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ATD Accidental Trainer is an ATD podcast, sponsored by Canvas by Instructure, featuring bimonthly interviews with industry experts who share stories and tips about how to grow your training career. Hosted by Alexandria Clapp, ATD Accidental Trainer covers trends, strategies, and actionable information for talent development professionals.

Oct 22, 2019

In this episode of The Accidental Trainer, ATD's Justin Brusino sits down with Chief Learning Architect at Axonify JD Dillon to discuss how he got his start in the field as an instructional designer and how he keeps current with the latest trends and technologies. 

Justin: All right, everyone. Thank you for joining us. This is Justin Brusino, Content Manager For Learning Technologies at ATD. And we're recording here live from the ATD 2019 International Conference and Exposition in Washington DC. And I'm joined today by JD Dillon who is the founder of Learn Geek and the CLO at Axonify. JD, thanks for stopping by and chatting with us.

My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Hi, everybody.

So JD, you attend a ton of conferences, probably more than anyone else I know in the industry. What got you started in the industry? What is your path here?

JD: First I'm going to say Karl Kapp probably beats me. Because I see Karl everywhere I go. So I'm assuming he travels a bit more. But from a learning and development perspective, I'm one of the classic examples of someone who didn't go to school for this, have pretty much no formal training in this experience.

I was an operational manager for the first half of my career. So I started out in movie theaters and was often the HR manager, which meant that I was responsible for things like training and all the other human resource functions. And then when I transitioned into my role at Disney where I spent about a decade, I was in operations management in the beginning. And then kind of got lucky, right place, right time in terms of taking on a role as a facilitator in learning and development for a big initiative that was going on around the company.

And at that moment, I just kind of had this strange combination where my undergrad studies were in radio, television productions. So I have some media development capability. I'd done a lot of work around public speaking. I had been in HR. And I was very focused on the front line employee experience and enabling employees as a manager. I was kind of always seen as the employee's manager.

So I think when you start to combine all those things, by the time I got to Disney and was serious about my shift in learning and development, I had built this set of skills and kind of a sensibility with my particular take on L&D. And then from Disney, after that, I kind of went serious about learning development, ended up at Kaplan in a director role. And then now I'm with Axonify and, of course, my own entity Learn Geek, and whatnot.

Justin: Very cool. So I guess that you attend a ton of shows. You're very active on social media. You blog. You're very engaged. So what sort of keeps you engaged in the industry kind of after all these years? Because you've been doing it for a little while.

JD: Sure. So I generally, I think I'm one of the people who's in this business for the altruistic reasons behind learning and support in the workplace. I am not in learning and talent development for the money, let's say. So if you are, I'd love to talk to you.

But I generally look at it as I'm the one who's trying to do their best to enable other people to then help people not get hurt at work, or to just be better at what they do. My tagline with Learn Geek is something to the effect of, helping other people do what they do better.

And again, my entire career, whether it be in a front line manager role, in a senior manager role, in L&D roles, it's always about trying to help people have a more enjoyable working experience and kind of come to the level of performance that they wish to be. Because I personally believe everyone wants to do a good job. They just typically don't have the type of support they need to get to that point. And I've always been the person who's trying to help and get there.

So from an industry perspective, I look at what I do is just trying to help the people who are trying to help those people in the front lines. And that's what keeps me focused on exploring new ideas, sharing information. And also just from an engagement perspective, I always look at it as, like I still don't believe anyone reads anything I write, ever.

So I look at that experience, and even talking in a conference like this, an experience of exploring my own thoughts and ideas as a way to evolve where I can focus next how I can improve on a particular idea. So I get more value out of sharing and then getting feedback and kind of sensing how people are leveraging information I share than I do sitting in a room reading and white boarding to myself and things like that.

Justin: So from an industry perspective, I feel like we sort of talk about the same sorts of things year after year. Do you think the industry is one that changes or doesn't change fast enough?

JD: I think learning and development is generally a great example of how much faster thought leadership-- put big air quotes around that-- thought leadership moves than corporate reality moves. And even being on the technology side of the conversation now, I mean, there's a million things you can build. There's a ton of directions you can go.

