Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Who Needs Training, Again?


At some point in time I am sure we’ve all found ourselves with an answer staring us in the face, but we just haven’t managed to see it yet.

Spending money, time and effort providing face-to-face training or eLearning courses for workers in an attempt to equip them to use new processes and systems as they’re rolled out across our organisations is one of these cases.

Most of us know there are better solutions, but few Training and L&D people utilise them.

The Systems and Processes Training Dilemma
Many of us have faced the challenge of ensuring that employees can navigate and use new processes and systems as they're deployed across our organisations. All of us in corporate or organisational L&D roles are tasked with ensuring new hires come to terms with their ERP and CRM environments and with other specific processes and products quickly and efficiently.

Almost without exception this challenge is met with some form of training solution. Equally, there’s usually a call for more training when systems and processes change or when the initial training hasn’t ‘stuck’ first time around.

However there are far more effective and efficient approaches than training that address this challenge of improving ‘speed-to-competence’. It’s just that they seem to be out of the range of vision of many L&D practitioners.

The Power of Performance Support - Integrating Learning into Work
One of the most powerful alternatives to the ‘train-and-train-again’ approach is some form of Performance Support. Performance support has been part of the toolkit for building human performance and productivity for centuries. In fact the master-apprentice model is based on the concept of performance support and it’s been around almost since the dawn of mankind. A worker with a higher level of mastery ensures on-the-job support is always at hand as the apprentice develops their own mastery.

Over the years a wide range of job aids, whether delivered with the help of technology or not, have been used as simple forms of performance support. However the implementation of performance support tools and solutions as a more effective alternative to training is still on the periphery rather than at the core of how workforce development is done.

Most of us know quite a lot about ePSS - Electronic Performance Support Systems. They are job aids’ younger brothers.

ePSS has been around in reasonably developed form for at least the past 20 years. Gloria Gery’s excellent 1991 book ‘Electronic Performance Support Systems: How and why to remake the workplace through the strategic application of technology’ which emerged from earlier ideas at AT&T was an important waypoint for the concept and practice and should be on every L&D professional’s bookshelf.

Although ePSS as a mindset has grown up considerably since Gery wrote her book, it hasn’t been adopted by the L&D community.

Gloria Gery – a prophet ahead of her time
Think about the following extracts – taken from a 1994 interview by Training & Development Journal with Gery:

At the heart of an EPSS attitude is a belief that most organizations today face a performance crisis that training alone cannot solve….

….conventional training events are inefficient learning tools compared to an EPSS that makes learning just a point-and-click away.

….an EPSS provides task structuring and puts learning tools and data at a performer's fingertips--something conventional training can't do.”

Gery goes on to say:

“When you strip away the collusion about what is working and what isn't, you have to face the fact that training methodologies are based on a set of fallacious assumptions from public education in the 19th century”.

“Until the 1960s the only model for transfer of knowledge was the Socratic dialogue and the apprenticeship. And that only changed because the number of people needing training grew too large for one-on-one methods. That's what gave us group training."

“Group training may have worked in simpler times but now work complexity and instability of knowledge lessen its effect."

“Training events remove novices from real life and from the experts who really know the work. People are trained and outfitted with manuals and job aids, but they still don't have the competence of experts. Back on the job, most can't perform at the experts' level on tasks they were trained to do. And for tasks not covered in training at all, they are left to their own devices.”

All the above still makes great sense. Remember, Gery was making these statements almost 17 years ago.

What have we learnt in the intervening time? Have approaches employed by the majority of Training and L&D professionals when faced with the roll-out of a new system or process altered, adapted and improved?

Not much, I would suggest.

Most organisations are still spending large amounts of time and money developing and deploying structured training programmes to accompany new system and process initiatives. Yet we know the impact of training usually isn’t great. Workers still tend to turn to their colleagues (or floor walkers or help desks if they exist) for support the first time they need to work in the new environment because they haven't actually learned much from the training.

Training for these purposes just doesn't work.

Yet every ERP and CRM deployment plan I've ever seen has had a ‘training budget’ line in it. Programme and project managers seem to feel that if for no other reason than there is money allocated, structured training is an essential part of any roll-out.

Thinking about alternative and better ways of ensuring workers can use new platforms and processes is often considered just too hard.

The Range of Performance Support Approaches
Over the past 20 years the Web has provided a platform for the development of some sophisticated integrated performance support tools and environments. Some of these are being used by more enlightened organisations that are focusing on ‘working smarter’ and can see the benefits of integrating workforce development with work.

As a result there are some excellent performance support tools and approaches available for today’s learning professional. Some are very simple (a paper-based quick reference guide often works for simple systems) and others more complex, ‘smarter’ and more closely integrated into workflow. Either way, they are available and generally far cheaper than the cost of training.

Business Process Guidance
Recently a new label has appeared for advanced performance support - ‘Business Process Guidance’.

Business Process Guidance can be seen as ‘performance support on steroids’ and is specifically focused on ensuring policies and procedures are followed by providing context-sensitive on-screen assistance at any time within a rich support environment. These systems take context-sensitivity to a highly granular level (often down to a specific field in an input screen) and provide what Wayne Hodgins described to me almost 10 years ago as:

“Getting just the right content to…
Just the right person at…
Just the right time on…
Just the right device in…
Just the right context and…
Just the right way…….”

A few organisations offer solutions in this area. Panviva and LearningGuide are two companies at the top of the pile, both with excellent ePSS/BPG suites of tools.

Work=Learning. The Challenge for L&D Practitioners
The core principle of ePSS and associated solutions is that learning and work should be integrated and that workers need easy and ready access to the right information to help them with their jobs at the time they have a problem to solve, not some time beforehand and out of context.

In other words ‘just-in-time’ not 'just-in-case’.

The challenge for L&D practitioners who focus on training solutions alone is that training principles are based on preparing workers for the possibility of challenges they may face sometime in the future in a context that hasn’t occurred yet.

