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Innovation In L and D

ideas in learning and development

As professionals in the learning and development community, it is important to push ourselves to find new approaches to problems. Being innovative can be defined many ways, but it isn’t necessarily as complex as we may think.

On the podcast this week, Darren Nerland, Learning Strategist at Degreed, sits down with us to talk about his experiences with innovation. Both as co-founder of Learnapalooza, and a leader in the L&D community, Daren has observed several approaches to innovation. In this podcast we discuss how to connect with the Learnopalooza community, how to push the boundaries of learning, and one of the main elements that precedes nearly all innovative solutions.

Listen using the player below. Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section or on twitter @train_champion.

Transcript of the Conversation with Darren Nerland

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to the Train Like You Listen podcast, a weekly podcast featuring different leaders in the learning and development space in bite-sized chunks so you don’t have to spend all day listening to us. Today I’m here with Darren Nerland from Degreed who is also one of the cofounders of the Northwest’s premier learning event, Learnapalooza. Darren, good to be with you.

Darren Nerland: Thank you. Good to be here.

6-Word Introduction

Brian Washburn: And, Darren, as you know, we always start out with a six-word bio or memoir just in the spirit of keeping this podcast short. For my six-word bio, “I think innovation makes learning better”. How would you introduce yourself using exactly six words?

Darren Nerland: For me, it’s “be real, be yourself, and be innovative”.

Brian Washburn: Nice. Now, Darren, we’ve known each other for a little while. And I know that you’ve worked at some of the most famous organizations in the world. You’ve worked with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Amazon, and now you’re with Degreed

How Do You Define “Innovation” and How Does It Drive Success?

Brian Washburn: How would you define innovation? And, how have you seen it drive some of the teams that you’ve worked with toward success?

Darren Nerland: Well, for me, innovation for its own sake can refer to something new. But I typically think of that more in that invention space rather than innovation. Or it can be made to– you can think about it as change made to an existing product, a process, an idea, or a field.

And so innovation is really about coming up with ideas that move the needle. They don’t always have to be this a grand idea that takes hundreds and thousands of dollars to implement or takes this big grand thing that you have to implement over the course of two years or whatever. The times that I’ve seen innovation work is when you come up with these really interesting ideas in small teams that really makes progress with an organization happen.

Brian Washburn: I think that that is such an important point, what you just said, in terms of innovation doesn’t necessarily need to cost a lot of money or even really be some sort of giant world-changing event. It can be something that you iterate on and come up with a new way to solve even a little problem. You’ve co-created, perhaps, the premier learning event here in the Pacific Northwest, Learnapalooza. Why did you and your partner, Erin (Peterschick), why did you choose an event to further your passion for promoting innovation in our field?

An Event to Promote Innovation in the Field of Learning

Darren Nerland: A little over six years ago, we sat down and had a conversation. And, really, it was about the people that we know in our field, and what was up-and-coming from different conferences, and that sort of thing. And what struck me was we knew lots of great people and lots of great people specifically in the Northwest, and we said, “wow, wouldn’t it be great to get these minds together and learn from each other?”

Now, the other thing that I thought of is it’s not about the same people you see over and over at conferences, really, those polished speakers, the keynotes, and the vendor booths. For us, we were thinking about, who do we know that maybe they don’t speak at conferences at all? Maybe they just want to share some really interesting information with different people.

So, really, about 70%, 80% of our speakers are local. Many have not spoken at a conference before. and many of them, Erin and I know personally just through our connections. We usually have conversations with them even before they submit a proposal to speak at our conference.

But, really, what we ask them to do is we ask them to highlight something that they’re doing that’s innovative or that they feel is making a difference in their industry from a learning perspective. And so with that, we just decided, hey, we can make our own conference out of this, and we can do things differently. So we break a lot of the rules of traditional conferences, which we really like. And it’s been successful for us so far.

