External Context

There is a disconnect between Learning functions and the businesses they serve. An increasingly competitive landscape, challenging market conditions and the workplace revolution arising from the Pandemic are reshaping the mix of employees. Businesses are fighting for their very survival in unprecedented times of change. Years of cost-cutting and process simplification has left businesses with limited room for structural modifications with people emerging as a very real competitive advantage.

Meanwhile, learning functions are busy pushing the latest learning trends and spending their budget on generic learning which drives a “feed me” culture. Whilst well intended, they are not speaking the language of the business or solving real problems.

Unaware of the disconnect, learning functions deliver programmes which focus on learning objectives over business outcomes and standardisation approaches (e.g., competency structures) which provide consistency but lack impact.

“Tackling the cultural and systemic issues that create real problems provides fertile soil for the metaphoric seed of learning solution to blossom.”

And this at a time when people are becoming far more demanding of employers, pursuing purpose and personal mastery over organisation servitude. Recent Udemy research put Learning and Development as the second most important benefit after salary for the millennial generation, with 73 percent having a clear expectation of accessing further education to pursue their careers. Deloitte found that nearly half of millennials expect to leave their current employer in the next 2 years due to a lack of learning and development opportunities.

A recent McKinsey paper notes that persistent uncertainty, a multigenerational workforce, and a shorter shelf life for knowledge have placed a premium on reskilling and upskilling. Add in the shift to a digital, knowledge-based economy, strategic changes and the sudden changes to our ways of working and that have resulted from the pandemic and you have all the ingredients for a learning revolution.

It’s time for Learning and Development professionals to seize their moment.

Challenging your Learning function to truly add value means a pivot from the traditional learning led focus to a performance-based approach. Whilst the changes can often be subtle, the impact on the business is enormous.

So what then, can learning professionals do to transition to value creators? Here are three suggestions

1. Become bilingual

It’s long been accepted that “talking the language of the business” is a pre-requisite of any effective learning professional. However, I’d go several steps further and suggest that entire Learning functions need to be bilingual. The difference is like stumbling into a restaurant in Spain declaring “Una mesa para quatro” before promptly asking for an English menu versus skilfully conversing the waiter in your finest Espanol and negotiating your way to the table with the finest view

Bilingual means more than just speaking another language, it means becoming equally fluent to the extent you can move between languages without any cognitive effort. In business terms this means the business problems are your problems and you become a part of the solution.

The starting point for this is humility and patience. Admitting to a stakeholder, even one you have worked with for a long time that there are gaps in your knowledge you need help in addressing and exploring deep routed problems through clever questioning will help you take enormous strides towards building transformative relationships with your business.

2. Think whole-systeml

Everyone remembers their first time. Mine was incredible. Wonderful location, meticulous preparation and scene-setting. I was dressed to impress….and a room full of people were looking on at me with slightly apprehensive faces.

I’m talking launches of new Wellbeing programmes of course. Even Donald Kirkpatrick himself would have been smiling down at me with admiration, such was the quality of my pre and post session appraisal form at my first programme.

When the results came in they confirmed that I was, indeed, a learning genius, such was the quality of feedback that came in. The delegates were certain this would be a life-changing experience for them.

Twelve months later, I was in a leadership meeting where we were bemoaning another drop in wellbeing on a generally gloomy Employee Engagement Survey. Suddenly my HR Director had a masterplan and said, without a hint of irony, “Let’s run another wellbeing programme. The last one was so well received.”

Why do Wellbeing programme inevitably fail to add value? Because the good intent they generate disintegrates when people get metaphorically smacked in the chops on a daily basis because of the intensity of working life in 2021.

Behaviour change (Level 3 of Kirkpatrick) is seen as the holy grail and business results (Level 4) an unrealistic expectation of non-operational learning. However, business change can only take place when Learning professionals align with their People Team colleagues and important changemakers in the business to focus on the environmental and cultural challenges that the business faces.

Of course, I’m not just referring to wellbeing. Any learning intervention should only ever be deployed having first considered the wide range of technical, cultural and operation contributors which lie at the route of the perceived problem. Learning is nearly always a very small part of any effective solution. Tackling the cultural and systemic issues that create real problems provides fertile soil for the metaphoric seed of learning solution to blossom.

3. Solve business problems not learning problems

Contrary to often alarming data reported by various industry bodies on the perceived effectiveness of Learning and Development functions, my view is that the vast majority of learning functions are at the very least respected by their business leaders.

Unfortunately, this may be because senior leaders are unaware of the potential value of effective learning functions and have not encountered performance centered learning.

At a recent interview I attended, a senior stakeholder sat looking disinterested whilst a candidate reeled off a wide range of (admittedly impressive) Kirkpatrick data from an induction programme. “That’s all well and good” they commented “But how are you going to help me reduce risk in the operation?”

A central component of a performance-based learning approach is that the businesses’ most pressing problems are addressed through a wide range of solutions, some of which may be learning. Real problems are highlighted by real data in cross-functional working groups and the focus is on business performance improvement. Learning functions don’t get to cut and run when it transpires that the learning element is downstream from what needs to be addressed right now.

So much has been written about Performance Based Learning and my intention here has been to pick a few key switches of focus rather than a comprehensive overview. For further reading I highly recommend David James’ excellent Learning and Development podcast and also check out the work of Charles Jennings at Tulser.

And remember, If you begin every new project with “what is my impact intention” and leave aside any desire to manage a curriculum, you won’t go far wrong.