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Learning in the flow of work

Technology, behaviour, culture: they’re all going through a period of rapid change. And this means that learning and development needs to evolve as well. Learner expectations are moving away from the traditional three-day course in a draughty classroom; they want learning that they can access and use right now.

And equally, businesses are demanding a return from their investment in learning – the pressure is on for L&D teams to deliver – and prove – the value of their learning programmes. But how can L&D teams leverage the new technologies and mindsets that are emerging to deliver business value?

Andy Lancaster, Head of Learning at CIPD, took some time to talk to Fuse about this very topic – and with his new book Driving Performance Through Learning hot off the press, he’s someone who has a not-inconsiderable amount of experience on the topic.

First of all, tell us a little bit about you and your background before becoming an author.

It's been quite a patchwork career, which has not necessarily been driven by plan but more by circumstances, but I've been in learning since graduating. I started off initially training as a design teacher and then I did a research master’s degree in instructional design, and I then went and lectured at Brunel University on the design and education degree programme. 

From that I went into instructional design for a large global computer-aided design company – and technologies have subsequently played a golden thread through my career. More recently I have worked in the third sector, in two organisations which provided the environment to innovate learning prior to joining CIPD. 

I was head of HR and L&D for a national substance misuse rehabilitation charity, supporting great practitioners working in community, residential and prison settings to help people move on from addictions, anything from heroin to alcohol. That’s where I gained insight into what really underpins change. My last organisation was a large housing association working with older people many of whom had acute care needs and dementia.

In the latter, we had relatively small budgets but undertook some quite innovative thinking which led to a couple of major learning awards. From that success I got invited to speak at a CIPD conference and as a result of what I said on the stage, CIPD took an interest in me and recruited me to lead and re-engineer learning at CIPD.

In the last five years at CIPD we've been gradually disrupting learning in the L&D space, with new research, qualifications now studied globally and digital solutions. In my new role as Head of Learning the remit is now across all people profession areas. So, I've experienced a range of sectors, which for both the book and my role at CIPD, bring insights into how learning has to work practically in different scenarios.

What led you to write your book, Driving Performance Through Learning?

There was a question which I keep getting asked: how do we practically transform organisational learning to really support performance improvement?

Many L&D practitioners and teams are in situations where they really want to transform what they're doing but it's quite difficult for them to know how. Transformation is challenging. And at the core of the change needed – something that has been grabbing my attention – is learning moving directly into the workplace.

It doesn't mean that we won't be facilitating face-to-face courses in the future but learning in-the-flow of work has the potential to positively improve performance, And yet the evidence shows many L&D teams are in stagnation, and in some cases moving backwards. So the compelling reason for writing this book was to support L&D practitioners to move to a new model of learning.

My previous experience is when individuals are addicted to something, the key way to move forward is a compelling vision. It’s nigh on impossible to change if you can't picture what the positive future will look like. So, the premise for the book is to paint a compelling and practical vision of how to move learning into the workplace to drive performance.

You talked about the importance of learning being delivered in the flow of work; but what are the obstacles?

The truth is we're commonly addicted to courses in organisations. Frequently leaders, managers and staff themselves often don't consider they've been engaging with any learning unless they've been on a formal course. Despite learning taking place, in many scenarios it isn’t recognised unless it’s formal and therefore L&D teams are tasked with delivering courses.

However, learning in-the-flow of work is becoming important as organisational contexts require far more responsive learning solutions that have a direct impact on performance. Gone are the days when you can afford to wait weeks or months for a formal solution.

Many now recognise that organisations are complex ecosystems; it isn't sufficient just to offer a myopic course. We've got to deliver more flexible, anytime anywhere-based learning, for people in different work scenarios be that full-time, part-time and flexible working hours. 

CIPD and other research shows that collaboration is integral to learning and digital solutions are equally important. So, organisations that are really serious about driving performance and meeting KPIs and goals, realise that learning has to be much closer to the actual workplace. Our old go-to approach of sending people on courses is unsustainable; we need to help leaders and learners rediscover how learning naturally occurs and can be facilitated in the workplace.

How can L&D leaders target their learning strategy on business needs and objectives?

