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Lessons for L&D

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Kathy Morris

Is the learning and development (L&D) profession stagnating? Kathy Morris, head of leadership and development at Hays, believes a lack of strategic business thinking means L&D doesn’t command the respect it could. She speaks to Matt Henkes ahead of her address this month to the Learning Technologies conference.


Every year the learning and development (L&D) profession is asked to justify its existence by defining the value it delivers to business. Why does this question resurface again and again?

Kathy Morris has recently taken up a new role as group head of leadership and development at the international recruitment giant Hays. She believes in the current climate, where skills are mooted as some of the scarcest and most important commodities in industry, the learning and development profession should occupy a loftier perch in the general business hierarchy.

“L&D professionals need to be more conversant with client processes, with what the business problems and performance targets are.”

Kathy Morris, head of leadership and development, Hays

The perennial question of value is countered every year with what would seem the obvious answer: L&D develops people so they can increase the value of the business. If this was truly the case then surely we would see L&D increase in standing with senior level management and gain the respect across industry which Morris claims is all too absent.

While there are undoubtedly numerous departments that are highly successful and extremely strategic, the profession in general, she argues, is not strategic enough. “The most prevalent objective on the agenda of virtually every L&D professional is to say they’re going to align themselves with the business objectives,” she says. “It’s easy to say, but the prevalence of that objective is matched only by its fuzziness.”

One of the key problems is that, on the whole, people are not valued in business. So how is a profession which specialises in dealing with people ever going to bring value and get that top level respect?

Kathy Morris’ tips for success

– Get sight of the values and strategic goals of the organisation. The start of the year is a great time.

– Identify quick wins by aligning what you currently offer with the needs of the business.

– Start your benchmarking as soon as you possibly can.

– Look for ways to prove value and convert it to real numbers.

– It’s no longer about happy sheets; it’s about business strategy and supporting its direction.

– If the board don’t take you seriously, either make sure they understand the value that you deliver or leave.

Get respect, get strategic

To be taken seriously at the highest level, where you first get your buy-in, an L&D department needs to demonstrate that its value is not just in training people and good use of technology, but also being in step with what the business requires in order to achieve the edge against its competitors. “L&D professionals need to be more conversant with client processes, with what the business problems and performance targets are,” says Morris.

The best way to get visibility is to tap into what the business’ strategic goals are as early as possible. It’s the start of a new year, the perfect time to have a look at the programmes you’re currently running and see where they can be aligned with the company values and objectives. “First off, look for quick wins,” says Morris. “What programmes do we currently have running that we can immediately say are aligned with the areas of focus for the year?”

Get your measurement and benchmarking operating as quickly as possible. There are targets and KPIs in every organisation which L&D can effect. Look for ways to measure the value you’re creating so you can present results to the board in numbers that will really make them pay attention.

Once you have your quick wins, take your organisation’s key strategic objective for the coming year – what can you do to build or develop a very visible initiative that will match directly the key objective, preferably with as little spend as possible? “It’s no longer about training or technology for its own sake,” says Morris. “It’s identifying what is needed against those strategic objectives and developing those specific skills in the best way possible.”

All sage advice, but you would have thought that professional development teams would be doing this already. The situation is certainly improving. Last year, a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) study showed that managers in the L&D field had moved up the ranks of HR industry specialists from being among the lowest paid to the second highest, alongside recruitment specialists and employee relations. Charles Cotton, CIPD adviser on rewards, called L&D workers “the shock troops in the war for talent”.

“It’s about identifying what is needed against those strategic objectives and developing those specific skills in the best way possible.”

Kathy Morris, head of leadership and development, Hays

Once again, Morris accepts there are teams currently out there doing a very good job but talking to people in the industry, she feels it’s still very much about off-the-shelf training. In other words, it is what people say they need rather than identifying what the business needs, and there’s too little done in terms of engaging management at the higher level.

She concedes the last point may be difficult if, at that higher level, you’re not taken seriously. However, the way to get that credibility is to get more strategic – talk to them in business terms, demonstrating how you will add value. “Once you get that initial buy-in support, clearly you have to be successful,” she says. “But once you do that, you’re made.”

One Response

  1. Learning and Development
    For longer than there have been MBAs and similar, HR have lamented the fact they are either not represented or not sufficiently recognized around the boardroom table. And I agree very much with that lamented fact.

    What I cannot understand however, is why we have not identified ways in which we can still be effective without the direct support and endorsement of top management.

    There is one most effective way of addressing this difficulty that I have seen work very well, which you may find helpful.

    Go straight to your line managers.

    If you cannot convince them you have a product or service deserving of consideration, then how the He## do you think you can convince a board or even top management.

    Line managers in reality are easiest to get alongside so long as you are able to show them what you have to offer will make their teams more efficient. Quite simply you are making them appear in a better light to their superiors, so why should they not work with you. They are the ones who can most easily identify with improvement, rather than some higher authority who may have not done work “at the coal face” for so long you spend longer explaining that work than explaining the improvements you can deliver. I have come to the belief that we may be more concerned about our image and our positioning in the organisation, than in how we can help. That is why we spend inordinate amounts of time lamenting our failure to get invited to the boardroom.

    I hope by now it becomes apparent that if we achieve success where it matters most, where they make the widgets or smile at the customers and write up their orders, then sooner or later those in exhalted positions will find out………and wonder why it hadn’t been done sooner. Forget about missing out on the salmon sandwiches in boardrooms, and remember who we serve…….the troops….the ones who make the product; who sell the product; who prepare the invoices and acknowledge the payments. After all, isn’t that what we were going to try and convince members of the board we could do. I have yet to find a line manager, ceertainly in New Zealand, but I suspect anywhere in the world, who must have boardroom approval to train their team better; to continue training their team even better again; to improve their processes so that we can reduce delivery time from receipt of order until despatch; etc etc. In these times more than any other that I can recall, your line managers are deeply concerned about labour shortage especially people with skills or the ability to learn skills.

    So get in there, get alongside them, and get on doing what you are supposed to be doing…….providing additional support and help in order that the organisation runs more efficiently. The invitation to the boardroom will then come sooner rather than later, and unless the salmon came from New Zealand, you haven’t missed all that much anyhow!! Cheers.

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