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Stop talking learning: Start talking business


Charles JenningsIn these tough economic times, its time for L&D professionals to start thinking about business productivity and performance, and avoid the tunnel vision that training is always the answer, says Charles Jennings.

There has never been a better time than now for training and development managers to review their modus operandi for delivering services to their organisations. They should be taking the time to explore how they can improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of their teams’ efforts.

You may ask ‘why now?’ Well, the answer is that we know during times of change – whether in changing economic conditions, during times of merger or acquisition, or when management upheavals occur – organisations tend to be more open to altering existing practices or adopting new approaches than they are when the times are good and organisational life is stable.

When things become ‘unstuck’ it is worth listening to the advice of Warren Buffett, a master of taking advantage in unsettled economic times. Buffett says: “Great opportunities come around when excellent companies are surrounded by unusual circumstances”. And it’s not just ‘companies’ but all organisations, whether they’re driven by the need to make a profit or the need to provide a service.

“Organisations in the USA spend about $100bn on training each year and still only about 10% of that investment results in transfer to improvements in the workplace.”

So, what big changes can training and development managers make in these times that will result in a positive impact on the value they add to their organisations? To answer this question it is worth reflecting on what their organisations expect their training and development departments to do.

For a start, they need to understand that most business managers are not particularly interested in training and learning per se. Some may be, but they tend to be the exception rather than the rule. During my career I have only known a very few line managers who were keen to engage in discussions about instructional design or the advances in our understanding of pedagogy. As professionals, those of us working in training and development need to know about these things and behind closed doors (or down at the pub) we expect to discuss them.

However, they’re just not topics with which to engage a business manager. That said, most managers will be extremely interested in the output of the learning process – in the improved performance and productivity of individuals or groups within their remit, and in the impact of training and development on business results. If they are senior leaders they will also be passionate about what the training and development department is doing for the performance of the organisation as a whole.

To take advantage of the current climate, the first thing that training and development managers need to do is to stop talking learning and start talking business. Training Needs Analyses (TNAs) have done as much as anything else to build and maintain a gap between training and development professionals and their business-focused customers. The TNA process has an implicit assumption that the solution to the business problem is going to involve training and, usually, that the training will be structured into some form of ‘course’ or ‘programme’. We need to step out of this noose.

Training and development managers need to analyse problems that line managers bring to them differently to the way they’ve done so with the TNA model. They need to get to the root cause of the problem in an open and consultative way and work with the problem owner to agree the best solutions – without thinking about training as the final end point. In my experience the best solutions sometimes involve learning interventions, sometimes even courses and programmes, but just as often the presenting problems are best addressed by changes in working practices, new processes, or even changes in the way the manager manages!

The answer is to think ‘performance and productivity’ not ‘training’.

The second step managers can take to improve the business impact of training and development is to ensure that training and development accountabilities and resources are fully aligned with business strategy. Many organisations ‘flip-flop’ the organisational structure for their training/L&D functions from centralised to devolved models and back again on a regular cycle, always hoping that the organisational change will result in greater business impact.

However, track records tell us that neither model provides the ‘silver bullet’ alone. In fact, organisations in the USA spend about $100 billion on training each year (and have done so annually for almost the past 20 years) and still only about 10% of that training and development investment results in transfer to improvements in the workplace.

Some organisations with centralised T&D do well, some not so well. The same goes for organisations where training and development is devolved into business units. So the answer doesn’t lie in a defined organisational model.

“Every organisation should make sure that it has a meaningful governance board, or set of governance boards, that set and align the overall training and development strategy.”

Where the answer does lie, however, is in the development of a robust governance model for training and development. Every organisation should make sure that it has a meaningful governance board, or set of governance boards, that set and align the overall training and development strategy (for the T&D managers to execute), and ensure that training and development departments are business-driven, agile, innovative, efficient and effective. The majority of members of the governance boards should be senior business managers. The boards certainly should not be HR/T&D ‘talking shops’.

The third strategy training and development managers need to adopt is for their departments to become leaders rather than followers, consultants rather than ‘fulfilment services’. They need to develop high level performance consulting skills and move away from being order takers. To be effective they also need to understand what’s available to them in today’s toolbox of approaches and, particularly, technologies that can be brought to bear to build employee capability and help solve identified business problems.

Then, once they have determined what’s possible and appropriate, they need to be pro-active in designing and deploying innovative solutions. Here I would specifically stress the need for training and development managers to understand the importance that workplace learning and just-in-time learning (including performance support and business process guidance) play in improving employee performance, and also the importance of the social aspect of learning – of ‘learning through others’ and collaboration, and of the many learning technologies that, given the right circumstances, have the potential to support workplace and social learning as well as formal learning.

Apart from addressing the issues I have already discussed, training and development managers need above all to ensure that their own teams are competent, capable and have the professional skills to deliver a service that provides their organisation with a training and development service that is a strategic business tool. To do this, each and every member of their teams needs, at least, to be a competent specialist in the areas of [a] adult learning; [b] performance consultancy, and; [c] learning technologies. Without these capabilities, any training and development manager will struggle to deliver real value to their organisation.

Charles Jennings is the former chief learning officer for Reuters and now runs his own specialist learning and performance consultancy practice, Duntroon Associates.

To read a profile of Charles click here.

One Response

  1. Behavioral Change, Competence Modeling and Training
    Many excellent points

    On “training will be structured into some form of ‘course’ or ‘programme’. We need to step out of this noose”

    Wise words indeed. For some years now I have been insisting that if I consult and run a “programme” it must consist of X number of days of “experiential learning” followed by six weeks of post training study/revision combined with implementation of the learning to ensure a behavioral change occurs (the point of training). This process is followed by a one day feedback session which includes top management to report on value added to the organization. Unfortunately it is often the top management that is hard to get to the final day. Again in many companies training is still conducted because the managers have “training done” as a measurable and they just want to put a tick in the box.

    Perhaps its time for companies to engage in some serious “competence mapping” (modeling) which seems to have fallen out of favour these days.


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