What is an L&D disruptor, and why do they matter?

Apr 24, 2024 by Tim Sarchet

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We’ve noticed a pattern.

During our more than a decade of helping some of the world’s biggest companies create digital academies, time and again, we’ve had the opportunity to work with a particular profile of leader: someone who thinks strategically about learning and who is able to effectively use it as a tool to solve problems and drive transformation within their organization.

Sometimes, this person sits within learning and development. Other times, they head up capability building for a different function. Because these leaders are scattered across functions and roles, there’s no existing terminology to identify, define, and categorize their approach to crafting learning strategy. There’s also no guidance for emerging leaders who are interested in following a similar path.

We want to change that. We’ve seen firsthand the impact these leaders can have, and we’d like to provide a working definition of who they are, how they approach their roles, and what other leaders can learn from them.

To that end, this is the first post in our blog series defining the type of leader we’re coining “the L&D disruptor” and offering a playbook to others who also want to use learning to help their organizations navigate times of uncertainty, growth, and change.

What is an L&D disruptor?

An L&D disruptor is someone who uses learning to solve complex business problems and transform their organization. They believe that learning experiences can change careers and companies for the better, and that learning has a unique and powerful role to play in wider business strategy.

Why does this make them “disruptors”?

Though there is a growing recognition that learning can be a strategic tool within organizations, there are still many companies where learning is used primarily for compliance training or simple skill acquisition. L&D disruptors seek to overhaul this traditional understanding of learning, deploying it in a much more powerful way.

This means that in many cases, these leaders are disrupting the historic under-utilization of learning.

It also means they’re not afraid to be innovative when it comes to how they think about learning content, delivery, and the role of new technologies in making their initiatives more effective.

Where do L&D disruptors sit within the organization?

In many companies, the responsibility for capability building and upskilling is distributed throughout the organization, with some types of learning falling under L&D’s purview, while others fall within specific functions. For example, we’ve worked with sales capability leaders who are responsible for ensuring their people can thrive in a fast-changing landscape where the need for multifaceted, deeply human abilities like creativity, resilience, and decision making are more important than ever.

Given that L&D disruptors can be scattered throughout different functions, it’s not a title or a spot in the org chart that brings these leaders together.

Rather, it’s their belief in the power of learning and their strategic acumen in working with stakeholders across the organization to design and deploy great learning programs.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the main qualities of the L&D disruptor.

Three key qualities of an L&D disruptor

ONE: They believe in the transformative power of learning.

L&D disruptors are deeply optimistic about learning’s power to make positive changes for individuals, teams, and companies. They think that when organizations limit learning to skill development and compliance, or don’t connect their learning strategy to the day-to-day realities of the business, they’re missing out on a crucial competitive advantage. And they believe that one of their most important jobs is helping their people learn how to learn, so they can be ready for anything that comes their way.

These leaders aren’t interested in learning that focuses on one-off skill acquisition. Instead, they want to spark real and lasting change in their organization through learning initiatives that dive deep into complex and highly sought-after capabilities like empathy or leadership––the stuff AI will never do. L&D disruptors understand that when put into action, these capabilities can spur a real, meaningful change, both for learners’ careers and their wider companies. This is what motivates them. Not learning programs that simply serve to check a box.

TWO: They use learning as a tool to tackle business challenges.

L&D disruptors understand the wider challenges their businesses face and look for opportunities to use learning as a tool for helping to solve them. They believe learning should be discussed at the board and C-suite level, and that learning programs can play a particularly strategic role in bolstering the transformations that will make businesses successful not just today, but in six months, twelve months, and beyond.

Over our decade of partnering with L&D disruptors, we’ve seen these leaders use learning to support a wide variety of transformations, including: digital transformation, a shift to collaborating and leading across distributed teams, marketing and sales transformation, and––more recently––deepening the human capabilities required to leverage AI. During these times, investing in the right capability-building can strengthen learners’ adaptability and build organizational resilience. L&D disruptors know this, and they design their learning strategy accordingly.

THREE: They’re willing to be experimental (and even, at times, take risks).

L&D disruptors aren’t afraid to take a different path when it comes to designing and deploying their learning programs. This includes taking the occasional well-considered risk.

These leaders are open to testing novel approaches, challenging conventional wisdom, and piloting new programs to see what works. Because they’re impact-driven, they’re all about trying something new, gathering data, iterating, and gathering data again, until they see the results they want.

Data-rich learning platforms can help support this work. With easy access to data, L&D disruptors can make quick adjustments, enhancing their programs in real-time as they go.

Why are L&D disruptors so important now?

According to the World Economic Forum, executives estimate that 40% of their workforce will need to reskill in the next three years as AI disruption alters the way we work. (For more on the topic of AI, check out our post on how AI will alter the role of L&D.)

In a time of rapid change, we’ll need forward-thinking leaders who are willing to try new approaches to solving organizational challenges. Above all, we’ll need leaders who understand how important it is to make sure their people have the capabilities that will help them thrive.

There’s certainly a lot of work to be done to ensure that our teams and organizations are ready for this next era of transformation. But after spending the last ten years working with L&D disruptors, we’re optimistic about the future. And we’re excited about the role learning can play in ensuring that both businesses and people are ready for what’s next.


For an example of one L&D disruptor in action, get a free copy of our case study with AB InBev. The company’s marketing organization needed leaders at all levels to become more consumer-centric and agile to achieve organic growth. The problem? Their current digital learning solution wasn't up to the task. Ryan Verschoor, Global Vice President, Marketing Culture & Capabilities, worked with Nomadic to bring a cohort-based learning solution to the organization, leading to a major transformation across 2,000 marketers in more than 40 countries, along with multiple Cannes Lions wins for the team.

Interested to learn more about how Nomadic works with L&D disruptors, and what this could look like at your company? Get in touch and we’ll reach out to set up a meeting!

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