10 characteristics of Learning and Development at its best

Our industry has often struggled to be the strategic partner it has the potential to be:

  • According to research by Emerald Works (2020), 99% of learning leaders said that improving organizational performance was a priority. But only 21% reported achieving this. Furthermore, the impact of Covid-19 is adding more complexity to the issue and raising questions about how to best serve organizations and clients;
  • 94% of L&D professionals who took part in a recent study by Fosway Group reported changing their strategy because of the pandemic. Two-thirds reported even considerable changes to their approach and practices.

While this uncertain backdrop poses considerable challenges, it also provides learning and development with an opportunity to pause and reflect. Even more, we can review how things have been done in the past, and redefine how things will be done in the future.

A modern approach to Organisational Learning & Performance

To respond to this challenge and opportunity, in April 2020 I began writing a series of posts about L&D at its best. These were designed to generate discussion on how the profession can move forward in a purposeful way. By supporting businesses and individuals through one of the hardest and most complex contexts we’ll perhaps ever find ourselves in. Over 20 posts and thousands of comments later, the dialogue has been both enlightening and encouraging. The output is a model for a modern approach to organisational learning and performance.

A modern Approach to Organisational Learning & Performance

The model outlines how learning and development teams can ensure they are delivering real impact at an organizational and individual level. As an add-on, it focuses on bringing insight and intelligence into how we do this.

At the core of applying this model are 10 characteristics outlined below. For some L&D teams, these characteristics will require an evolution of the practice. For others, they won’t. Regardless, they provide a practical framework that can be used to review our approaches and practices.

1) Focused on Performance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, learning and development is most frequently associated with learning. Ultimately the function exists to build organizational capability and help teams and individuals be more effective. Our focus, therefore, should be on driving performance. As such, the conversation, the analysis, and the solution should all be centered around performance improvement. Sure, we need to to understand how to help people learn. But it is equally, if not more important, to understand how to help people perform.

What this means in practice

This takes a shift in mindset from learning to performance. It involves detailed analysis to understand how people are currently performing. Asking what are the barriers to effective performance and focusing on solving performance gaps. Doing this involves:

  • Conducting a thorough front end analysis;
  • Using techniques like performance consulting to understand performance gaps and their causes. Without being blinkered by a temptation to root the conversation in learning or training needs.

2) Insight-Led Learning and Development

Identifying barriers to performance, designing effective solutions, and tracking impact all rely on data and insight. An insight-led approach is fundamental to effective learning and development. However, the previous 4 years of Industry Benchmark Reports by Towards Maturity (now Emerald Works), reported that learning and development teams are lacking analytics/ data management and performance consulting skills. Clearly there is a skills gap here.

Shifting from gut feel to an insight-led approach will be critical. It will lead to improvements in how we define problems and performance gaps. It will help us design more effective solutions. So in the end, we’ll have better ways to communicate with the business and measure solution effectiveness. It isn’t all about quantitative data and business metrics. You can gather some of the best performer analysis data through interviews and focus groups with your specific audience.

What this means in practice.

This is about asking the right questions to test hypotheses. About better understanding performance gaps or learning needs, and the root causes. It’s about being close to people and performance data. It’s about responding to requests for training with analysis first, solutions second. All of this requires some comfort with data analysis and statistics. Thankfully there is an abundance of support and guidance out there. LinkedIn Learning has recently launched a free data analysis pathway as a way to support job seekers with building skills for the future.  

3) Focused on Value Not Volume  

Learning and development functions often talk about their “offer” and describe a range of programs. As each new request for training comes along, the offer expands. Furthermore, advances in technology mean that it is easy to scale this up and provide a mass of content for employees to access.

Adopting a lean approach can help when trying to find a balance between supporting employees without overwhelming them with content. Less is often more. In an environment as challenging as the one we find ourselves in now, it is critical that we focus on what people need and what will bring the most value to them.

What this means in practice.

This is about being critically focused on what will support the business and its employees. All by using data and insight rather than assumptions and gut feel. As this Training Industry article states:

“It’s not about the learning method or type of tool that determines whether learning is lean. It’s about how you apply and utilize available resources to deliver and derive the most learning value.”

4) Brings Learning into the Flow of Work

Traditionally learning and development focused on creating and offering solutions that take people out of their workflow to learn. Workshops, e-learning courses, even catalogs of online learning that are accessible on-demand still require employees to step away from the flow of work to learn something. Bringing learning into the flow of work is about providing information and performance support to people. Everything while they work in the systems and the context in which they are performing the task.

What this means in practice.

Adopting this approach, learning and development professionals must combine their understanding of employees’ challenges and knowledge gaps with an understanding of where the work takes place. This will help in surfacing content to meet learners’ needs at the moment they need it most. In its most basic sense, this is about:

  • Understanding employee pain points or performance gaps;
  • Designing targeted content to address those pain points or gaps;
  • Bringing the content as close to where they experience that pain point as possible.

5) Brings Learning Closer to the Moment of Need

In our personal lives, we find motivation to learn something when we face a problem or hit a roadblock. Trying to figure out how to keep your lawn green. Writing a speech for a wedding. Working out how to make homemade soup. Whatever it is, it’s most likely that we do our learning at the moment we actually need it.

