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How L&D Can Live up to Its Name and Blaze a Trail in Creating the New Learning Organisation

Caroline Esterson
Jul 09 2020

2020 can be the year when Learning and Development shapes it’s better normal as a crucial part of the organisation’s strategy and success.

Whilst many organisations have already taken the plunge and moved towards a digital strategy for learning, even more haven’t.

And even if they have, some have numerous systems that don’t talk particularly effectively, have tried to harness the power of digital libraries, uploaded tons of company specific content but still don’t have the take-up or the change in behaviours they desire.

Prior to the pandemic, Learning and Development teams were struggling to meet the demands of the business. Despite reduced resources, they still faced increased pressure (and often largely operated in a very similar way to 10 years ago with much content still delivered face-to-face).

E-learning existed but uptake was poor unless it was mandatory. Operational managers expect learning to be provided but rarely play their role in encouraging and supporting application of learning back on the job.

Now, however, the landscape has changed. Learning MUST play a pivotal role in helping re-establish high performance and move organisations towards the better normal.

The world is not the same as four months ago, organisations are under a huge amount of pressure and learning is one of the few critical functions that can cross boundaries and help people adapt to the changing landscape.

With more people working remotely there are huge challenges in helping people collaborate and feel more connected to their work, their customers, teams and the organisation as a whole.

We still see the same passion and enthusiasm we always have in L&D teams so surely now is the time to take a deep breath and make some radical changes.

This report does draw on the information we have gleaned through reading academic research but is written as a reflection of our observations, our interpretation of what we see and most importantly our thoughts and ideas on simple actions you can take NOW.

The Case for Change

The case for change is there right now. Learning is essential for helping people cope with the significant challenges of the pandemic – new working practices need to be adopted, people need to find new ways of connecting with purpose outside of the formal walls of an office building and new methods of attracting and managing customers are all essential for success.

But there’s more.

We know that jobs are changing faster and faster. And people’s skills and knowledge need updating just as fast.

We need to future proof organisations.

The surveys and reports tell us that leaders are concerned that their people don’t have the skills needed to achieve their strategic plans now and that people lack critical skills for the current workplaces let alone those of the future.

More emphasis needs to be placed on the personal skills required to make progress. It is essential (no longer a luxury) that we help people develop their critical thinking skills, that they are more collaborative and can solve problems independently and make the right decisions fast.

Organisations are built on a foundation of risk avoidance and mitigation, but leaders will happily share their frustrations about the lack of drive, resilience and creativity that is displayed in jobs. Learning has to fill this dilemma and equip people if organisations are to survive let alone thrive.

So workplace learning needs to change fast if it is going to cater for the post COVID world.

One of the underpinning ideas that L&D specialists need to accept is that:

Only learners can learn, and only they can choose to apply their new skills to the work they do.

Now that won't be news to many of you, but it takes more than rhetoric to make it happen and for many organisations it will involve a real culture shift and a refocus on the user experience to ensure that learning is attractive, interesting and drives change.

Many businesses spend most of their time training people rather than providing the right environment and opportunities for them to learn.

This worked well in the industrial age when it was necessary to teach people how to use new technology and continue to teach new workers how to use that technology. When that new technology was mainly dangerous machinery then instruction first, practice later worked just fine.

But we are no longer in an industrial age - technology for many workers is not dangerous, so a 'tell' approach is unnecessary as you will know if you have ever tried to 'teach' a teenager how to use any gadget!

People work things out for themselves and most are ready, willing and able to engage. People need to be stimulated and challenged.

The world of work has changed and will continue to change. We have long ago moved from the Industrial age to the Information age and many people would say that we are now in what has been coined the Conceptual age…

… a term describing the contribution of creativity, innovation, and design skills to economic competitiveness, especially in the global context.

This brings with it a whole new set of skills that are of great value in the workplace. These skills sit even less comfortably with a trainer-led approach to learning.

What is needed is the much talked about 'Learning Organisation' where learning is ongoing and continuous with a company supporting individuals at all levels to learn however and wherever they need. Learning is provided as resources not courses.

Before exploring some of the reasons why we believe change has been so slow in Learning and Development, here are a few thoughts about change.

Organisational Change and Getting Buy-In

Organisational change traditionally involves a systematic approach that involves all levels from the senior leadership team, through operational managers to front line staff. Failure to get buy in by any level frequently causes the change to fail and the business reverts back to the status quo.

But there is an alternative approach: focus resources to achieve pockets of change where you are most likely to succeed and allow this change to set off a positive change reaction that ripples through the organisation.