In other words, a great deal of training design is based on high-level assumptions at best, and on guesswork at worst.

Integrating Learning with the Work
In the next few years I believe we will see ePSS/BPG replace most of the systems, process and product training that is carried out today. The rising interest in workplace learning, integrating learning with work and ‘working smarter’ will help drive this change.

I have no doubt that the sooner performance support practices find a firm place in training and development portfolios the sooner we will stop wasting time, effort and money on using a sub-optimal train-and-train-again models.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Sleepwalkers – the emerging landscape of organisational learning

Arthur Koestler’s masterpiece ‘The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe’ is a book that I have re-read every 10 years or so, and have regularly given to young people – usually for 18th or 21st birthdays – in the probably mistaken belief that it will help them understand their world a little better.Sleepwalkers

Together with Joseph Conrad, Koestler is one of those rare people who can write with absolute clarity and great elegance in a language that he learned later in life (in Koestler’s case, English was his fourth language). ‘Sleepwalkers’ presents an account of man’s slow but sure realisation that the Earth is not at the centre of the universe but instead is a bit-player in bit galaxy out near the edge of a larger scheme of things.

Koestler explains that rather than sleepwalking into the future, over the years close and sometimes painful research and observation has led us to a better understanding of the reality of our place in the cosmos. He likens this journey to sleepwalkers slowly waking and comprehending their surroundings.

The world for many training and learning and development professionals is analogous to that of the ancient astronomers and philosophers. They understand clearly that the things are unfolding. They can see that sometimes the prior logic of their world doesn’t add up. They also understand that there are implications for the way they view their universe, but many feel they don’t have enough clarity and direction to know what to do and how to respond to the changing situation.

In the words of a more recent philosopher of popular culture, many training and development professionals realise that:

something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones’
Ballad of a Thin Man

Some Basic Truths

Despite the sentiment above, there are some emerging truths that can help learning and development professionals better understand the world of workforce development and provide them with some help in focusing their efforts and responding appropriately.

Continuous Learning
The first truth is that in an ever-changing world, continuous learning is the only sustainable advantage. My colleague in the Internet Time Alliance, Jay Cross, has been making this point for at least the past 10 years.

The world we live in is certainly ever-changing. Most knowledge workers, people who earn their living with their heads rather than with their hands, especially confront this fact every day of their working lives.

If learning and development professionals are to really add value to their organisations they need to adopt ways of working that respond effectively to increased levels of change and to supporting always-on working and learning patterns. They need to understand that learning is a continuous process and not simply a string of events, and that working and learning are merging. The implications of these facts is that the ‘course, curriculum’ mindset must be replaced by one focused on providing a supporting architecture for learning to be leveraged at any, and every, point in workers’ lives.

Action Speaks Louder than Anything
A second basic truth impacting learning and development professionals is that today’s productivity is measured not by what workers know, but by what they can do. Productivity is measured by actions and outputs, not the knowledge in people’s heads. If we have the ‘know what’ but not the ‘know how’ we will almost inevitably fall short in terms of performance.

It today’s world the ‘know who’ is also vital.

We need to store knowledge in our outboard brains – not only in databases, intranets and on the Internet, but also in the experience and insights of our co-workers, colleagues and people networks. Knowing who to ask when confronting a challenge is absolutely vital in our interconnected world.

Despite this, many traditional learning and training approaches are still focused on knowledge and content - the ‘know what’ - to the exclusion of the ‘know how’ and the know who’.

Knowledge acquisition may have its own particular personal value, however if it doesn’t result in behaviour change it is not really ‘learning’.

There have been many attempts to define learning and multiple points-of-view whether they be based in genetics, psychology, neuroscience, even educational philosophy and practice. However, no matter how one defines the process, learning can only be measured in a repeatable way in terms of behaviour change, sustained behaviour change at that.

Learning is the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories
(Eric Kandal, Columbia University, Nobel Laureate for work on learning & memory)

Experience Trumps All
A third basic truth is that most of the learning that occurs for working adults happens outside formal learning environments.

And most of this is through the experiences we have as part of our work and through practice, conversations and reflection.

Like Koestler's Sleepwalkers, this unfolding realisation is presenting us with new perspectives on the role learning and development can, and should, play in building capability.

Although formal learning environments can provide experiences when designed well, most are still focused on information and content transmission. Learning and development departments will serve their organisation far better if they focus on using formal learning to do what it is best at – helping workers grasp core details of new jobs or roles, or key concepts in those jobs and roles (whether they be management or task-specific) – rather than trying to fill heads with detailed information and task-based ‘knowledge’ that often only persists in short-term memory as long as an end-of-course assessment before the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve takes over.

The lesson here is for learning and development people to approach their jobs more as gardeners or architects than as dispensers of information and ‘knowledge builders’. They should be creating the best possible environments for workers to develop as part of their work. they should also be looking to construct frameworks that shorten the process.

As my colleague, Harold Jarche says “learning is the work”. Never truer words spoken. Harold also points out that collaboration is also the work in our connected world.

This being the case, learning and development professionals need to focus on helping workers best engage the workplace and their colleagues for learning.

The Implications for Learning and Development

Paraphrasing Andrew McAfee’s comments about Web 2.0 and the changing ways of work:

If you’re a learning and development person who essentially views their job as one of controlling and managing learning activities and learning events you should be rather frightened by these trends. They are going to make your life more difficult and there’s no future respite for you on the horizon. In fact, things are going to get worse.

If you’re a learning and development person who views their job as someone who’s responsible for outputs and results and for supporting organisational development, innovation and improvement, then you’re going to find these trends playing to your strong suit. All the evidence points to this becoming an important role in organisations. Learning and development is well-positioned to play a part in this.

