Wednesday 7 April 2010

Five Barriers to Effective Learning in Organisations

5_barriers_1 Very few of us would argue with the proposition that a lot of organisational learning and development activity is sub-optimal to the extent that it provides little value to participants and their organisations.

Even in organisations where L&D priorities are closely aligned with business priorities there’s plenty of head-room for improvement.

So, the question arises as to what barriers need to be overcome if L&D departments are to optimise their operations, increase the value they add to workforce performance and productivity, and remain relevant?

The Barriers

There are five common barriers that L&D managers should think about when starting out to transform their learning operations to deliver greater value. I’ve listed them below and I’ll make some suggestions how to tackle them. Sometimes solutions are straightforward. At other times it requires a total re-think of strategy and practice to break the barriers and implement effective solutions. Some are intertwined with others. Some stand alone. All are important and need to be addressed.

The Five Barriers:

Barrier 1: Efficiency
Barrier 2: Inertia
Barrier 3: Convenience
Barrier 4: Training Mindset
Barrier 5: Manager Engagement

Barrier 1: Efficiency

5_barriers_2 No machine can work at 100% efficiency without breaking the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Otherwise perpetual motion engines would be a reality and we’d never again have to pay to run our cars, pay to heat or cool our houses, or bother about the planet’s dwindling energy resources.

Likewise, no HR or L&D process or intervention is likely to be 100% efficient.

However, even if 100% efficiency is a pipe-dream L&D managers need to consider strategies and actions that can be adopted to increase efficiency from what is generally accepted to be a very low level (some figures indicate that the value returned by Training and L&D over the past 30 years averages somewhere around 10-30%). In fact the business impact of most training and development is not even measured in many cases, so a definite figure is difficult to determine.

Efficiency can be improved in almost every case by changing focus from ‘learning’ to ‘performance’. Focusing on outputs rather than inputs. This sounds simple enough, but requires many L&D professionals to adopt a new mindset and new approaches to the way they do their jobs.

I’ll deal with the change from ‘learning thinking’ later on, but one straightforward change to improve efficiency is jettisoning the almost ubiquitous Training Needs Analysis process and replacing it with some form of business-focused performance analysis.

TNA has been a major limiting factor for L&D efficiency for many years – with its implicit assumption that ‘training’ is both the problem and the solution. It almost goes without saying that in the vast majority of cases TNAs result in the development and delivery of some form of formal learning or training. That may be fine if the performance problem is one that can be solved or part-solved by improving knowledge or skills. Yet the majority of sub-optimal performance is not due to lack of knowledge or skill at all (the two problems that training of any type can address) but to other factors in the work environment. Gilbert (1978), Harless (1970), Rummler and Brache (1996) and Stolovitch and Keeps (1999) have all demonstrated this.

Most sub-optimal performance in organisations is due to factors such as:

  • lack of clear expectations (emphasis on the word “clear”);
  • insufficient and untimely or even counterproductive feedback;
  • lack of easily perceived and understood required information;
  • inadequate tools, resources, procedures and support;
  • inappropriate and even counterproductive incentives;
  • task interferences and administrative obstacles that prevent achieving desired results.

To this list, we can also add poor selection of individuals to do the job, poor communication between supervisors and workers, and low perceived value by the performers for the desired process or outcome. And probably a whole tranche of other factors.

If there’s a gap between expected and actual performance, don’t jump to a TNA. Step back and analyse the root cause of the gap first. Also examine whether performance expectations are realistic. Identify the cost of doing nothing. Is it worthwhile? What is the up-side if the performance gap can be closed? These questions are all about performance, not about training or learning.

Barrier 2: Inertia

5_barriers_3 L&D departments generally adapt to change slowly. However, L&D is not buffered from the rest of the world where change is increasing in speed and complexity and other professional groups need to find ways to respond faster, more flexibly, and more innovatively than they have in the past. If L&D as a function is to survive and thrive then it needs to get on the front-foot and embrace change in the way it approaches performance challenges. This may need transforming L&D structure and organisation, re-skilling L&D professionals, re-engaging with stakeholders and so on. But change is essential if L&D departments are to increase the value they add to their organisation.

I see two problems to address. One is in the focus on process over product. Like many HR departments, most L&D professionals pride themselves in having well-documented processes. Process is King and performance outputs, unfortunately, are often only Jack, Ten or Nine. The old HR light bulb joke equally applies to many L&D departments.

Question: how many HR people does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: Just one, but everyone needs to be involved in the 2-week effort of defining the process to achieve the outcome.

