is now the pragmatic person in the middle who is able to make some brilliant, quick learning decisions about how to do something this way rather than that way, how to decide on a medium to use, or whatever it might be. But the person is a sort of pivot, who helps the learning come to fruition without putting in all sorts of layers of baggage.

I didn’t want that role to disappear, and I thought the best way that I could explain how it’s changing would be to interview instructional designers. So I talked to five or six instructional designers doing the job all over the world and asked them, “Just tell us what you do.” And that was a really interesting and fruitful exploration, because what it showed was that it’s an absolutely vital role going on.

But it’s not what you would conventionally call traditional instructional design, and therefore that whole area, it has to evolve and it has to evolve fairly quickly to stay relevant. But when it does evolve, it’s vital and very successful.

Rachel Salaman: So where do you see instructional design heading in the future?

Nigel Paine: In some ways, crudely, it’s gone from silence to speaking. The instructional designers used to sit in the corner and they used to get all the learning stuff in and they’d design all the interactions and so on. And it would take a long time. It was slow, and then they’d hand it back again.

What’s happening now is that the instructional designer is right there at the forefront, asking intelligent questions: why are you doing it like this, have you thought about doing that, this is one way of doing it that you might not have considered, OK we’re going to do it this way, have you thought about this issue or that issue? So they’re the kind of intelligent quizmaster and, at the heart, they’re trying to do the appropriate thing for the organization. So it’s the right learning, in the right place, at the right time, and at the right cost. That’s essentially their role.

Rachel Salaman: Now a little earlier you talked about data and how the mass of data that people are now dealing with is changing the face of L&D. Could you tell us what you understand by the term “big data” and “learning analytics,” and how they relate to each other in practical terms?

Nigel Paine: Yes, it’s one of my “game changers.” There are three game changers in the book, in other words things that are going to explode the world of learning. The first is big data, the second is neuroscience, and the third is technology.

And big data, not because learning can generate data, which it can, and the more data that learning generates the more you can apply an analytics engine to understand much more accurately what works and what doesn’t work; where there are issues, where there are not issues; monitor an individual’s learning progress. All of that stuff, we can do more of that. But I think the really interesting issue is that organizations, the world, generates vast, vast amounts of data and that a lot of that can be really useful for learning.

And I’ll give you an example. At an insurance company, the marketing team began to gather vast amounts of data on Twitter and Facebook and other social media about customer likes and dislikes, satisfactions, anger, delights, all of that kind of stuff. And they used it in a marketing context so they knew which products were working, where the “bruise points” were.

And Learning got involved in looking at that data. So, nothing to do with them, they didn’t gather it, but what they saw when they applied their own learning frame to the data was that there were some clear indicators that the sales team did not know certain key bits of information and were not doing a brilliant job in certain areas.

They put together a very quick learning program based around that big data that was coming into the organization, and the result was spectacular. They suddenly saw this big uptick in terms of successful sales, customer satisfaction. So this was data that had got nothing to do with learning, but with the learning frame on was extremely insightful.

And I think, increasingly, Learning people will have to learn to apply, if you like, a learning analytics frame to data that streams in from all over the organization and from outside the organization. And that’s a really big challenge, and that’s the essence of what I was trying to say in the chapter.

Rachel Salaman: One of your other game changers in the book is neuroscience. How does this relate to corporate learning?

Nigel Paine: In the last, perhaps, only five years, a large number, or a relatively large number, of neuroscientists have started to focus on the learning process. And learning is very interesting to neuroscientists, and for the first time in history we can watch the brain learn. Previously it was all guesswork, much of the brilliant neuroscience around the turn of the last century was all guesswork. And the basis of memory that was developed in the 1920s came from guesswork and has proved to be absolutely accurate, once we were able to look at the brain working.

And so we’ve got all of this information coming through about learning and we’re beginning to realize that we’ve got a whole bunch of assumptions that have been made perhaps over the last 200 years that are wrong. Now, we always thought that learning was a rational process, that it’s all about the prefrontal cortex. In fact, the best learning is when learning engages the whole brain, so it’s an emotional process as well as a rational process.

And we also know that sitting people in a room and talking at them is not good for the brain – the brain deteriorates almost visibly over time. You’re attentive in the first 45 minutes, less attentive in the next and, by the time you get to hour three or four, you are virtually brain dead; your brain can’t take anything else in. So we have to change the way in which we help people learn in order to maximize the lessons of neuroscience. So it’s about emotional engagement, it’s about variety, it’s about giving the brain different ways of applying the learning, it’s about practice.

And, above all, the brain learns when it’s had time to reflect and sit in repose, and most organizations don’t give anyone any chance for reflection as part of the learning. They just cram in the content. Whereas less content, more reflection, will actually end up with a better outcome.