One key characteristics needed by learning and development professionals if they are to thrive and ride the wave of change that is happening was neatly summed up by John Seely Brown in his keynote at the DevLearn conference in San Francisco just yesterday:

“It requires a resilient mindset and ability to change, adapt, re-conceptualise and engage in deep listening with humility, and to get out of your comfort zone”
John Seely Brown

Seely Brown was speaking about workers generally, but these behaviours apply especially to learning professionals.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

21st Century L&D Skills

Miramar2007__1025_small I was recently involved in a discussion about 21st Century learning skills in one of the LinkedIn Groups. It got me thinking about a piece I’d written for TrainingZone a few months ago titled “What does your ideal L&D team look like in 2010?”. I’ve posted that article here, with some changes and updates.

If we're to believe the experts rather than the man-in the-street, the 21stCentury started on 1st January 2001 rather than on 1st January 2000. Subsequently, we’re now in the second half of the last year of the first decade of the millennium. That being the case, it’s probably worthwhile reflecting on the changes that have impacted our training/learning departments over the past 10 years. It’s also worthwhile thinking forward to the world we're likely to be facing over the next 10 and considering what an ideal learning and development team might look like if it is to effectively navigate the future.

So, what’s changed?

In the years BW (before the web) it was enough for training and learning professionals to have an understanding of instructional design and development processes (usually embedded in some ADDIE-like methodology), to be adequate writers and developers of content, and to be good performers in front of a group. This was due to the fact that the role was almost entirely focused on designing, developing and delivering training or learning events in face-to-face workshops and classes. Even if you didn’t understand the theoretical base of adult learning, so long as you could apply the ‘recipe’ you were likely to get by reasonably well.

You may have joined the training/learning profession because you were a subject expert and wanted to (or were recruited to) share your expertise. You may have fallen into L&D from an HR generalist role. Or you may have entered the learning world through a professional qualification from the CIPD, ASTD or some other national or regional awarding body, or through a College or University diploma or degree.

Once in the profession you lived and died by your participant feedback sheets. So long as the people attending your classes liked you and the catering, you were probably OK. Your Chief Learning Officer (although of course they were not known by that name then) reviewed the feedback on your classes and workshops, thought that you were doing a good job, and all was right with the world.

Then two things happened.

Change 1: The web - changing things for ever

Berners-Lee_and_CailliauFirstly, in 1990 Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau changed our world forever with their invention of the World Wide Web. In the wake of that innovation the concept of information and knowledge being held by the few and dispensed in structured learning events to the many collapsed. Information became ubiquitous, access became much, much easier, and the concept that ‘knowledge is power’ gave way to one of ‘access is power’.

At the same time the rate of change in many organisations increased. People moved through roles more quickly or moved off to other organisations in shorter periods, organisational strategies started to evolve in almost real-time (the idea of a 5-year or 10-year strategy/plan died about the same time the Berlin wall fell), and the ‘truth’ in terms of information and knowledge became a moving target.

All these changes threw further challenges at the model of one-off ‘knowledge transfer’ and heralded the emergence of an understanding of the need for a culture of continuous learning.

Change 2: Informal and workplace learning – a challenge for L&D

learning_informally The second thing that happened was that most people came to realise that the majority of learning doesn’t occur in workshops and classrooms. Classrooms may be good places to support change initiatives and some high-level concept development and, in some cases, help the development of skills, but if learning professionals focus solely, or even primarily, on formal learning we know now that they’re missing a very big trick. There’s lots of evidence to support the fact that informal and workplace learning should be learning professionals’ prime focus. ‘Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance’ by Jay Cross my colleague in the Internet Time Alliance is a great starting point if you need one to back this up.

Added to this we’re finding that organisational structures are changing. Formal training and learning may have been adequate for the structured hierarchies of the 20th century (although this is arguable). It certainly isn’t for the 21st century ‘wirearchy’. Jon Husband, an expert business analyst and long-standing HR/L&D professional, explains Wirearchy as: "a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology."

Husband sees the Wirearchy model continuing to emerge and have impact, with “generations coming into the workplace with interactive games, ICQ, Napster, chat rooms, MySpace, Facebook, and ubiquitous mobility under their skin.. They're equipped with smarter software, and they take interconnectedness for granted - it's second nature to them” (it’s easy to see the challenge, with some of these tools and technologies already having been superseded by newer generations of smarter ‘gadgets’). Husband’s views on this are well documented in ‘The Future of Workplace Dynamics’ published by the World Future Society. This change is yet another challenge for L&D departments.

Social learning: The next game-changing tool for L&D

It is almost 20 years since Berners-Lee and Cailliau thrust the Web into an unsuspecting world and about 10 years since the birth of ‘e-learning’ and the widespread acknowledgement that informal learning is vital.

More recently, the social learning revolution has built on these to offer a new world of learning and development. Harold Jarche discusses some of the issues concerning the value that social learning brings in the ‘The value of social media for learning’ piece on his blog.

Jarche also challenges one of the basic tenets of L&D departments – that they should focus on developing the skills of individuals in their organisation. Jarche says: “Individual learning in organisations is irrelevant because work is almost never done by one person. All value is created by teams and networks. Furthermore, learning may be generated in teams but this type of knowledge comes and goes. Learning really spreads through social networks. Therefore, social networks are the conduit for effective organisational performance. Blocking, or circumventing, social networks slows learning, reduces effectiveness and may in the end kill the organisation.”

A quick look at an enlightened approach to the use of social media in organisations (from my former employer, Thomson Reuters) should be enough to tell us the sensible way to encourage the best use of social networks as part of both work and learning.

Jarche and Cross argue, and I certainly agree, that training is inadequate in developing the emergent practices necessary to operate in complex networked environments. The future training/L&D department needs to understand this and respond. Social learning approaches offer one important route to adapt in this new environment. Performance support and business process guidance offer other successful strategies. All of these require new L&D operating models.

L&D Capabilities for 2010 and beyond

hands_0633_small So, how does all this impact what the L&D department of 2010 and beyond looks like?

