What Can BlockBuster Video Teach Us About Learning & Performance?

True story: When I was a teenager my first job was at Blockbuster Video.  It was a great job for a 15 year old.  I got to watch all the movies I wanted, and people thought I was cool because I could hold new releases for them.  It was the type of job that an immature 15 year old could see himself working at for the rest of his life.

Good thing I’m not 15 years old anymore, otherwise I’d likely be out of a job right now.

In 1994 Blockbuster video was acquired by Viacom for $8.4 Billion; In 2011 Blockbuster filed for Bankruptcy and Dish Network bought what was left for $350 million.

So what happened?

One of the primary mistakes made by Blockbuster was not recognizing the changing landscape in which they existed.  Blockbuster’s growth was fueled by customers’ desire to bring the theatre experience home.  Video rental was booming, and Blockbuster brought in stores the scale of which local Mom & Pop stores could not compete with.  In almost every sense of the word, they cornered the market in the communities they served.

What they failed to do was look at the future of technology and how it was going to affect the very market they had once controlled. It started with the shift from VHS to DVD.  Suddenly customers had an option to own a movie for a little more than Blockbuster charged to rent it.  At the same time, a little known startup company realized that a DVD (without its case) could be sent via the mail for the cost of a first class stamp… and Netflix was born.  By the time Blockbuster tried to react with their mail-service, it was too late.  Netflix had already cornered the DVD-by-Mail Market, built on the ashes of now closed Blockbuster stores.

Blockbuster’s collapse ultimately comes down to one thing: They failed to accept that the market was changing.  What was valuable to their customers in 1990 became almost irrelevant in 2011.  The world moved forward, and Blockbuster tried to hold on to the past.

There are strange parallels between Blockbuster’s story and the current state of the Learning and Development Profession.  I have seen a growing number of discussions around the question: Is Social Learning Replacing Traditional Training?

First, let me establish my personal foundation for the discussion, because I find that the phrase ‘Social Learning’ is often misused.  Social Learning is simply the ability for people to learn through their social interactions.  Unfortunately, many people have used the label ‘Social Learning’ to describe the facilitation of learning through the use of social media.  That’s not the same as Social Learning, but it IS the core issue being discussed under the Social Learning label.  To me the real question being asked during these discussions is “Are social media tools replacing traditional training?”

In recent years technology has reached a milestone.  Social media applications have advanced to a point that they have become highly accessible both in terms of technology and learning curve.  People are becoming more and more comfortable using these tools as part of their daily lives.  Recognizing this, many organizations are looking at how they can use social media as a means to better connect and communicate with their customers and employees.

 The core of the growing debate is in what impact – if any – social media will have on Learning and Development professionals.  It’s in this debate that I see a link to Blockbuster’s history.

Learning Professionals cannot sit back looking at the changes going on with social media and not acknowledge the impact it will have on our profession.  We’re not simply talking about social media tools here and whether or not they can be used in learning programs.  It’s much bigger than that.  We’re talking about a fundamental change in the way people communicate.  How can that NOT impact learning and performance?

I often say that social media is a great opportunity for learning professionals.  Over time, my thoughts have shifted a bit on that.  I think that learning professionals have a responsibility to at least explore how these tools can be used in their organizations.

It’s not about being an early adopter.  As always, it’s about meeting the performance needs of the organization. Social media gives us an opportunity to provide support IN the work, where the real learning happens.  It’s also usually much cheaper than pulling people away from the workplace for more formal training programs.  If there’s an opportunity to address a performance need in a more effective way – with the added benefit of possibly reducing costs – we have the responsibility to do so.

Many learning professionals react defensively when statements are made that imply social media tools will replace traditional learning programs.  We’re very protective of what we do and what we know.  For many learning professionals, the idea that social media tools could reduce our reliance on more traditional formal programs is a threat they don’t want to acknowledge.

That’s a mistake, because the ‘threat’ of social media is very real. It’s not going to completely replace traditional formal training methods, but it does give us another alternative, one that will become increasingly relied upon as organizations begin to understand its value.   

Learning Professionals that ignore this threat run the risk of repeating the mistake Blockbuster made.  You may wake up one day and realize the services you provide are no longer valued – at least not as much as they once were.

UPDATE 8/4/2011: For another take on how the Blockbuster story relates to the current state of the Learning and Development profession, be sure to check out this great post from Mark Britz: Willingness Vs Ability to Change

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