We need to become far more organisationally focussed. Many of us have run L&D departments where the learning priorities are driven by L&D. Our focus has not been on the things most pertinent to support organisational success. Our future has to be about working backwards - with a focus on the organisational and business outcomes that are required:

What are the key goals that we're trying to deliver?

What are the key performance challenges we have?

We then work backwards to create the learning value chain. There is much evidence cited in the book that learning needs analyses are broken processes often working at best from inadequate insights and at worst from hunches. They have a key inherent weakness; the premise is that a learning needs analysis will naturally lead to a learning solution as the outcome; it’s a self-fulfilling and often self-indulgent prophecy that has kept many a learning team busy! In reality the complex organisational scenario means that learning may not be the sole key to the performance solution. 

As L&D teams we need to think far more systematically moving to diagnostic conversations, with the right people, to understand what we must achieve, what should be happening and what's happening in reality, and it's in that gap that we can devise brilliant learning solutions, if they are needed.

How can we leverage the technology to create a more agile solution, and what applications are vital for the future of learning in the flow of work?

In my role I have the privilege of working in many organisations and I see a regular dichotomy between the technology used in people’s personal lives and the technology used at work. We’re all sophisticated consumers and now have high expectations around the technology we use. For me, smart devices drive much of the transformational solutions in my life – probably too much in some ways! – but my smart phone is really important and delivers in-the-flow of life information and utilities. 

In L&D we need to move from a dominant conversation about digital learning platforms to digital solutions. For me it’s thinking about how we leverage the appropriate technology for learners to be able to access learning in-the-flow of work. The reality is that often the learners have better technology than the organisation offers, and it's crazy that we're not trying to leverage this more. Many organisations are beginning to recognise that, with initiatives like ‘Bring Your Own Device’. Whilst I acknowledge the need to manage the risks associated with digital solutions, many IT teams quash potential options under the general risk banner, but there are signs that progressive organisations are willing to balance risk against the productivity gains that are within reach, with a bit of creative thinking. 

Apps, micro video, audio resources and Augmented Reality are increasingly important solutions in our wider lives and it’s vital to measure our learning technology against them. I suggest an acronym in the book - F.A.C.T.S which underpins transformational technology solutions; they are ... Flexible, Accessible, Collaborative, Tailored and drive a Step-change in practice. We should judge our technology solutions against such criteria and the traditional legacy LMS is far from delivering this. In the worst cases learning is locked behind the company firewall, accessed by PCs, with inadequate search facilities, requiring multiple clicks to find generic solutions, which are then undertaken in glorious learner isolation. Clearly many vendors have thankfully innovated and moved on from this, but we have to face facts that this has been or sadly still is the experience of many learners.

As a consequence many staff are disrupting the organisational learning approach by using their own smart technology under the company radar. It’s now crucial for learning teams to think about how we support learners, whilst understanding aspects of risk, to have facilitative technology solutions which learners can use in the flow of work. For me, that has to include smart devices.

Learning through communities is increasingly in vogue but many organisations are finding it challenging to make them successful; what makes learning communities really work, and how can they break down silos?

It's funny how we’re viewing learning communities as if this is some new thing. The reality is that socialised learning has been around forever; going back to the stone age people learn how to hunt and make fire in community settings. Then later we find trades forming guilds to share and develop practice. And, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that socialised settings are how children naturally learn before we place them in formal classrooms with restricted curriculums. 

So, we’re rediscovering a lost jewel, but we need to take care that we don’t equate social learning to a platform. I've been in so many organisations who have thought that socialised learning communities will work with the implementation of a technology platform, without thinking about the underlying DNA of how successful communities function. How many company social platforms are desolate places?

I’ve had the privilege of observing successful learning communities in a number of organisations, so I've gathered together key aspects that make social learning communities really work and I've got Seven Cs. I'll outline them briefly – if you want more detail you’ll have to look in the book!

Figure 6.1 The 7Cs of successful social communities

The key part of the DNA is the Cause. At the centre there's a reason why a community gathers. In many cases, we don't have a sufficiently strong cause and gravitational pull around which the community coalesces, be that themes like induction, management practice or improving customer service.

Then we need to consider the Culture of learning communities. They must be welcoming, non-judgemental places underpinned by trust. It’s important to note that this isn’t about L&D controlling communities but facilitating them. The community is owned by the members not by the L&D or leadership team. 