What are the implications for the skills and capabilities that an effective L&D team needs to possess in order to face this new digitally-enhanced and just-in-time learning future?

Capability 1 - 'fachidiot' to polymath

Initially, there is a clear need for the learning professional to move from being a content expert to being an expert facilitator of learning – from ‘fachidiot’ (narrow specialist) to polymath. My colleague Clark Quinn puts this very well in his blog posting ‘Future of the Training Department’. Clark says: “And this, to me, defines the future of the training department. It can no longer be just about courses. It’s got to include performance support, and informal learning. It’s got to be about culture, and learning together skills, and facilitating productive information interchange and productive interactions. We have technologies now to empower user-generated content, collaboration and more, but the associated skills are being assumed, which is a mistake. The ability to use these tools will continually need updating and support.”

This requires a change in mindset. If this change is to be achieved then the CLO and senior learning managers, as well as every learning professional working with them, need to adopt an open, communicative and experimental mindset. Innovation should be at the forefront of their minds. Always asking “how can we make it easier for our stakeholders to do their jobs better?” “What can we do to help them improve performance and productivity as fast and as simply and easily as possible”.

Capability 2 - technology-savvy

Technology will certainly play a major role in the L&D toolkit going forward. So every learning professional needs to understand the learning technology landscape and be able to assess new technical developments for applicability and usefulness. This means learning professionals need to become efficient researchers and learners. Keeping up-to-date with leading-edge thinking and practice is a core capability for everyone. L&D people should be allocating some of their time each day to scan publications, read blogs (even if they’re writing one themselves) and build their professional network to enhance their own capabilities. Tools such as Twitter are excellent for this. This article titled ‘Twitter as a PLN’ sums it up: “I have found more resources and got more useful advice for professional development in 3 months on Twitter than in the previous five years without it.”

There are other ways. Jane Hart maintains a tremendous resource of tools and technologies at her world-class Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies site. Resources such as this on the Internet help learning professionals become and stay technology-savvy much more easily.

Capability 3 - performance consultancy

All learning professionals need consulting and coaching acumen (as well as learning acumen). This needs to be focused on performance problems and outcomes rather than on ‘learning’ input. We all need 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.

There are a number of performance consulting methodologies, but I have found the 7-step approach developed by UK business psychologist Nigel Harrison to be robust and straightforward. Hal Richman’s methodology is another that offers great value and stresses the importance of evaluating any learning activity in terms of business impact.

Capability 4 - business-savvy

Every learning professional needs to be able to ‘speak business’ to business people or managers in the organisation. An understanding of organisational goals is the ‘so what’ in learning. Every learning professional in the corporate world, at least, should be able to read and draw conclusions from a balance sheet and P&L account or income statement, and understand the business drivers that business leaders and line managers are focused on. Even those working in government and not-for-profit agencies should regularly check their understanding and the alignment of their work with current organisational strategy, if not the financial drivers of the organisation.

Capability 5 - adult learning-savvy

Understanding how adults learn should be meat-and-drink for every learning professional. How can we possibly provide a service without having at least a basic knowledge of adult learning, an understanding of how adults learn in the workplace, and ‘what works’ in organisational learning? The answer is, we can’t. Every learning professional also needs to understand and appreciate the four principle ways adults learn – [a] through the experiences they have; [b] through practice; [c] through conversations with colleagues and experts; and, [d] through reflecting on a, b, and c.

It also helps if the learning team as a whole has some deep expertise in the psychology of learning and some of the main current learning theories, if only to be able to take a reasoned view of any specific approaches being suggested or proposed.

Other important capabilities/attributes

Along with the capabilities above, other attributes such as ‘empathy, ‘listening’, ‘tolerance for ambiguity’, ‘basic communication ability’ have been identified as essential for effective L&D activity.

New roles

New roles will emerge in the L&D department. Roles such as Community Manager and Learning Facilitation Guru will appear, along with whole teams of L&D professionals focused on learning innovation. Every L&D practitioner needs to have 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 important whether the innovation involves technology in all cases or not – although technology offers 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 an innovative mindset is one that’s quickly becoming irrelevant as a strategic business tool. Such L&D departments deserve to have their funding redirected elsewhere.

The final nail - attitude trumps skills

With the right attitude you and your L&D department will be able to be proactive and have a significant impact on organisational performance. Without the right attitude, no matter what skills your team has in the kitbag, it’s likely to fall short.

Thursday, 15 July 2010


Commodore Perry Owens In the movies, the marshal steps out from behind the big rock, draws his Colt .45 and enforces the law by dispatching a few outlaws as they dive for cover 20 or 30 yards away.

In real life it was not as simple as that.

About 40 years ago I read a tremendous book by Earl Forrest about a feud that took place in Navajo County, Arizona in the 1880s.

The feud was between two families. The cattle-herding Grahams and the sheep-grazing Tewksburys. The feuding carried on for more than a decade and only ended when most of the protagonists had been killed.

Enter the splendidly named Commodore Perry Owens (that’s a photo of him, above). Commodore was his first name, not his job role - his mother named him after Commodore Perry, who defeated the British naval forces in 1813. Owens was sheriff of Navajo County at the time of the Graham-Tewksbury feud and took it on himself to sort out some of the key players and restore law and order in Navajo County. He did this in style, killing a number of the feuding parties in the famous Pleasant Valley gunfight (including a 14 year-old who picked up his dying brother’s Colt .45 and aimed it at Owens) and pursuing others incessantly.

What’s the point of this story?

The point is that Owens knew the limitations of a Colt .45 when a moving target was involved. He was in the habit of approaching potentially difficult situations with a Winchester rifle and two 12-bore shotguns along with his Colt .45. And he used each as needed. The best tool for any particular job was brought into action as appropriate and as quickly as possible. His arsenal was comprehensive and innovative for his day.

What L&D can learn from Commodore Owens?