In a world where things change at breakneck speed and good ideas travel in an instant, this may seem a more appealing way of making change happen.

So the ideas you find below will not change Learning and Development overnight but may well start the ball rolling and provide the impetus for bigger change to come.

What’s Holding Us Back?

Here we outline some of the key reasons why we believe change to have been slow and some ideas for you to put into action. We realise that there are as many solutions as there are businesses so read on, ponder and try out some of the ideas that strike a chord with you.

Through our work with many L&D teams, we have identified three fundamental factors that contribute to lack of swift progress in transforming workplace learning:

  1. Too busy.
  2. Too much choice.
  3. Lack of role clarity.

Let’s take each factor one by one and examine why this could be happening and consider some ideas for change.

1. Too Busy

Many L&D departments are so busy delivering that they have no time to stop and really question every piece of learning they are creating. They get caught in the cycle of the business requesting training to fix an urgent need or ongoing situation, and the L&D department doing what it can with reduced resources.

This leaves them too busy to really explore what would address the root cause rather than treating the symptom. It also leaves little time to look at what's happening in L&D outside their own organisation and so life continues with little change.

A Shift in Thinking: 

Learning is not the sole responsibility of the L&D department. Learning in an organisation is the responsibility of three parties…

  1. Every individual - as they are the only ones who can actually change their behaviour as a result of what they've learnt. They are the people in the know who are the experts. It is from these people we all need to learn.
  2. Every manager - because they can create the right environment for learning so people feel safe to make mistakes, get positive encouragement and time for self development.
  3. The learning and development team - who are there to make the first two easier and quicker by providing the system, opportunities, resources and advice where appropriate.

Once again, many learning professionals know this and bemoan the lack of the support they get, in particular from line managers.

But unless individuals take ownership and managers provide support anything L&D provide will have at best reduced impact and at worst no impact at all.

This change will not happen unless it is initiated by L&D and it will need you to engage your senior managers. It may involve you taking a tough line and pushing back when you are asked to provide a solution without either of the other two parties playing their part, but unless you do, little will change and you will stay on the delivery treadmill.

Ideas for action:

  • Stop! Think about your user experience. Now is the best time you will ever have to step change and evaluate how you can make your learning more of a pull (with people wanting involvement) rather than a push (mandatory) activity that they just have to get done. A digital platform is essential now, in a way that it was a ‘nice to have’ before. But don’t just go for the first LMS you find – an LMS may not provide you with the enhanced experience and opportunities you need to build in peer development and a social network that is now really needed to connect people in our new world.
  • Be curious – explore social media and blogs, look for customer stories about how the are using digital platforms and use this knowledge to inform questions that you can use within your organisation to gain support from stakeholders for investment.
  • Raise curiosity about learning. If telling people about their responsibilities to support learning hasn't worked then do something else. Start with your existing champions and get them more involved in creating a learning culture in their teams. Then let them be advocates for introducing new ways of learning to a wider audience.

2. Too much choice.

There are now so many options for developing learning in organisations by making use of the technology on offer. So, where do you start?

Well this is where the problem lies. Let's say you know you need to translate your face-to-face learning to digital.

First you need to decide what sessions you HAVE to change. Then you need to decide on the method – will you do quick and dirty through maybe an interactive PDF or webinar? Or do you want to produce a video or podcast? Or have you already made a decision that a digital platform is what is needed to provide a ‘home’ for all these new resources?

Then you need to think of something that is engaging to complete while delivering on the key objectives.

Next you need to consider whether you buy the software to design your own in-house or go elsewhere - which is where budget comes in and we all know how tight that is.

New innovations are happening so rapidly you wonder if what you're buying will be out of date before you even launch it! And in all of this melee you need to consider how you will know it’s been successful – how will you measure the value of what you are providing?

A Shift in Thinking: 

WHY first then HOW.

There is a dizzying range of options available to the L&D professionals and this can stop action because there are too many factors to consider and many of them are a significant investment so you need to be clear about the value of that investment.

But this masks the real issue, sometimes the choice of method seems to override why you are actually doing it in the first place. Your why needs to be clear about its purpose; why will what you are suggesting make a MASSIVE difference to your organisation? Once you have this then it is much easier to decide the how you will deliver it and what you will deliver.

It's easy to see why this happens - L&D are the experts of the HOW. They understand how people learn and get excited about the new possibilities and are seduced by the messages of 'most up-to-date and cost effective solutions'.

But they are only cost effective if they deliver on the purpose.

Learning specialists also need to be close to the end users of whatever learning resources they provide to discover what methods learners actually use to learn what they need to at work.