Then around that we must build the right Conditions – great places be that physical or digital, designed well, where people can interact with each other.

Successful communities have a Cadence, there is a known rhythm around which the community interacts. Most learning communities that I have seen work well have a recognised rhythm for gathering.

Next is Content. Great communities thrive on content and that's where curation comes in or where learners create content themselves. Very often communities go off the boil, interactions wane, however they can be energised with content seeded by the community or learning team.

The penultimate trait is Contributions, we need to really encourage people to be active participants and encourage lurkers to become contributors. A key way is through John Stepper’s concept of ‘working out loud’, we need to share what we're doing, allowing people to engage in our journey as we go. What may seem obvious to us is something that could benefit and interest others and is worth sharing.

And lastly, we’ve got to provide Credit – we need to acknowledge valuable community engagement and interaction and we're seeing some communities are finding overt ways of providing recognition. 

I found those seven Cs, or many of them, are invariably present in successful, energised, social learning communities. They are breaking down silos even when the learning community is part of a wider ecosystem.

The 7 C’s model is pragmatic and can help transform very barren social learning places to be vibrant and there are lots of questions in the book to reflect on.

Where companies have roles and jobs replicated in different branches and territories, they can find themselves tackling the same problems repeatedly. A community lets them share those problems – and their solutions – by gathering together the answers and best practices in a single place rather than ten or twenty.

Absolutely right! Learning communities are a vital part of knowledge management and sharing. However, I think many organisations are struggling with this because the L&D teams feel the need to control these community areas or learners feel that there are hierarchical factors which limit what they feel comfortable to share. I think great communities are scaffolded by learning teams: we create the environments with the organisation, but then we empower the community to work. 

And, whilst it’s not L&D’s role to control communities they have a role in community management by supporting a community to function really well.

There’s a lot of talk about valuing mistakes in typically risk-adverse organisations, how can we make that reality?

Mistakes are probably the most powerful way of learning, and yet in organisations we don’t talk about people making mistakes, or if they do, we’re not leveraging what we can learn from them. A mistake will often equate to being placed on a performance improvement plan.

We've got to look at mistakes in a positive rather than the punitive way. It’s possible to fail fast and learn quick, and we must destigmatise the fact that someone's made a mistake. 

Let’s face it, all of us have made mistakes. Obviously, risk has to be managed – we can't just have people making high-risk tragic mistakes, but the reality is, in most organisations, most mistakes are not high-risk, and many have high benefits. If we can capture the learning benefit of those mistakes and minimise the impact on stakeholders we’re onto a winner. Think about how powerful a workplace could be when a blame culture, in which people cover their backs, is transformed into a safe place where transparency can drive the most powerful learning opportunities.

In terms of learning, one of the ways we can do this, especially in higher risk scenarios, is to leverage simulations to provide workplace situations, where people can test things out. Nowadays this can be through Virtual Reality if there's high risk, or through role-playing workplace scenarios, but allowing learners to try different approaches provides powerful learning experiences.

Let’s move onto the evolution of learning roles, where do you see them going?

If we’re going to do something different, we have to recognise that it will look different. It doesn’t mean that all existing L&D roles won’t be relevant, but I think we need to look around the learning functions and how to support learning in the flow of work. 

I've come up with six what I've called load-bearing pillars for performance-focused L&D functions that facilitate learning in-the-flow of work: Directing, Diagnosing, Designing, Delivering, Deploying and Detecting.

Figure 11.1 The 6 Pillars of a performance-focussed LD Function

Often, we’ve been very hot on designing and delivering but haven't thought about the wider ecosystem. So in terms of Directing, we need to have L&D leaders and managers who have a real vision to facilitate a different style of learning. 

How do we do that? We immediately come to Diagnosing – a move away from ineffective learning needs analysis to a forensic performance consulting approach. That requires us to be thinking about the use of data and analytics. For many, these are new competencies and skills. 

Historically, many L&D teams have been quite strong at Designing and Delivering but in this new approach there are new aspects, for example; creating digital assets & micro videos, community management and curation, skills that many L&D teams don't currently have.