The challenges facing everyone involved in the world of learning and performance improvement are not unlike those that faced Commodore Owens in the 1880s. We’re dealing with multiple competing pressures, variable terrain, sometimes difficult stakeholders, and an unprecedented amount of rapid change. A single-shot solution can never be the answer, rapid fire from multiple weapons is absolutely necessary.

All L&D practitioners need to adapt their approaches to fit specific needs, use the best tools for the specific job, and always be on the lookout for efficient and effective ways to deliver results. Most of all, L&D needs to focus on the ends rather than the means. On the impact and result, not on the process.

Like Owens, L&D needs to think and act strategically,and often needs to take difficult steps in order to achieve its ends. L&D professionals don’t need to gun down teenagers (!), but will certainly need to leave behind processes and approaches that were developed for an earlier age – the steady-state industrial type of organisations that are breaking down or transmogrifying before our eyes.

Sometimes L&D departments may also need to leave colleagues behind if they can’t, or won’t, join them on their journey to adapt and adopt the changes that are clear and necessary if they are to remain relevant and provide strategic value to their organisations.

Adding Real Strategic Value

1413284133_132194163b_bLike Owens, L&D needs to continually demonstrate its value through the best possible actions and solutions it can muster.

It has to respond rapidly, be quick on the draw, and L&D professionals and suppliers need to be more than one-trick ponies. They must focus on whether (and how) they can partner with their business colleagues to help them solve their business challenges with innovative business-led solutions.

If L&D departments and their ecosystem of suppliers and consultants can swim out of the whirlpool of increasing demands having proved their strategic value to senior leaders, they will flourish. If they can’t, they’ll simply prove the premise that L&D is irrelevant in the brave new world of constant change. If this happens, CLOs should expect their budgets to be slashed, their scope to be limited, and for their departments to whither into oblivion.

If L&D vendors can’t adapt to the changing demands that are clearly starting to occur, then they should expect diminishing requests for engagement, smaller contracts and financial difficulties.

Everyone needs to change. And change now.

How Do We Know When L&D is Providing Strategic Value?

The question of the potential and actual value that L&D can contribute to organisations has been discussed and analysed at length over the years. Some good investigative research into strategic value has been published, such as the The C Level Perceptions of the Strategic Value of Learning report by Tony O’Driscoll, Brenda Sugre and Mary Kay Vona for IBM and the ASTD some 5 years ago and The Value of Learning:From Return on Investment to Return on Expectation by the UK Chartered Institute for Personnel Development (CIPD) published in November 2007.

Although the work for both these reports was carried out some years ago, there’s no evidence or reason to believe the situation they found has changed. They both point to some important challenges and failings in the standard L&D approaches that have been used for the past 30-40 years at least.

Aligning L&D Priorities and Outputs

The IBM/ASTD Strategic Value of Learning study found clear blue water between senior leaders’ expressed requirement for L&D to help them prepare for future challenges and Learning leaders’ (CLOs or Learning Directors/Managers) focus on moving up the value chain from learning to performance and talent to address current challenges. There was a chasm between the current focus (tactical) mindset of L&D and the future focus (strategic) mindset required by senior business leaders.

The CLO focus in this case – i.e. catch the balls as they’re thrown over the fence and run with them - is understandable but it’s certainly neither an optimal nor sustainable strategy. Most CLOs and senior L&D managers have a lot on their plate meeting existing stakeholder demand for training. If they don’t have solid analysis processes in place to qualify, prioritise or reject any ‘training problem’ that a manager might bring to them they are likely to be drowning pretty quickly.

If CLOs focus on learning – which in the majority of cases means the production of content-driven formal classes and eLearning – then the move to performance and talent-centric focus alone is likely to consume all of their time and resources, with no time to think about the future.

CLOs and their L&D teams need to move beyond a focus on learning to focus on solving business problems in close partnership with their stakeholders. There’s no other option. If L&D leaders and practitioners can’t do this it’s almost a certainty that their function will become irrelevant very quickly.

Proving Value

The IBM/ASTD Strategic Value of Learning study also found that there was a discrepancy between senior executives’ absence of need for direct evidence of L&D’s contribution to organisational outcomes and CLOs’ increasing focus on providing proof that their teams’ efforts provide value.

This is a chasm between the faith of senior leaders that L&D will do a good job and CLOs’ need to provide proof that they are doing a good job by carrying out more and more complex and sophisticated ROI calculations and developing more and more spreadsheet models and pie charts to deliver the message.

The message here is that CLOs and their L&D teams need to get over trying to ‘prove’ their value, and focus instead on keeping their customers satisfied. The value of L&D will be determined by its stakeholders and customers, not by L&D itself. In any transaction or service the seller may set the price, but it’s always the customer who determined the value. L&D services are no exception to this rule.

The CIPD Value of Learning study mirrored the earlier IBM/ASTD work. It found that managers are more interested in Return on Expectation (ROE) than Return on Investment (ROI) figures from the L&D department. ROE is based on whether the initial expectation of the stakeholder/customer has been met, rather than on some convoluted spreadsheet analysis ‘proving’ causal chains and returns.

Facing the Future

All this leads me to wonder whether the best strategy for CLOs, L&D practitioners and providers into the ‘learning marketplace’ who are finding it difficult in moving from the world of ‘push’ L&D to the world of ‘pull’ L&D is for them to seek out some well-known pharmaceutical products for assistance. These might help them break out of their current mindsets and set them on the best path to face the future.

Clearly it needs something dramatic. Other approaches seems to have failed. Many learning leaders and providers still think that evolution from old to new is the answer.

Evidence suggests it isn’t. There is a revolution occurring in the workplace, and revolution in the way organisations are finding they need to organise and operate to be successful in the interconnected ‘pull’ marketplace we are all living and working in.

The Pharmaceutical Option

Benzodiazepine The Benzodiazepine drugs Rohypnol (also known as the ‘forget-me pill’ well known to date-rapists) and Versad, which is used to induce amnesia following medical procedures, come to mind.