Brian Washburn: One of the things that I love about Learnapalooza is that it’s a different crowd. There’s still people who are focused on learning in some way, shape, or form. But I’ve been involved at the local Association for Talent Development chapter. I’ve been involved in a lot of learning events, Pacific Northwest OD Network, things like that. And when I go to Learnapalooza, it’s some familiar faces and some very new faces, which is really neat. I’m curious if there’s anything– you’ve been doing Learnapalooza for years now. Are there any innovative practices, or innovative strategies, or just ideas that have really stood out in your mind from sessions past?

Memorable Innovations From Past Learnapalooza Sessions  

Darren Nerland: Yeah. I mean, there’s a few things that have stood out for me personally. And the interesting thing about Learnapalooza is it’s kind of a labor of love for both Erin and I in that we put all this together. And we don’t get to spend a ton of time during that day to really get to a lot of the sessions, which is unfortunate, because we love putting it together, but we’d love to do more of that. But when we get a sit in on sessions, there’s a couple of things that I noticed that I thought were really interesting.

So one of the ideas that someone came up with a couple of years ago was– this was sales enablement. Their managers that they knew were being hired into these manager roles, they were great at sales, and so they were being promoted into manager. So we’ve all seen this before. The problem was 80% of these managers – internal hires – had never had manager experience. So they were challenged with creating good managers to lead this workforce when they’ve never been managers of people before.

And, really, the innovative idea was very simple. It was, hey, wouldn’t it be great to come up with what they called dialogue cards? And these cards – you view them on a device or you could print them out, and they guide managers on questions to ask people to get conversations going – how to get better performance out of people, how to help people sell better. And then they would follow up with cards each quarter to help them grow and be more proficient as a manager and as, really, a people manager.

And so that was in one of the sessions that we were doing in a hackathon. So we were doing an afternoon hackathon, this was one of the topics that came up. So, literally, within 90 minutes, these people came up with a really great idea. I followed up with the person afterwards, and it’s been very successful for them. So that just came out of an ideation session or a hackathon type of session, where we push the boundaries a little bit on what we think should happen in learning.

We also try to push the boundaries in thinking outside that box, that proverbial box that we all say is a cliche. But it’s true, right? What if you had unlimited budget? What if you had unlimited support? What if you had unlimited means of getting this information out? Now, it doesn’t mean you have to spend an unlimited budget. In this case, there was hardly any budget to do this, and it was actually a pretty simple idea that has worked out well for them. And, I think, it’s a very innovative way of looking at it.

Brian Washburn: The reason I love that idea is because sometimes when you hear innovation, you think, “oh, some sort of technological solution”. Or especially being here in the Northwest in the world of Amazon and Microsoft, you think, “something that is digital based”. And that is a little bit more analog way to solve something.

And so innovation can mean so many different things while you’re still able to come to the same end, which is really to do something new, or differently, or better, or solve a problem. What advice do you have for somebody who’s listening and thinking, “I’m not naturally a creative person, so when it comes to trying to come up with an innovative idea or creative solution to an intractable problem, I don’t really know where to begin?”

Advice for How to Get Started Creating Innovation

Darren Nerland: Here’s the thing. People think that you need to be creative to innovate. Innovation doesn’t have to come from a place of creativeness in the traditional sense, right?

So many people think it must be a great idea or something. I have to have this kind of design thinking background. But it’s really not about that. As I said before, what if you can improve upon an idea?

A couple of examples for you, so look at Sal Khan with the Khan Academy. He was passionate about math, so he found a unique way and, really, an innovative way of teaching it online. That kind of thing, I think, is really the kind of thing is, what are you passionate about? What do you have experience in? 

And then you anchor it to those problems. So not the solution, because here’s the challenge is people think you have to come to these game-changing solutions. And oftentimes when they do that, create these unique products or processes that really don’t have a problem. But if you anchor it in a problem and you say, hey, I’m really passionate about whatever it is, I anchor it to the problem and not necessarily to the solution, now you start creating those small innovations and they focus on the immediate pain points and concerns. And then it encourages other people around you to find a solution to that problem or a better way of doing things.

First, I look for the problems that I’m passionate about that I think I can help solve. Number two is I bring other people in and say, well, how could we do this differently? And then three is, could we make a difference today? Could we implement something in the next couple of weeks? Not in the next six months, not in the next year but, what could we do in the next couple weeks to really make a difference? And then build off of there.