But it's a question of, how do you advance the conversation while at the same time meeting people where they are and helping them evolve at a rate that's meaningful. At the same time, in my L&D moments in corporate roles, I have felt the pressure of, the business is changing around us. If we don't change, we die because our ability to provide value is considerably lessened.

So I think we, in our roles inside of organizations, need to evolve more quickly because many other people say, it's no longer our choice. People are going to find support, whether it be management, front-line employees, they're going to find their way to help whether or not it's provided by us. So I think we have to do a better job moving more quickly.

And I think that the industry as a whole can move faster. But it's that day-to-day corporate reality that has to drive the charge forward. Because we can come up with tons of great ideas, but if they can't be used in the reality of life in an organization, it's just talk at that point.

Justin: Yeah. And that's what I think is interesting about being at events like this one and talking to people that are in the offices every day and doing the work every day, is that there sometimes is that gulf between what they're dealing with and then what sort of, like you said, the quote, unquote "thought leaders" are talking about.

JD: Like I said, I could sit here and talk all day about how we can leverage AI and machine learning in order to automate a variety of functions from a learning and development perspective. But then when you go back into an organization, and the legal team is still requiring every employee to view every slide of an e-learning, there's such a disconnect between the potential and what is reality that you can't ask people to make the leap. I look at it as, can I arm people with discussion points, ideas to help start shifting the mindset that opens the door to greater evolution and improvement for L&D.

Justin: Yeah. It is a really incremental change type of thing. And you're right. It does start with a mindset shift. So thinking back to sort of your personal growth, is there something that you wish you knew when you started out in the field?

JD: I wish I had realized there were other people trying to solve the same problems as I was way before I did. This is going to sound odd, but one of the best things I ever did was join Twitter and leave Disney. Because I still remember the moment that I joined Twitter and found a learning development community out there talking. And it was a person walked into my office at Kaplan and said, have you seen this person on Twitter. It was Bianca Woods by the way.

And I said, no, I don't know e-Geeking. And I started following her. And it just kind of snowballed into growing this greater network of people that helped me drive my practices forward. The challenge with Disney was just the fact that when I worked there, we were very much wrapped up in how we did things because it is truly a unique organization and a unique culture. So I wasn't in a position to go out and I didn't make the effort upon myself.

I think in the moment in time it was, it wasn't like pre-internet or anything, but things like YouTube weren't where they were now. Social media wasn't what it is now. So it wasn't coming to me. And I wasn't enough of an effort to go to it. So changing roles and going into an organization where the roles weren't as clearly defined, it was an organization that had 50 years of doing it and doing it right, helped me kind of expand my worldview to say there are other people out there that are solving similar problems. Let's learn from them in addition to the things I do day-to-day.

Justin: You’re someone that I think keeps  up to date on trends. So what's sort of your process? How do you kind of research things, look at things? How do you stay current on all the stuff that's going on in the industry?

JD: Sure. So one,  I would say I'm still heavily connected to a network of people that I rely on. So it's less about me going out and hunting for what's new. Obviously, I get some exposure from events like this and whatnot. But I have the benefit of knowing a lot of the people who are doing the presentations and leading the conversation. So staying connected in those conversations on the side, knowing certain people who, if they share a resource, I know it's something that I should take a look at in greater detail.

At the same time, I think I always try to make the comparison between the experience of having in everyday life and the way that things like technology and whatnot are changing around me, and asking the question, well, how does this contextualize to the workplace. And recognizing-- and having made the mistakes in the past where it's not a deadlift. You can't just take Facebook at everyday life and put it at work and expect it to do the same thing so it's happened in everyday life. 

So recognizing that and having done a ton of experiments early in my career has helped me kind of develop a way of looking at things that are based on one fundamental principle. So what is this really beyond the trend? When we say microlearning, what are we actually talking about from a principal's perspective? Because there's so much commonality between different trendy things when you break them down far enough.