I’ve had the pleasure of having been administered Versad couple of times. It’s marvellous. The effect is that you lose short-term memory of your life for a few hours or so. It’s like you fell into a black hole until the drug effects wear off. You can’t remember what you did and how you acted (or what was done to you). You come out with no recollection of previous actions and activities during the time you were under its influence. It also sets you up to ‘clear out’ past approaches and start anew.

Which is why I’m wondering whether it will do the trick and enable the revolutionary change that is absolutely necessary if L&D departments are to remain, or become, relevant as strategic drivers for their organisations.

Something radical is certainly needed.

The Moving Target Problem

Which brings me back to Commodore Perry Owens. Owens understood the need for radical action even if it involved shooting a young boy and facing down what was previously seen as insurmountable odds. He wasn’t tied to past practices or tools. Owens would have been an advocate of learning being part of the work rather than learning being treated as something in its own right, being separate from work. He would have sought out the best tools and practices to attack the specific problem he was facing at the time. He wasn’t bound by convention. Have a look at his photograph – chest-length (red) hair and a hat that was more Mexican immigrant than cowboy. Owens also understood that sometimes you have to break conventions to get the job done. He also understood that the focus should be on action rather than process, and that doing the right thing for the community is the most important outcome for all.

It’s the same for all of us involved in helping individuals and organisations build and maintain performance, productivity, innovation and quality.

We need to leave old approaches behind and adopt emerging and emergent ones if we’re to deliver real value. And we'd better do it sooner rather than later if we're going to keep ahead in a fast-changing game.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Real learning – let’s not confuse it with completing templated exercises


I read a piece written by Kate Graham of e2train on Thursday and it started me thinking about the ‘real learning versus managed learning’ debate.

I found I disagreed with Kate’s view on a number of points, and stand on the other side of the fence from her argument for a number of reasons.

I don’t want anyone to get me wrong. I like Kate a lot. We’ve known each other for a number of years. I just think that she has got it wrong in this piece as to what real learning is and the role that LMS and ‘social learning’ have to play in the mix of building workforce capability and effectiveness in organisations.

State of Confusion


Firstly, let’s clear something up. We shouldn’t confuse what L&D/Training departments spend a lot of their time on with real learning.

Learning professionals spend a significant amount of their time (maybe even the majority) designing and delivering content and then evaluating completions and short-term memory outputs from structured mandatory and compliance training modules and courses.

Although this activity is a necessary and sometimes important one (even if only to keep the CEO and Chairman out of the courts and prison) it has little to do with real learning.

Compliance training is primarily about recording activity and gathering data that can be provided to regulatory or professional bodies or kept for a rainy day.

I bet Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, hopes and prays that his L&D teams have well-documented evidence that everyone involved with the Deepwater Horizon drill rig had been through their mandatory and compliance training. It won’t mean that they were all competent or learned anything, but it sure-as-hell will help him and BP when the regulatory authorities come knocking.

The Importance of Compliance Training

There is no doubt that organisations need an LMS or LMS-type functionality to track training activity linked to compliance and mandatory requirements. Organisations need to ensure that their employees complete certain activities in order to meet national and international regulations. Sarbanes-Oxley, AML, Fraud, Health & Safety all fall into this category along with a lot of other industry-specific demands for compliance or ‘proof’ of activity.

Regulators haven’t come up with a better way of measuring compliance than by measuring activity. Some would argue that by passing a test or gaining certification the candidate has provided proof that they will behave in a compliant way. In fact what they have proved is that they can pass a compliance test. A good short-term memory (or even a not-so-good one) will usually do the trick.

Kate, on her e2train blog, cites David Wilkins’ ‘A Defense of the LMS’ piece in pointing out that compliance training is a ‘big deal’ for organisations and here I absolutely agree. LMS technology has provided a big step forward here. Database technology in its other guises has helped organisations collect and manipulate data across the entire HR arena over the past 25 years far-and-away beyond what was done beforehand with pen-and-paper, and then spreadsheets. LMS has certainly done the trick for gathering compliance data.

Beyond Compliance

However I think there’s a question to be asked whether LMS should be the primary tool to provide more than the environment to execute compliance and mandatory requirements efficiently and effectively and to serve up content within the constructs of modules, courses, programmes and curricula.

Harold Jarche, in a short but insightful piece, recently wrote:

“..if learning is work and work is learning, why is organizational learning controlled by a learning management systems (LMS) that isn’t connected to the work being done in the enterprise?”

Maybe LMS vendors would be better off sticking to their knitting and letting the maelstrom that is the profusion of targeted ‘2.0’ (for want of a better term) tools that are emerging virtually every day to provided support for process-based learning.

This is already happening. Most people working in the knowledge economy want to create their own personal learning environments with tools that suit the way they work, gather information, and learn. They prefer not to be shoe-horned into large enterprise applications no matter what the benefits of ‘integration, consistency and scale’ their IT colleagues have been sold by software vendors.

The challenges IT departments are facing with requests for access to public Internet personal social tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and hundreds of others is just a foretaste of what is to come in this arena.

Employees will continue to demand access to the tools that best work for them in their personal learning environment. The battle won’t be won by IT lock-down but by acceptable use policies and enabling mindsets.

Equally the challenges of providing tools and functionality for process-based learning won’t be won by adding features to already behemoth event-driven LMS tools. It will be won by loose-coupling of a multitude of independent applications, and superficial integration at the interface level.

Can We Really ‘Manage’ Learning?


Most of us have been persuaded that the majority of real learning occurs in the workplace through experience and practice and over the water cooler through conversations and reflection. It may be an interesting intellectual pursuit to argue whether the % of learning that occurs outside classrooms and other formal module, course, programme, curriculum structures is 70%, 80%, 90% or some other figure and whether the evidence supports one assumption over another, but arguments like that add little value to the fact that there is an increasing body of empirical evidence that says we learn as we work.