The last two pillars are equally important. Deployment – organisations that are really doing well in reinventing their learning functions are understanding that marketing and communications are really important. It’s not about courses, it's often about campaigns. We need more overt and engaging marketing approaches to highlight the significance of the learning opportunities on offer. We need to sell how these will improve the organisation. Too often the L&D brand is tarnished, with new approaches we need to reinvent our identity.

And lastly Detecting; we have to track impact. There's no doubt that data appears in the diagnosis stage, but we also need to go and detect how impact is occurring in the organisation. With significant investments in learning we need impact evidence for how development is improving organisational performance. Often measurement is left too late, ROI is elusive. But if the business outcomes are defined in the diagnosis then the measures are automatically embedded in the learning process.

The L&D team of the future will require some new roles with the need for performance consulting, data analysts, digital creation, community curation, marketing and impact tracking. 

The question we need to ask is are all these roles going to be in-house or outsourced? In many organisations it's unlikely that the L&D team will be big enough to have all of these roles, maybe for some of the technology and data roles we will need to bring consultants in. The future will require a different shaped team of which an ecosystem of some internally shared or gig working’ roles will be a necessity.

Some people are going to be scared by that prospect, wondering: do I fit in that new L&D space? Am I going to have to reskill or have I got the skills already?

CIPD produced a report earlier in 2019 called 'Professionalising L&D' which raised the question, is it possible to be in L&D and not be a professional? I think the answer is yes!

The report found that 48% of learning professionals were extremely concerned about the lack of time they're investing in their own development. As we think about these new roles and responsibilities, it will require us to invest in our own learning and in some cases, there'll be new roles which we'll need to recruit for, but our own professional development is vital if we are to see a genuine transformation.

I don't think we should be insecure as to whether we'll have jobs, but the focus of our jobs will inevitably change. It’s time to embrace those changes, upskill and pioneer an exciting future.

What do you think are the key factors to enable L&D teams to be effective in the future?

I structured the book with four key sections, which I think is a roadmap for future L&D success.  

The first thing we need to do is understand the emerging landscapes in organisations. That’s the context in which we are working and that's about changes to work, workforce and workplace – I think those three lenses set the context for necessary learning transformation.

The second thing is laying essential foundations. As we approach learning the essential foundations are going to be around diagnostics, performance conversations, using data and impact measurement and designing responsively.

The third section, concerns transforming learning approaches, which is where we shift from a focus on traditional courses to think about approaches that support learning in-the-flow of work through digital solutions, facilitating communities, curation, coaching, supporting self-direction and valuing mistakes. 

Lastly, it’s about redefining the L&D function. We need to stand back and think, what does the L&D team need to look like to deliver this transformational learning?

So, to revisit my reason for writing Driving Performance Through Learning, it was to create a compelling vision to help L&D teams shift to delivering effective workplace learning in-the-flow of work. Through these four sections we can re-engineer organisational learning.

The big question, what's next after the book?

Breathe, I think! It's been nine months in the making with evenings and weekends occupied by research, thinking and writing.

I'm getting lots of great feedback and questions which are driving fascinating and energising discussions. Throughout the book there are reflective questions, which will be the basis of great conversations, which I'm keen to engage with. If folks want to connect, please feel free to do so via LinkedIn or Twitter.  

The other focus is my new role as Head of Learning at CIPD for all people professional disciplines. There's a chance to revolutionise learning not only for L&D professionals, but for those in HR, organisational design and development and also for line managers. That’s an exciting remit with the scope to support the development of people professionals globally with the support of an excellent team. 

So, I'm looking forward to pioneering innovative learning at CIPD, which allows people, in-the-flow of their work, to undertake inspiring professional development. We we all need to be part of a professional learning network; communities in which there are great conversations and content; I’m privileged to be leading at CIPD, which has a growing professional community, in such an amazing and transformational time for learning!

Well, thank you very much for this, that’s the question time over!

You can order Andy’s book right now and if you type in AHRDL15 at the checkout, you might just get a cheeky Fuse discount.

And while you're waiting for it to wing its way to your doorstep, you can get more of Andy's insights in our exclusive Fuse webinar with him - and it's totally free.



Imogen Johnson
Nov 22 2019

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