And then two, applying it in the context of the people we're trying to support. Because saying virtual reality is a great idea in one context, it could be a really bad idea in another context. So really grounding it in the reality of what it is to work inside of an organization and kind of put it through those multiple lenses to determine, is this something worth exploring further. Or is this a lot of-- a conversation I had earlier today used the word snake oil, which I still don't know if that's ever really been a thing. But is it more of that or is there actual promise here if positioned in the right context.

Justin: So what sort of value do you see in in-person events? Because obviously you attend a ton. And you're not-- I mean, there's some speakers that come in. They come in for their session. And then they leave. You're definitely someone that comes in. And you engage with the conference. You attend the keynotes. You attend other sessions. You're chatting with people.

So attending so many events per year, how do you continue to sort of get value out of them? And what value do you see from conferences like this?

JD: So my value has changed considerably over the years. So the first conference I ever attended professionally was this conference in Chicago several years back at this point. And it was a kind of a rough place to start just because of how big and fast this event moves. Since then, I've done big and small events of all types.

I even do a lot of events outside of the L&D space. So I'll be standing in front of a group of loss prevention professionals at a safety and security conference, talking about the value of microlearning and things like that. So for me, the values evolved to a point where, one, the members of the network I mentioned, a lot of them are physically in place only at those moments where I won't see them coming into the country or into a particular state at other times. So being able to connect face-to-face with people who you engage with online.

Same is true especially for members of the network I don't know because they're not necessarily contributors. They're more kind of lurkers and they're listening. And like I said, I don't think people read what I write. And then I come to a place like this and people start talking to me about things that I've said or things that I've written and how it's relating to their work. I never would have known that unless they saw me and talked to me here. So there's a value there.

And then it is an opportunity to kind of surf around where maybe I don't attend sessions as much as I have in the past and sit through an entire session, but to kind of see what people are talking about, what types of questions people are asking, where the kind of interests are, and, again, just kind of getting grounded.  Because I don't, in the work that I do every day, face the same challenges a lot of these folks are facing. And the same challenges I faced when I was in corporate roles, working directly with subject matter experts, trying to influence senior management teams to make decisions, working in the front lines, and I can feel that disconnect growing over time. So I do different things to try to make sure I come back into a world where I am as practical as I can be. So you walk away from anything that I do with insight that you can actually use as opposed to being highfalutin pie in the sky type ideas.

Justin: Yeah. I mean, I think events are great to keep you grounded in a way. Because again, you're talking with people and actually learning what their actual challenges are. I think that sometimes all of us can tend to operate in a bubble, whether that's in work or even on social media and Twitter and what certain experts are talking about. But being here, I think you learn a lot in a few days chatting with people.

JD: Yeah. After my most recent session I just finished, which is why my voice is a little bit hoarse-- I go hard for two hours. But one gentleman I spoke to after the session works in federal aviation safety. I have no experience in federal aviation safety. But I'm very excited about it because I fly a lot and would very much like him to do well.

So it really helps when I have those moments where people come up and say, like I like your ideas, how would you think about it in this context. It helps me think about my own presentation content and the things that I talk about in a different way. Because I may never directly interact with that line of business in any of my work. But it helps me kind of come through a lens of a world that I didn't necessarily know existed or maybe never necessarily think about.

As an Accidental Trainer himself, JD wishes he had known about the L&D community online when he found twitter he found his people and he was able to grow his talent development career. You listeners have already found ATD and this podcast, so you are one step ahead. JD still goes to a number of conferences and is on LinkedIn and Twitter, this is really how he builds his network and keeps up to date with the trends. There is so much you gain from researching and reading online, but leveraging your connections and attending conferences can really help drive your career forward. JD discusses this in-depth in this podcast.

Justin: So looking back at the industry as a whole, what's something you'd like to see changed in the industry?

JD: Where do-- how do I make this a shorter list so this isn't an hour conversation. I think one of the biggest challenges I have, and I can kind of connect it to events, is that I get the sense that a lot of people are like me when I was younger in my career, which is I do things the way I do them in my organization. I'm in a relatively siloed bubble. And then when I have an opportunity, I come out for four days. I learn as much as I can in four days. But then I retreat back into the bubble.