Returning to Kate’s argument, it seems to me to be a defence of the status quo. That learning is almost an end in itself and separate from work. That’s the space that learning management systems have traditionally played in. The interesting thing is that this status quo is likely to be usurped in the very near future, if it’s not already been so. We can certainly see the cracks.

The Demise of the Course Vending Machine

Kate points out that today’s learning management systems (whether they’re branded as LMS or as some other infrastructural component) are very different from the course vending machines that appeared in the 1990s. To an extent I can see a lot prettier LMS tools, but most still have at their heart the management of learning events, rather than the management of learning.

I doubt whether learning can actually be managed by anyone other than the person who is developing their own skills, capability and changes in their behaviour. Learning and development professionals, managers, colleagues, friends and families can certainly help facilitate learning. They can also assist in creating an environment to help learning occur. But the management of the very personal process of learning is down to each of us in our own context. Machines and technology don’t manage learning any more than the car or public transport that you use to get to work manages your journey.

Like Topsy

Like Topsy in Uncle Toms Cabin, today’s LMS systems have “just growed'”. They have developed from stand-alone classroom training scheduling and administration systems (Oracle’s OTA was a classic of that genre) to incorporate the launch and tracking of eLearning courses and shorter nuggets of content, the Boolean logic of pre-and post-requisites, and so on and so on.

David Wilkins ‘Argument #2’ lists a mind-boggling array of features of a modern LMS – many of them focused on ‘managing’ processes, skills, forms, competencies, careers, goals certification, files, workflows, appraisals, events, assets, users, groups, pages and so on. Impressive, but primarily built around a top-down view of organisational learning. Not really management, more control.

Now the LMS world is in the race to vacuum up more ‘social’ functionality and dump it into, or add it onto, their database structures.

The Right Place?


I would question whether the LMS is the best starting point for building infrastructure to support either workplace and experiential learning or ‘learning through others’ whether at the real or virtual water cooler, or as part of the on-going process of learning and development. LMS seems to be a tool designed and adapted for a world of reasonably neat formal event-based learning, not a messy world of informal process-based learning. The equally idiosyncratic 2.0 tools seem to be a better bet to support individual learning in the new world. Maybe LMS should stick to the role it was originally conceived for and just get better at that.

Again, I’m sure some LMS vendors have sold their products to clients on the basis that they provide a solution in a box. I doubt that one solution suits many organisations, though. Most organisations see themselves as having unique needs and operating in unique ways. When you get under the skin, many of these ‘unique’ characteristics are not unique but really quite common in specific industries or sectors. However, the nature of organisations, as with people, is that they will vary both within and between, so single point-solutions are unlikely to work for all.

What Organisations Want To Do

One point that Kate makes is that today’s LMS offerings are based on what organisations actually want to do.

Maybe some organisations do want the mind-boggling array of functionality in today’s LMS, but most don’t. It’s the sum of the parts. If you buy a new DVD player you don’t necessarily want it to contain every function ever developed in DVD players since the beginning of time. Some LMS functionality is undoubtedly essential, but all certainly isn’t.

Many of the features that have been incorporated into LMS architecture over the past 10 years have been driven a Gollum-type obsession with ‘the shiny’ – an attempt to do a ‘Microsoft’ and become all things to all people – bringing in elements of performance management, talent management and other HR process controls.

I’m surprised there’s not a ‘water cooler conversation scheduler’ in David’s list. Maybe in the next version…

The Value of Learning

Kate ended her piece by saying:

“..perhaps it would be good if our thought leaders (who we need and admire) could lend a hand here. Maybe give us all some new ideas as to how we can really prove the worth of our learning to the organisation. Right now, that might come in useful.”

My suggestion to help Kate out here would be to recommend that every learning professional and every professional in the learning LMS business comes to appreciate that learning is a continuous personal process that isn’t measured by any form of pre- and post-assessment, no matter how sophisticated. This personal process can’t be ‘managed’ any more than you, waiting at the bus stop, can ‘manage’ the arrival of the number 32 bus.

Learning is an accumulation of experiences supported by practice in context and by interaction with others – who may be your peers, your supervisor, or your friends. Even your friendly learning professional.

Learning can only be said to have occurred when behaviour has demonstrably changed. Eric Kandel, who won his Nobel Prize for his work on learning and memory, said it for me:

“Learning is the ability to acquire new ideas from experience and retain them as memories”

I’d love to know whether there’s an LMS out there that can manage that process.

Friday, 28 May 2010

ID - Instructional Design or Interactivity Design in an interconnected world?

Maze - iStock - small

Instructional design is not only seen as a core competency for learning and development/training specialists, but it’s a huge industry, too. Most learning vendors tout their ‘expertise in instructional design’ as a key reason as to why we should engage them to produce learning content. If we do so, then almost invariably their approach is around developing content in an ‘instructionally-sound way’ to produce a set of ‘learning interventions’.

I have a real problem with this approach and the thinking behind it.

It simply isn’t appropriate for the needs of the 21st century knowledge industry, and is arguable even more inappropriate for those whose work is carried out with their hands rather than with their minds.

Let’s Forget About Events

Undoubtedly instructional design is crucial if the mindset is learning events – modules, courses, programmes and curricula. However, if the mindset has stretched beyond event-based learning to where most learning occurs for workers, which is in the workplace at the point-of-need, where process-based learning serves best – and where learning through doing and learning as part of the work process happens, then ID takes on a whole new dimension.

From Content to Activity

The vast majority of structured learning is content-rich and interaction-poor. That’s understandable in the context of a 20th century mindset and how learning professionals have been taught to develop ‘learning’ events. But it simply isn’t appropriate for today’s world.

