3 things we learned from 4 learning leaders

We recently had the opportunity to join four L&D and HR experts in a panel discussion on how to prepare for the future of learning. The conversation was robust, the answers illuminating and the calls to action challenging. So, basically, a great day.
Bevan Rees
Sep 13, 2019

“The future is amazing, very much linked to transformation, very much linked to learning ecosystems. But what we had in the past will no longer work in the future.”

With these comments, José Miguel CarasHead of L&D at Santander, Spain, summed up the sentiment of a recent panel discussion between L&D and HR leaders in Madrid.

The event marked the launch of Headspring’s new learning facilities in the Spanish capital. Miguel Caras was one of four Headspring clients contributing expert opinion to the question: what is the future of learning and how do we meet it?

On stage he joined

  • Meinrad ArnaudChief Enterprise Learning & Development Officer of the Aptar Group;
  • Clare ThompsonAssurance Pursuits Leader, Industries and Business Development, Ernst & Young LLP;
  • Carole Pascale WettmannProgramme Director, Universitas Telefónica; and
  • Gustaf NordbäckCEO, Headspring

A rich and robust dialogue explored many facets of executive development, but revealed three primary themes: integration, experience, and empowerment.


It is critical that learning is ingrained in corporate strategy. It needs to be a part of it. More and more organisations realise this, but in the future it will be increasingly necessary to elevate this integration.

Learning and strategy will no longer be separate objectives pursued in unison. They will be one and the same thing.

Nordbäck acknowledges that this will require a change in mindset, but that such a process itself reflects the ceaseless evolution that is already being asked of leaders.

“At the core of it, learning is strategy, and it’s even more important than it has ever been before because we embark into the unknown continuously. It’s not going to be 10 years until the next transformation; it’s happening right now. And then tomorrow. And then next week.”

“Every person in the executive team ultimately becomes a Chief Learning Officer because the strategy can never be separated. And I think that’s a shift that’s happening.”

With this shift comes the space for the testing, learning and reflection that need to define everything the business engages in and embarks on. Beyond leadership, it needs to become cultural.

“It’s not a matter of undergoing an experience and then everything is over,” says Miguel Caras. “You are learning, but you have to continue learning otherwise you age within the company.”

“So, we have to create ecosystems, this learning environment within the culture. But it is a challenge to know how to do so, to align the corporate strategy with the learning strategy.”

Nordbäck believes this should be the true value of executive development specialists.

“We won’t have every answer. It’s something that we co-create together with our clients, not just with our programmes, but as a partner in the company’s ongoing strategic development. That is how we chart this somewhat undefined territory between traditional business schools and consulting firms and learning technology providers.”



The Why of executive development – strategic and skillful engagement with the perpetual unknown – can only be realised through an effective How.

Panel experts universally agreed that this requires experiential learning.

“This is what it is about,” says Meinrad Arnaud. “For me that means taking a group or individual out of their comfort zone and allowing them to have an experience. That could be something fun, emotional, could even be a shock. Could also be affirmation. This is part of the learning ecosystem in which the learner decides what she is taking with her.”

“When you see how people behave out of their comfort zone, as individuals or teams, you can offer feedback or guidance. Experiential learning means being able to try different things and find what works for you.”

There is little argument that technology has an important role to play in experiential learning, but it is not itself the solution. The human experience is key.

“One of the things I’m seeing is the desire to create communities, so networks and cohorts of learners, and to keep those alive in ongoing learning. And increasingly we’re looking to the outside world. One of the things we’re talking to Headspring about is doing things with other organisations in open programmes to get other points of view and hear different versions of our truth.”

From an expanded view of this kind learning is constant and informed by multiple perspectives. Though this gives access to broadened understanding, it carries with it the threat of overwhelm.

Helping learners manage this tension is part of the evolving role of L&D, believes Nordbäck.

“A disintermediation of this space is also happening in our industry, specifically platforms or apps for learning nuggets and so on, and that’s really complex. So, how you work with that is becoming increasingly difficult. We’re seeing the role of Learning and Development as the conductor of a symphony orchestra. You can’t just play the first violin, you have to engage everyone together.”


In conducting learning in their organisations L&D and HR professionals are increasingly called to go beyond the provision of tools or applications towards the creation of learning ecosystems. In doing so, they need to strike the fine balance between guiding their colleagues through transformation and development, and empowering them to navigate their own path.

Miguel Caras that the primary aim of learning ecosystems is to empower employees to find the best training for themselves.

“They have the possibility of finding content in many available platforms. What L&D teams do is to evolve these ecosystems and provide guidance on the best way of using them, always doing so in alignment with the business strategy and always encouraging this learning culture, always telling people that in this life you have to carry on learning. It’s not a case of taking a course and you’re done.”

“No, it’s not a matter of undergoing an experience and then everything is over. You are learning, but you have to continue learning otherwise you age within the company. So we have to create these ecosystems, this learning environment within the culture, but it is a challenge to know how to do so, to align the corporate strategy with the learning strategy.”

Carole Pascale Wettmann agrees in the need for continuous learning but cautions against the sacrifice of depth in the name of activity.

“I have a young daughter and I don’t know what to tell her. I don’t know whether to tell her she will go to university or not. And that’s slightly my concern. I know we have to keep on learning, I know we have to change continuously and already doing it, but I have to admit that the messiness drives me crazy sometimes.”

“It sometimes feels like it’s too much and less profound. And what I am trying to teach in our initiatives is, please go back into profound things. Try to learn things properly. But at the same time people are told ‘you need to know everything.’ I think it can be too much.”

Pascale Wettmann and  Meinrad Arnaud agree that “old” ways of learning, like reading a book, are potent ways of access deeper learning, and increasingly overlooked in a tech-focused age.

To Arnaud, empowerment means giving the learner the autonomy to discover this value for him or herself, and then make optimal choices.

“We have to go back to empowerment. Because we take over the brain and the decision-making of others, and that Is not good. I think to empower the individual we need to give them clear feedback, a foundation, and they must decide how to use the opportunity.”

But using empowerment wisely is a skill in itself. As Clare Thompson points out, on any given day, curious individuals in a learning ecosystem have limitless options available to them. With all those bright lights, autonomy and self-control are needed to stop oneself from experiencing, as Thompson calls it, “the LMS equivalent of getting lost in Twitter.”

Judiciously but creatively satisfying the needs of integration, experience and empowerment is a growing challenge for any professional working in learning and development or HR. The escalating complexity, however, means collaboration and co-creation will become the currencies of effective learning cultures in the future.

As Gustaf Nordbäck observes:

“I think part of the How is very much also a point of comfort for people going into the unknown and embarking on this journey where it’s not just ‘you telling us’ or ‘us telling you’. We need to have the trust to work together, to challenge each other and critically collaborate in making learning better.”