And I don't necessarily pick up new information or evolve until I maybe have another opportunity. And a lot of people don't have an opportunity to go to an event like this. Or maybe they have an opportunity once in a while, if not maybe once a year. So I wish we would do a better job of a bit of eating our own dog food when it comes to building network, sharing of information, doing our best to kind of get around a lot of the limitations.

Because I know when you're a corporate employee, a lot of times you just can't share. You're not allowed to talk about what you're doing because lawyers exist. But are there ways to talk more about practices and principles and less about your name and logo, and share and engage in a community conversation whether that be a social media conversation or something else that doesn't require the effort of always having it all go to a city, and spend a couple of days doing it, and then run away.

Because when we talk about things like microlearning, and learning science principles, and space repetition, it's kind of the best example when you go to an event, learn as much as possible, go home. How much did you remember? How much did you get the opportunity to apply immediately in your work? So I'd like to see more of that kind of tangible information sharing, experience sharing outside of an event and kind of build events off of that for what you really get value of being in place. So the biggest thing I see is getting out of that bubble, engaging with folks.

And the other thing I would, and I talked about this earlier today with another group, is not be swayed as much by the vendor side of our work. And this is strange for me to say because I am a vendor. But it makes me look at things with a little bit of a different lens in terms of what is noise in marketing and what is value added information that's trying to drive the industry and the community further along.

And I mean, how many webinars could you attend today in this industry? Like 30? How many of them are actually driving the conversation forward versus being a sales pitch? And in the work I do with my teams, I'm always driving for practical information you can use regardless of if you work directly with me or you're doing something on your own.

So that's the other thing. I hope we can see through things a little bit more, see through trends, see through when it's marketing noise down to, again, those fundamental principles that can really help us improve our work and iterate along the way.

Justin: So let's have you kind of look into the future a little bit and give a prediction for what the industry might look like or how it might change in the next, say, five to 10 years.

JD: Yeah, 10 years, good luck with that. I'm talking more and more as a topic of focus in the area of AI, machine learning, and whatnot and trying to help cut off the trendiness that will emerge or is already emerging around that type of topic.

I always use the example of mobile learning. Well, we got distracted away from how can we best use the devices people are carrying and made it more about learning and development things than the actual topic. AI is not an L&D thing. It's a discipline that's well established with decades of information and experience and very smart people, way smarter than me, who understand the potential for these types of ideas.

So I think that's the big quote, unquote "trend" that I'm staring down and trying to help interpret the potential for the type of work we do, both from a front end user perspective, how employees are going to benefit from our ability to scale, support, and data more effectively than we ever have before.

And then also, on the L&D practitioner side, it will change the conversation around what content development is, what systems administration is, how we figure out where to focus our resources, the role that we play. So we're supporting people who work in an AI-enabled world with AI-enabled capability.

So if five years from now, I would be shocked if that's not a core of the conversation. And even if you look at the schedule-- I don't know if you search the schedule for this event as much as I do for trends and words. If you search all of the session descriptions from this conference, the letters or some reference to AI shows up almost twice as much as the word microlearning. And last year, microlearning was in and AI almost didn't exist at this conference.

So that leap, I think, is indicative. Not necessarily everyone's got the answer here. But it shows a shift down a path that technology overall in the workplace is taking us. Because the first people to introduce AI in your organization, not going to be L&D. It's going to be somewhere on the operational side. And it's going to change the environment in which we operate. We'd be silly not to use similar types of tools to improve what we do.

So in five years, I think it's a similar type of evolution that to our world that's happening in the front line space to say, what skills are actually required, what can be automated, what can't be. And then, what role do we play?

Justin: So keeping those sorts of changes in mind, what sorts of skills do you think people in the L&D industry, the talent development industry, need to develop to sort of stay prepared, stay current?

JD: Yeah. The first big thing, especially around topics like data and AI, is realizing we don't have to do it ourselves. We tend to, often and again, I've done the same thing, is try to recreate the wheel in our own image rather than look around our organization and realize there are people who are very good at certain things that we could be leveraging one way or another.