So there are some pretty fundamental lessons from neuroscience. Forget the hype and the nonsense, but just some core lessons from neuroscience that we’d be foolish not to acknowledge and start to build in to the way we shape and structure and organize learning.

Rachel Salaman: Well, let’s talk a bit more about technology now. What are the most useful trends you’ve seen in this area?

Nigel Paine: I actually think the most fascinating thing is the movement from massive technology solutions, one-stop shops that can often cost millions of pounds, that are complicated and do everything, to very small apps. Often apps that weren’t ever developed for learning, but can be applied to learning. And we can bolt them all together now so that we can end up with quite exciting new ways of encouraging and supporting learning without vast investment, and often without even going through the organizational firewall: it can all sit in the cloud.

That’s one thing, and the second thing is just the desire people have and the ability now to deliver learning anywhere. Something you start on the desktop, you continue on your tablet, and then you finish off on your phone, and then go back in and maybe do a test on your desktop. The idea is that things should be “place agnostic” and “machine agnostic.” You know, we don’t care what the device is as long as it gets us the learning whenever we choose to do it.

So a combination of those things means that there’s an explosion of new ways to learn, new ways to deliver content, new ways to design content that is not simply a bit of gloss and a bit of color but absolutely transformational. And it allows us to do far more with far less.

And, I think, to engage the learner in a much more colorful, emotional and interesting way than we could do previously where you had to go to a particular machine, you had to sign on, you had to say, “I am doing learning now.” Now it can be almost learning in the fragments of your life, learning in the teeny periods between more formal work, learning on the bus.

Literally all of those things are now possible through technology and it’s going to get more interesting, not less interesting. And I’m also fascinated by the way things like gamification can help. Gamification encourages us to compete, gives us badges and rewards for our progress. All of those things work when they’re applied to learning.

Rachel Salaman: I suppose technology also enables a much greater personalization of the learning process, doesn’t it?

Nigel Paine: Yes, absolutely right, for example if you take something like Facebook.

I don’t know how many billion people are on Facebook, but the point is that every single person who logs on to Facebook this morning will have a different front page. Every single front page is different, it’s unique. Now there’s no reason why exactly the same thing can’t happen for learning, so instead of getting a bland “You are now in the learning environment,” you get something which is for Rachel Salaman. And it says, “This is what you need to think about. These are the things that will interest you. Here’s something new, Rachel, that you haven’t seen before.”

So there’s no reason why, with a little bit of complex programming and a few algorithms, we can’t deliver individual learning plans on a day-to-day basis automatically for every single person in an organization, regardless of how many people there are.

Rachel Salaman: Now, at the end of your book, you offer some tips for learning leaders who want to stay on top of technology. Which of these do you think are the most useful?

Nigel Paine: I suppose the most useful one for me, if I had known this when I started in that role, was to not think I have to do it all on my own. That you should be building a network of like-minded individuals, and perhaps, maybe desirably, not part of your own organization, and so you do this together.

You pool the need to discover and share what you come up with so that you manage to move forward on a broad front and so you don’t miss stuff. It’s very easy, things are changing so fast, to either be seduced by something that’s not really going to be very permanently enduring, or you simply miss things because you can’t be everywhere at once. If you’ve got that network, that really helps.

The second thing is to see IT as your friend, not something that you should devolve responsibility to an IT person, or something that you should see as an enemy that is so confusing and difficult. But to see IT as part of what will really help you and get you moving forward. And work in partnership with, if there are IT people in your organization, don’t work in opposition, don’t see it as a fight. And, in IT, look much more broadly than the applications that have been designed specifically for learning.

And I suppose a final one is that never make big changes without testing first: testing, testing, testing, pilot. Do the small things, make it work on a small scale, test it thoroughly, get endorsement from around the organization so that, when you press the button, you’re going to succeed.

There’s been too many learning initiatives that have been rolled out under pressure without having been tested that end up being a pretty big disaster, and I don’t think we can afford to have disasters. We can be pretty sure that the vast, vast majority of what we do is successful first time round if we do it right, basically.

Rachel Salaman: Nigel Paine, thanks very much for joining me.

Nigel Paine: It’s a pleasure. Thank you very much, Rachel.

Rachel Salaman: The name of Nigel’s book again is “The Learning Challenge: Dealing with Technology, Innovation and Change in Learning and Development” and there is more information about Nigel and his work at

About the author

Rachel Salaman

Rachel Salaman

Freelance Podcast Producer
Rachel has been producing Book Insights and Expert Interviews, the latter of which she also hosts, for the past 14 years. She is also the Founder and Creative Director of a media production company, advising on all forms of online audio and video content, and offering full production and post-production services, as well as training and consultation.

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