Most people would answer 'yes' to the question 'Would you like online learning resources to complete at your own pace at a time that suits you'.

Yet ask the question 'How many times did you access the online learning this week' and the picture looks very different.

And does your L&D department ever provide resources for people when actually they learn more from asking their own colleagues?

Creating a learning organisation is about harnessing the knowledge from the people in the know and whilst it might take L&D many hours in researching a topic and designing learning, a colleague could create a simple video on their smartphone and upload it for all to view and start a debate.

It’s time we got smart about what our role is now and not get caught up on our excitement of creation.

Remember in most of our adult life we learn what we need by trial and error (how to find a partner or be a parent) or we choose to enrol in learning activities (learning a language or how to dance salsa). Very little is imposed on us and we generally get by.

Once you have created a pull environment for learning then workplace learning becomes increasingly more informal and learner driven just like real life.

Ideas for action:

  • Find out how people naturally learn in your organisation. Ask the question "If there were no formal methods of learning in the business, how would you discover all you need to know and do to perform in your role?" Typically when asked people will say they want more formal learning but they don't always make the most of it and take responsibility themselves.
  • How can you encourage learner generated content? Find some people who will develop content for you. Start with champions and extend from there. Encourage people to share ideas/thoughts/stories and see what traction they get. Make it easy for them to start – don’t expect bells and whistles – a simple smartphone shot video is great – it is the way they deliver the message and content that is most important.
  • Involve your people early on in the process. Get your champions to create some quick how to videos, link a challenge to it and post it. Ask some people to try it out and see how it goes; build a debate around it and ask for feedback. Surely this has to be, in many cases a much better solution to a detailed, lengthy e-learning programme

3.Lack of Role Clarity

This final point links back to the first, where L&D teams take the role of service provider who simply deliver what's requested. This will leave you to be consulted too late in any change process to have real influence.

Operational managers won't know that there has been a wholesale change in thinking about learning in organisations, why should they - it's not their role.

So unless you start talking and sharing your plans to improve the effectiveness of the workplace they will ask for what they have always asked for, including devolving responsibility to you when their own people could do this for themselves with a little guidance and support.

A Shift in Thinking: 

We need a new skill set for L&D professionals. As experts in the field of learning the successful and influential L&D function of the new decade is asking a very different question to 'what training do you need us to deliver'.

Instead they are working in partnership with the operation to consider how they can really harness the learning capacity of the whole organisation, from each individual and every manager. This will require some radical change and a whole new skill set for the L&D professionals whose roles will shift from mainly design and delivery and will incorporate a good deal more business acumen and consulting skills.

If you embrace learning as an activity which focuses on outcomes and performance the whole balance of L&D activity shifts. You'll spend less time designing and delivering more formal solutions and more time providing advice, support and the appropriate range of activities to develop performance and personal skills.

So what impact does this have on the traditional L&D skill set?

Your first major need is business acumen. You need to understand how your organisation works, its strengths and operating model, its future plans and challenges.

You'll need to be confident working with stakeholders at all levels of the business; keen to listen and able to explain clearly how you add value.

Next are consultancy skills.

What's required is a different approach from traditional training needs analysis which was detailed and structured and often time consuming.

This can take too long for the fast pace of change and so a 'quicker and dirtier' approach is needed which is more likely to involve noticing and questioning skills and be more intuitive and less analytical.

Finally you'll need to be far more externally focussed and keeping an eye on trends in technology and the understanding of adult learning. You'll be networking with other learning specialists and benchmarking your learning function against the best in the business. Hopefully others will be using you as their benchmark.

Of course many of the old skills are useful too, though facilitation skills are more important than presentation skills, creativity is still vital but the key is likely to be towards simple rather than elaborate and clever solutions.

Ideas for action:

  • Take time out as a team to work out what the business needs you to deliver in the next 12 months and longer, in line with the business strategy and goals. Then look at yourselves - where are your strengths and where do you need to gain more knowledge and experience to deliver real value.
  • Get used to talking value rather than cost. Budgets are tight but if returns to the business are high then the cost is well justified. If you are working with external suppliers ask for their help in presenting a business case - they are often very happy to do so.
  • Embrace the change required and enjoy learning to do something different! Learning is your business so set the example and set to learning the new skills required to be highly successful to create your better normal. 

This post was written by Caroline Esterson (Creative Genie) and Wendy Gannaway (Magic Maker), of Genius Learning, a Fuse partner.

They provide immersive learning experiences to get people to think, smile, ponder, chat, move and groove which improves relationships between people and reduces organisational complexity.  For more information visit: www.inspireyourgenius.com.

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