But make sure that we're doing such to build a relationship before we need to go get them. There's this constant battle between-- I mean, an easy joke to make as a presenter at an L&D event is to say something about how you're always struggling with IT, hahaha.

Right. Back on IT.

But that's unfortunate because we need them, especially doing anything at scale. Same conversation needs to happen around folks like data strategists and data analysts inside of organizations who are already there. Someone who's driving an AI machine learning kind of automation conversation in your business, they're already there. They've been hired because they're very skilled at these particular things.

So rather than try to evolve L&D to match, how do you work with people, buy them lunch, grow relationships, to realize how you can work together. And then start to realize, where do you need to develop skills in areas like data science and maybe bring on people or evolve your understanding, what not. And then where can you partner?

And I think it's figuring out where those specific skills are required. And then, make sure that you're dangerous enough to engage in a strategy conversation, understand where your organization is going, and where you as an L&D team can take advantage of these types of topics rather than trying to become an expert in everything.

Because I know the eLearning Guild and Jane Bozarth did some research recently around things like job descriptions. And if you look at today, an instructional designer job description business to business, it's a radically different job.

So rather than try to become something to everyone, figure out what do you know to be dangerous enough in a variety of topics in order to be able to be efficient at helping people. So that's kind of what I would urge people to do is make relationships with influencers inside your organization and figure out what do you have to be better at, things like, well, you have to be a better writer. But in what way? You have to be smarter about data but exactly how?

And I would say, it's going to lean less and less about content development and more and more about influencing people, working to solve problems, those skills that people are already talking about that are important and inherently human as opposed to things that we can automate out of our workflows.

Justin: All right, JD. So we'll get you out here on this. We're asking, kind of wrapping up with everyone, asking about failure. So we'd love for you to tell us about a time that you failed at something and what you learned from it and how it maybe helped change your perspective or helped you grow.

JD: Sure. So I would say this one's a little bit less of my-- I've failed plenty. I once tried to use a cartoon to teach people about a compliance topic. And that did not go well. So I got laughed off the-- I don't know what I got laughed off of. But I got laughed at for that one.

But a different moment in time in a different L&D role, I was chugging along doing things in what I would traditionally term a traditional way. A lot of click Next to Continue type e-learning, a lot of instructor-led training. Because I didn't necessarily know much beyond that.

Like I said, not formally trained, not really exposed to a greater community early in my career. I was relatively new to the organization. So I didn't have a ton of grounding in the organization. But I thought I was doing my job. And then I come into work and they laid off half the company.

And it wasn't my fault. It was like training failed, therefore we lost half the business. It was more of a-- to not use corporate jargon. But it was a right sizing moment where the organization had grown and it didn't quite match the strategy where they had to evolve. So it was more management's fault than L&D's fault.

But that moment clicked in my head. It hurt me. I didn't get laid off. I lost a lot of my resources. My world changed around me. Because suddenly, I had to support a larger audience with more diverse skills than the smaller group I had been supporting before the restructure took place. But I took it personally as why didn't I know this was coming, why didn't I know we were struggling to this degree, and why wasn't my focus on saving people?

And I couldn't have headed it off one way or the other. But that day changed the way I looked at what I did and made it more about focusing on what was most critical to the organization and what would make people successful so we were successful as a business. Because that's what learning can do, more so than, learning is a good idea because we offer so many courses and things like that.

So I think that moment, kind of an institutional failure, is what really turned me into someone who thinks practically focuses on what's going to make a business more successful and what can make you, as an employee, more successful day-to-day. And then, what are all of the ways that I can do that, not just about training as a way to do that. So I it was a helpful moment. But it was an unfortunate moment for everyone that was involved in that particular change.

Justin: Well, that's a great story. JD, thanks for chatting with me today. I appreciate it. So where can people find you if they want to reach out, get in touch, see what you're up to?

JD: So a couple options, so from a social media perspective on Twitter, I'm @jd_dillon. And from a website perspective, I share a variety of information in two main channels. One is through Axonify. So if you go to And the second is my personal blog, which is

Justin: Cool. Awesome, JD. Thanks for chatting with me today.

Thank you very much, Justin.

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