The second cause of inertia is L&D’s general risk aversion. L&D people are generally not risk-takers. They change the way they do things slowly. Go to the racetrack or casino and you’re far more likely to find sales people and technical people there than HR and L&D people. If the HR and L&D people are there it’s probably just as bystanders or maybe they’re having a very small wager. They won’t be putting their shirt on ‘Adios Boy’ in the fifth race. Maybe that’s a good thing –no risk, no chance of failure – but also no reward. We do need to learn to be more accommodating of taking calculated risks, of trying new approaches, of learning from people outside our immediate teams, and of experimentation and innovation.

Peter Senge, who popularised the concept of a Learning Organisation, once asked the rhetorical question: “How has the world of the child changed in the last 150 years?'. To which he provided the answer: 'It's hard to imagine any way in which it hasn't changed….they're' immersed in all kinds of stuff that was unheard of 150years ago, and yet if you look at schools today versus 100 years ago, they are more similar than dissimilar”.

Equally, if we ponder on how the world of work has changed in the past 150 years and then look at the approach we take to organisational learning we find, in many cases, an even greater yawning gap.

The opportunities to overcome inertia are there. L&D leaders and L&D professionals just need to step up and take them, move fast, reorganise for business-aligned outputs, be innovative and take risks.

Barrier 3: Convenience

5_barriers_4 Anyone who has heard me speak about the need for change in the way L&D goes about its role in improving performance and productivity will have heard me use the term ‘conspiracy of convenience’.

David Wilson, managing director of the excellent UK corporate learning analyst company, elearnity first explained this conspiracy to me. It rang bells, and still rings them.

It works as follows. Many of you will recognise parts or all of the conspiracy of convenience:

a. A senior or not-so-senior manager contacts an L&D manager and says “I have a problem. My team isn’t performing. We’re not hitting our targets. I think some training will help. Can you please train them?”

b. The L&D manager, knowing that designing, developing and delivering training courses is the key part of their job, agrees to the task. They get underway.

c. A Training Needs Analysis may be the first step, but analysis as to whether the lack of performance is really due to lack of knowledge or skill (where training may help) or some other factor (where training can’t) is not considered. Neither are approaches other than content production and delivery. Training is the activity. Modules, courses, programmes are the one-trick pony.

d. The training is designed, developed and delivered with great care and attention.

e. Feedback is gathered from participants (‘did you enjoy the course’? ‘do you feel the module/course/programme met your needs?). Maybe some form of pre-test/post-test was used (measuring short-term memory only, incidentally), but there is no measurement of the impact on performance and productivity. No-one measures longer term behaviour change. No-one tries to link improved skills to improved productivity or profitability (too hard to isolate the variables!). No-one holds the L&D manager accountable for results (phew!)

f. The training has no impact whatsoever. (The business manager will be back at L&D’s door a few months later with another request “That training was good, but can you re-train them?”)

g. Net result - everyone’s happy …. The L&D manager because his team has designed, developed and delivered a ‘great learning experience’. The business manager because she has ‘invested in her people’ by organising training for them… but nothing happens.

h. How convenient ….

There is a significant challenge for L&D to evolve from this type of fulfilment service to trusted advisor. A fulfilment service develops and delivers goods. In the case of traditional L&D fulfilment these goods are almost exclusively in the form of modules, courses, programmes and curricula. L&D needs to morph into a strategic change agent and valuable consultant working with leaders and managers to solve pressing and emerging business problems where employee and supply chain performance is involved.

Barrier 4: Training Mindset

5_barriers_5 The fourth barrier is the prevalence of ‘training’ mindsets. Training is an input. Performance is an output. Focusing on inputs has some, but limited, value. Focus on outputs provides much more value.

Too many of us see our L&D role as piano teacher rather than conductor. Certainly a good piano teacher instils enthusiasm and a desire in her student to practice and improve, but a good conductor is focused on the performance above everything else. Good conductors bring out the best. Great performance is not just about great skill. Skill certainly plays a part, but there are other important factors that only a focus on performance and outcomes can mine. What behaviours best enhance performance? How about teamwork? What other resources need to be at hand for great performance? What are the expectations of the audience/managers/organisation?

There are a few simple techniques that can be employed by L&D professionals to rise above the ‘training’ mindset and think ‘performance’ and ‘results’. Think like a business person, not like an L&D specialist.

Ensure you never fall into the conspiracy of convenience trap. If you’re presented with a request for training, step back, engage the requestor and use your consulting skills to get to the root cause of the performance problem. Understand the expectations. What does the requestor expect training to achieve? Is this expectation reasonable? Is it actually a problem that training can help solve? Are there better/cheaper/faster ways of solving it than formal training? What is the cost of doing nothing?

There are a number of structured approaches for performance consulting that focus on outputs rather than training/leaning inputs. Every L&D practitioner should have at least one in the kitbag.

Barrier 5: Manager Engagement

5_barriers_6 HR has been struggling to implement the HR business partner model for years. In some organisations it works, in many it doesn’t.