Brian Washburn: And you just mentioned something that I hadn’t thought of too much before when talking about innovation. It’s the combination of passion and trying to solve a problem. It’s not just innovation for necessarily innovation’s sake as much as it is combining the idea of passion with problem-solving.

And I hadn’t thought of that before. And I really like where you took that, because it really goes to the idea that innovation doesn’t just happen. And you may really want to be innovative and have that title, but it does require the passion as part of the element to it. It’s really a neat way to frame it.

Darren Nerland: Everybody thinks that when you think of innovation, they always look to some of the futurists out there, right? And they go, wow, wouldn’t it be great to be sitting and think about these hard problems all day long? And, really, again, depending on what industry you’re in – hopefully, a lot of us are in industries that we love – you just take those ideas and then just work from there.

Get to Know Darren Nerland

Brian Washburn: Are you ready for the speed round?

Darren Nerland: I’m ready, let’s go.

Brian Washburn: All right, what’s your go-to meal before you deliver a presentation?

Darren Nerland: You know what? I always bring a peanut butter Clif Bar. And that’s so I don’t lose steam. And it keeps my blood sugar up.

Brian Washburn: How about a book? What book should people be reading in the field of learning and development right now?

Darren Nerland: Well, for me, I think, the book that people should be reading is The Art of Social Media, and it’s by Guy Kawasaki. Now, the reason I think this is not because I think every L&D person needs to be all over Facebook and LinkedIn but the same tactics that Guy talks about in The Art of Social Media are the same things you can be doing internally in your organization to get learning out there and to get people to think about learning differently.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, we do need to be marketers in order to do our job well and grab the attention of those who work is being produced for. What’s a piece of training tech that you can’t live without?

Darren Nerland: Well, this’ll sound like a plug, and it is. But, honestly, the reason I went to work for Degreed is because it’s a lifelong learning platform where I can track my learning and skills no matter where I’m at.

Brian Washburn: I think that Degreed is a great platform. How can people reach you, Darren, if they want to talk to you more?

Darren Nerland: Well, the easiest way is LinkedIn. If you look up Darren Nerland, well, there’s only one Darren Nerland on LinkedIn. That’s the easiest way. And then I’m always happy to connect and chat. Love to connect with the community.

Brian Washburn: What are you promoting right now?

Darren Nerland: Well, two things I’m promoting right now. So Learnapalooza, because we’re shifting to a fall conference. So that’s number one.

We had set up the Learnapalooza to be in June. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen right now. In fact, it’s not going to happen. We’re moving to September 11th in the fall. So we’re promoting that.

But in the meantime, we’re also doing these Learnapalooza online meetups. So every other week, we invite people to come in, share some ideas about what they’re doing in the learning and development space. And, Brian, I know you’re going to be on one of those, we’re looking forward to that. But, yeah. Again, just trying to help this community grow in this time of interesting and different challenges. So we use technology to do that.

Brian Washburn: Nice, yeah. The weekly meetups, I’m looking forward to that. We’ll be talking a little bit about Soapbox, which is our own tool. And that was actually talking about this idea of innovation and then combining passion with problem-solving. We are very passionate that every presentation should be engaging and lead to change. And so we thought we came up with a solution that could solve somebody’s pain point in terms of using a software tool that can put together instructor-led training much faster and hopefully in a more engaging way.

So, Darren, thank you so much for spending some time with us today. I’m excited to have people learn a little bit more about Learnapalooza. And even if you’re not here in the Seattle area, it is definitely something that you might want to try to figure out how to plug into, maybe even use some of that travel budget in order to make it out here for it. Darren, thank you again for joining us today.

Darren Nerland: Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

Brian Washburn: And thank you, all, for listening. This has been the Train Like You Listen podcast, a weekly podcast in bite-sized chunks. You can go ahead and subscribe to Train Like You Listen on Spotify, on iHeart Radio, on iTunes, or anywhere where you get your podcasts. Until next time, stay safe, and have a great week.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox.  Sign up today for a free demo at

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