The same can’t be said of traditional corporate learning. For ease of coordination and administration learning is often delivered with little alignment to the employees’ specific moments of need. For example, take the management training program. We deliver it to delegates who have been managing people for months already. Or do an interview workshop for every line manager, regardless of whether they are currently hiring or not.

There will always be value in bringing people together to share ideas, discuss challenges, and learn about concepts for the first time. However, we need to look beyond event-based training in order to bring people the support they need at the moment they need it most. When they’re applying what they’ve learned in context.

What this means in practice.

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The immediacy of performance support is fundamental to this approach. Therefore involves understanding and mapping out performers’ moments of need for learning with any given task. The work of Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher of APPLY Synergies can help with this. They determined when developing the capability to perform tasks, employees experience 5 moments of learning need:

  • Learning how to do something for the first time;
  • Learning more about it and deepening knowledge;
  • Applying what they have learned;
  • Solving problems when things don’t go to plan;
  • Learning new ways to do something in response to a need to adjust or change.

Corporate learning is so often centered around moments 1 and 2. But genuine performance improvement involves supporting and informing people in the context of application.

6) Responsive and Adaptable Learning and Development

When time is so valuable, learning and development teams should be operating in a more responsive way. They should adapt to the business’s changing needs, produce targeted and succinct learning solutions and support performance to meet very specific needs and address very specific performance-related issues.

What this means in practice:

Similarly to the focus on value over volume, this is about understanding, through consulting with stakeholders and analysis of data, the changing needs of the business and its employees. It involves doing more than relying on a curriculum of courses or a catalog of e-learning content. Instead requires us to operate in a more agile way to meet new and changing demands more rapidly and effectively.  

7) Measures Impact not Input

In such an increasingly challenging economic climate, it is imperative that we monitor more than just bums on seats and happy sheets. As Kevin M. Yates puts it:

“When we’re clear about organizational priorities and align our learning and development solutions accordingly, we are using the same metrics and measures to evaluate success.”

What this means in practice:

If our discussions with business stakeholders are focused around specific business challenges, then the KPIs associated with those challenges become our measures for success. In its most simple form, this is about using business data to understand performance gaps. And afterward using the same business data to measure the impact of any learning or support on performance.

8) User-centered Learning and Development

Understanding the end-user is fundamental to designing content and solutions that will make a difference. As designer Frank Chimera put it:

“People ignore design that ignores people.”

Instead of relying upon the “tried and tested”, we should be more focused on understanding our users’ real needs and challenges.

What this means in practice:

This starts with truly understanding the target audience for what we’re designing. Essentially, we must try to understand our employees’ or clients ’ unmet wants and needs. The friction they experience, barriers to performance, and so on and collaborate with them in the design of a solution. Design thinking or the 5Di model are great places to start with this.

9) Self-Disrupting

It’s fair to say that learning and development and HR often don’t practice what they preach. Especially when it comes to self-development and learning. However, it is critical to constantly self-disrupt by challenging our own thinking and approaches to see what else could work better.

What this means in practice:

Self-disruption involves critically evaluating everything we do and how we do it, in order to review its effectiveness and impact. It involves researching, reading, discussing, and listening to anything that might broaden our thinking or introduce us to new ways of doing things. It isn’t about getting caught up with the latest trend or technology. It’s about having a mindset that says “there is always a better way to do something”, and the motivation to look for it.

10) Focused on culture not content

There is an abundance of research to demonstrate the importance of cultivating a learning culture. So our focus in learning and development should go beyond merely creating learning solutions. As Nigel Paine puts it,

“Simply getting the learning right has far less impact than getting the culture right.”

A culture of learning means that everyone feels empowered, accountable, and motivated to exchange knowledge, solve problems, and improve processes, systems, or ways of working. The proof is in the pudding when it comes to the commercial impact that strong learning cultures have. A 2020 report from Emerald Works showed that organizations they describe as “high impact learning cultures” consistently achieve “excellent results in terms of organizational growth, transformation, profitability, and productivity.”

What this means in practice:

There are some fundamental components of a learning culture that are generally agreed on. Trust, collaboration, innovation, sense of purpose, or knowledge exchange. However, the journey to cultivating a culture of learning can be slow, complicated, and arguably is never-ending. Often it involves harnessing and leveraging a culture of learning that already exists across the business. Sometimes it is about the facilitation of social learning through connecting people across the organization and breaking down silos. The best thing we can do in learning and development is to ensure that we’re not stifling a learning culture that already exists. Fundamentally though the journey starts with accepting that no matter how great your content, without a culture of learning, your learning and development efforts will only go so far.

Final thoughts

These characteristics, for some, won’t seem new or modern. But for many in the industry will mean a venture into the unknown and the uncomfortable. If the impact of Coronavirus on the security of roles in learning and development has taught us anything, it is that we need to do everything in our power to change the perception of our industry and its value in organizations. These characteristics, among others, are the practices that will ensure learning and development is a credible and valued partner to the business. Not an order taker or worse still an expendable “nice to have”.

Sam Allen is the owner of Insightful L&D, where he acts as a consultant for organizations that need L&D done differently. He's a prolific learner and sharer of knowledge and he's determined to continue the dialogue that is moving the L&D industry forward.

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