One of the main challenges is to get HR professionals thinking like their stakeholders – thinking ‘business’ rather than ‘HR’. Another challenge is to get business stakeholders to understand their role in HR activities.

Neither HR nor L&D can do their jobs effectively themselves. They need their stakeholders to be totally aligned and engaged in their activities. This is often a huge challenge. Many senior business leaders simply want to pass the baton to L&D and expect L&D to do their ‘magic’ and return fully-formed, competent and capable team members to them. Unfortunately life doesn’t work that way.

Research shows that line managers are the single most important factor in raising employee performance. Managers who are focused on the development of their reports can raise performance at least as much, and generally more, than any training course or L&D intervention can. Mary Broad’s work on the transfer of training is a good starting point, but there is other research that shows the vital role that managers play.

The Corporate Executive Board’s L&D Roundtable found that employees of managers who were very effective at developing their teams outperform their peers by 25-27%. When the LDR looked at some of the detail they found:

  • That the retention rate of employees of managers who were effective at developing their employees was 39.7% greater than for managers who were ineffective at developing their employees.
  • That the commitment of employees of managers who were effective at developing their employees was 29.4% greater than for managers who were ineffective at developing their employees.
  • That employees of managers who were effective at development had higher job satisfaction and were better at responding to change.

All this points to the fact that engaging and enrolling managers in focusing on, and being involved in, L&D activities is critical in achieving game-changing performance improvement.

Without effective manager engagement, we might as well not bother. L&D efforts alone are destined to be sub-optimal.


  1. Interesting post! Reading this raises the question if L&D itself isn't the biggest barrier to learning in organizations. It seems that the formal L&D function has a tendency of operating on old models and stick to the interventions from the Taylorian Age that they are familiar with. Many interesting and effective learning examples I come across tend to come from individuals and teams organizing their own learning in a way that hasn't yet been disturbed by these outdated approaches.

  2. Agree with the article.
    Also most of the learning takes place informally despite the L&D departments.

    I would like to add a sixth barrier: lack of multi-disciplinary approach. Change needed to solve performance issues needs to be approached in a disciplinary way. Different disciplines e.g. communication, change and learning have to combine forces to create and facilitate effective and efficient learning interventions in different phases of learning (pre- learning and post phase). Often these disciplines operate too much in silos.
    jean In het Panhuis

  3. Would you advocate a form of Balanced Scorecard as the performance analysis for the business, or do you favour other kinds of models to measure outputs?

  4. Balanced scorecard is certainly an advance on simple ROI, Andrew. BS (an unfortunate acronym, I've always thought) takes a more holistic view beyond simple financial measures - including other business metrics, impact on customers, and on people within the organisation.

    I think that it's worth going a step further.

    The ASTD and IBM carried out a very interesting study on 'the strategic value of learning' a few years ago. The summary is here:

    The study found that "CLOs are naturally more anxious than CXOs to have quantitative evidence of their value".

    My reading of some of the findings is that CLOs need to build a strong trust relationship with senior executives above-and-beyond anything else they do. If a trust relationship exists, then the need to spend inordinate amounts of time on trying to isolate and measure performance and business outputs and the causal links with any learning/training interventions, assumes a lower level of importance. If the CEO trusts you and thinks you're doing a good job, then you're doing a good job.......

  5. Charles,
    Good stuff here.
    I came from Joost Robben's blog today (7 Oct 10).

    I particularly like the points you make about manager engagement in this article.
    Sometimes I'm with the school that says video or record the stuff so it can go on the web, and anyone can log in and learn from it.
    Sometimes I'm with the school that encourages private insight - mainly because learning can often be painful or embarrassing or both - and no record is part of the deal.

    Suffice to say, managers' ego is usually the thing to define how the engagement goes. The self aware manager - not ego free, humans manage - is one that realises his or her frailty and engages with others to learn with them what the next bit is or needs to be. Thus if all are learners, engagement is what happens.

    But how to shift the private learning into the public domain of the team? Thus, how to learn to be self-forgiving; to have some humility; to have confidence in the ideas that are yet to be tested - there are lots and lots of things to add, but any reader could make a list of their own couldn't they? W

  6. This article clearly explains about the barriers that hinder the L & D at the work place. If one overcomes these barriers in an organization, then his/her career will be more effective. Thanks for sharing!!

  7. Really enjoyed this article-particularly the information on how the manager who develops had positive impact on the team. Where can I find more information on that 25-27% you speak to? How specifically do they outperform their peers? Thanks!

    1. Dana - there is more information about the study that found a 25-27% performance increase from people who had managers who are focused and effective at employee development here.

      The results came from a study carried out by the Corporate Leadership Council with 15 multinationals.

    2. The relevant study is detailed on slides 34-36 in the SlideShare deck.