Monday 11 May 2009

What Does a 21st Century L&D Department Look Like?

A month ago, on April 21, Jay Cross at learntrends co-ordinated a round-the-globe series of online conversations on how learning can impact performance in organisations. Starting on the US West Coast and ending somewhere east of New Zealand, these virtual conversations opened up a whole Pandora’s Box of issues around the challenges and opportunities that learning & development faces if it is to really have an impact of organisational effectiveness.

Jay’s reflections on the event are worth reading.


Ellen Wagner, Curt Bonk and I spent our 30 minutes facilitating a discussion on the topic of ‘New Roles for Learning Professionals’. Going back through my notes and the archive of the (very animated) chat/discussion that took place, some clear threads emerged on the types of capabilities that a 21st century L&D department need to have.

Here are some of the core capabilities identified:

1. consulting / coaching acumen (as well as learning acumen) that is focused on performance problems and outcomes. The ability to engage with senior (and not-so-senior) line managers to identify the root cause of performance problems, and not simply focus on learning.

2. the ability to ‘speak business’. An understanding of business goals is the ‘so what’ in learning. Everyone in L&D should be able to read and draw conclusions from a balance sheet and P&L account and understand the business drivers that line managers are focused on.

3. a good grasp of technology – across-the-board - but especially emerging technologies, and how they can fit into learning solutions

4. adult learning – an understanding of how adults learn in the workplace, and ‘what works’ in organisational learning.

Along with these, another set of attributes such as: ‘empathy, ’ listening’, ‘tolerance for ambiguity’, ‘basic communication ability’ were identified as essential by participants.

Harold Jarache also made the important point that ‘attitude trumps skills’ for a learning professional. We’ve known that in a more general sense for years – many of us have used the axiom ‘hire for attitude’ when we’re recruiting. I certainly have found it has served me well. I can’t think of any situation where I’ve hired on the basis of attitude where I would have done otherwise in retrospect.


One one other vital high-level capability every L&D practitioner needs to have in spades is the ability and, even more importantly the desire, to innovate. Innovation in designing new approaches and solutions to solve performance problems is the oxygen for L&D. It’s not vitally important whether the innovation involves technology or not – although technology does offer some huge opportunities for solving business problems and we’re just plain stupid if we ignore them – but an L&D department that fails to demonstrate that it continues to be innovative is one that’s quickly becoming irrelevant as a strategic business tool. Such L&D departments deserve to have their funding redirected elsewhere.

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