Elliott Masie: Broadway producer and king of online learning

This year, Elliott Masie, head of The MASIE Center, a New York think-tank focused on how organizations can support workforce learning and knowledge, celebrated his 67th birthday.

Published 03 August 2017
Elliott Masie: Broadway producer and king of online learning

Masie has been a prominent figure in corporate online learning for more than 30 years. This year he regained the top spot in the annual World List of Corporate E-Learning's Movers and Shakers.

He came second in 2016 and has consistently topped the list since its inception in 2010. His clients include national governments and major corporations. These days he also indulges his passion for race horses and works as a producer on Broadway, in New York, and London's West End. I caught up with him in London, where he was overseeing work on "An American in Paris" at The Dominion Theatre, to get his opinion on the state of corporate online L&D:

Q1: You've interviewed many of the great and good connected with learning. Who have been the most interesting?

Masie: The former US Secretary of State General Colin Powell, the educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, and the Columbia University researcher Betsy Sparrow. On his way to becoming a four-star general and then US Secretary of State, Powell spent time as a teacher.

This experience, he said, taught him that learners need to hear information from multiple voices before they'll accept and learn it. Otherwise, they see this information as a "command," not as something for them to embrace and identify with. Powell added that, when you're a teacher or an expert, people need to know something about you for them to validate the information you give them.

Consequently, don't tell a story to get a laugh but, rather, to give your hearers an insight into your psyche, and thus provide a construct for the information you give them. Robinson provided an insight into the personalization of learning which, he said, really involves teachers accepting that learners will personalize the information that they're given.

Sparrow's insights focus on lowering the degree of memorization that learners need nowadays. She also believes that every learner needs a trusted partner. A spouse, work colleague, or, indeed, anyone, to "complete" the learner's memorized story. Collaboration in learning is not something that's written or shared but, rather, it's about ongoing proximity to a trusted colleague.

Q2: We all want to probe the black box of the future. You've been at the leading edge of learning over many years. So, what can we learn from learning by looking back?

Masie: First, don't believe the hype about anything when it's launched. It can take years for some technologies' promise to be truly realized. Second, you must always blend technology with culture. Technology is "culture neutral" but it only works when culture supports it, rather than suffocates or stops it.

Q3: What does your hindsight tell you about where we've got to now with L&D, compared with where we'd hoped to get to by now in the Internet age?

Masie: We always expected that technology would allow people to know what was available to help them learn. While "searching" has made this easier, it's also made it more complex. That's why curation is now such a vital skill. I wish we'd already achieved more in terms of our curation skills.

Q4. Much attention is paid to L&D in large corporations, but the small business sector seems to get forgotten. What advice would you give to a small company seeking to transform its organization and people through applying modern learning technologies and applications?

Masie: The applications are there, but the marketplace isn't. Suppliers are fixated on closing large contracts. Until the cost-per-learner is brought down for everyone to the $1-per-month mark, small businesses won't be able to take full advantage of learning technologies. Moreover, the video world now talks about the "prosumer" [a person who consumes and produces media] offering "cut down" versions of professional equipment, such as cameras, for the discerning, aspiring consumer.

As we see the rise of the prosumer market in learning technologies, suppliers will need to change their approach. We've also assumed that most work-based learning is done via corporate L&D. Yet, today, large numbers of learners are using technology and other methods to engage in learning that's outside the corporate L&D budget. Indeed, using L&D makes the learning experience formal, bureaucratic and so, not cool for these learners. Corporate L&D needs to understand and allow for this.

Q5. A great deal of the L&D industry is anecdote- and technology-fad-driven. So, if budget wasn't an issue, what research would you like to commission about learning and learning efficacy?

Masie: The learning marketplace is fad-driven, but learners aren't. Learners are functionally smart and innovative, For example, they are using technology to discover what they need to know without "doing formal L&D." So, I'd like to see research to challenge our L&D assumptions around assessment and evaluation. L&D professionals tend to be naiive about assessment (which can be carried out for all learners) and evaluation (which could be based on sampling learners).

In other words, we should ask, "Does a piece of learning engage learners to learn the new things they want to learn?" and, "Having done this learning, can they do something new?" This means that the piece of learning must perform twice. It must engage the learner and it must help learners do their job. The problem is that the L&D professionals don't own the learner. They just borrow learners for a while. Yet, most of the impact of the learning happens afterwards, in real time, when the learners are performing their jobs and aren't available to be tested.

Moreover, this information may exist, but an accurate assessment of the value of the learning might not be available for years. It's not that we fear finding out the truth. It's that we don't own the learners for long enough to find the truth from them. To discover this information, L&D needs to partner with other departments or organizations. 

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