For years we’ve been led to believe that ‘learning’ meant acquiring knowledge. If knowledge acquisition is the end-game, then the logical conclusion was to provide information that could be turned, whatever the magic employed, into knowledge in the recipient’s head. Believe me, the old idea that data becomes information which in turn becomes knowledge and finally transmogrifies into wisdom has been debunked years ago. We use our knowledge and experience to interpret data and information. Wisdom comes to a few only after years of experience.

These days we’re a little better informed about what constitutes learning. It’s not that there have been fundamental discoveries in the field. There have been a few, but we’ve also spent more time observing learning in action. And ‘action’ is the key word. It’s become clear that learning is about action and behaviours, not about how much information you hold in your head. If we train our dog, or our goldfish, we can observe learning by the fact that the animal can do something it couldn’t do before the training started. If their behaviour isn’t modified then we can only conclude that they haven’t learned. We have no idea of knowing, of course, but it may be that the dog ‘knows’ what it should do (‘’sit, now!’) but, for reasons known only to itself, can’t (or won’t) execute the action.

Ebbinghaus and All That

Knowing something doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve learned it. Challenging?

Let’s test this hypothesis. I attend a course on how to use my company’s new CRM system. The instructor (or virtual instructor delegated into an eLearning course) steps me through the various processes and delivers the learning content in an engaging way. I even have an opportunity to try things out on a ‘training system’. At the end of the course, I take an assessment. I pass with flying colours.

The training has been successful and I’ve learned. Right?

Not necessarily. What I’ve done is managed to retain information in short-term memory. Even if I’m successful in transferring this to long-term memory - and it’s likely that most won’t transfer. Dr Ebbinghaus’ experiment revealed we suffer an exponential ‘forgetting curve’ and that about 50% of context-free information is lost in the first hour after acquisition if there is no opportunity to reinforce it with practice.

I’ve only learned (or learned successfully – I don’t know what unsuccessful learning is – can someone please help me out with that?) when I can use the CRM system without constantly asking for help or referring to some documentation. And it’s almost impossible to achieve this without having the experience of using the system/tool. And I have no hope of learning without plenty of practice. Experience and practice are two of the main ways we change our behaviours and learn.

The Value of Real ID

If experience and practice, rather than knowledge acquisition and content, are the drivers of the learning process, what do Instructional Designers need to do to be effective?

The need to become Interactivity Designers. That’s what they need to do.

My colleague, Clark Quinn (www.quinnovation.com) knows a thing or two about designing learning experiences, having been a leading expert in the field in both academia and the business world for some years. Clark talks about learning experience design. He provides good explanations of his thoughts and approach here and here.

I find both Clark’s learning experience designer and also the term interactivity designer helpful because they move us beyond instruction to where the real meat of learning is, to actions and interactions, experiences and conversations.

Unlocking the Power of Experience

Each of us holds hundreds of experiences inside our heads that can be used to improve our own performance and the performance of those around us in both formal and informal learning environments. We just need to figure out how to tap into those experiences – that’s where the skills in interactivity design come in.

Good ID will result in the design of experiences that can build capability and learning far more quickly and effectively than by filling heads with information and ‘knowledge’ and then hoping that will lead to behavioural change.

We need designers who understand that learning comes from experience, practice, conversations and reflection, and are prepared to move away from massaging content into what they see as good instructional design. Designers need to get off the content bus and start thinking about, using, designing and exploiting learning environments full of experiences and interactivity.

As they do this they’ll realise that most of the experiences and interactivity they can draw on will occur outside formal learning environments.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Less is more: A different approach to L&D in a world awash with information


This post appeared on the TrainingZone.co.uk site last month.  I’ve re-posted it here for people who don’t choose to register on the TZ website.



Charles Jennings argues that the adage 'access to knowledge is power' is more fitting in today's information-swamped world.

"In 2009, more data will be generated by individuals than in the entire history of mankind through 2008. Information overload is more serious than ever."

Andreas Weigend, former chief scientist at Amazon.com writing in the Harvard Business Review, May 2009

Andreas Weigend knows a thing to two about data and the social data revolution, about its impact on business and its role in information overload. In his job at Amazon he had to be smart about using information if he was to help his employer make best use of the vast volume of the stuff that was arriving in its data centres every few seconds.

Social data

Social data is information produced by anyone. Some originators may be acknowledged experts. Others may simply be passionate about a topic. Either way, the data they produce can provide significant value to others. Amazon has thrived on the back of contributions and recommendations by readers and purchasers. Early on the company found that users often trusted recommendations by other users more than they trusted promotional or 'expert' views. Weigend said "by enabling users to actively contribute such explicit data, Amazon.com succeeded in leveraging knowledge dormant in its large customer base to help customers with their purchasing decisions".

"Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we’ve learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'."

Other organisations have used this collaborative knowledge sharing extremely effectively. Wikipedia created a transparent knowledge creation environment by allowing open discussion and online collaboration. Many other organisations have rebuilt their customer service models to encourage user communities to share knowledge about problems, issues and workarounds as they have found the 'wisdom of the crowds' better serves customers than a small, over-burdened customer help line.

But Weigend's world was not just about managing information, one of the base metals of knowledge. It was also about managing and connecting people, the caretakers of the gold. In fact it was primarily about connecting people - connecting people and helping them make their own connections between their data so it can be exchanged, made sense of in new contexts and some of it used to develop knowledge, skill and action, often in ways the originator had never thought of.

Implication for L&D: Less is more

So what are the implications of this tsunami of information on the way we go about training and development?

Firstly, every L&D professional needs to cast aside any belief that the more information and knowledge we have in our heads the better equipped we are to do our jobs or live our lives. It simply isn't true in today's world. The old adage 'knowledge is power' no longer sits comfortably in a world where information is swamping us and new knowledge is being generated and becoming obsolescent at rates never known before.

Access is power

Today, access to knowledge is power. And if this also means access to the person or people with the knowledge or the raw information, even better. Being able to find just the right information or source of knowledge at the just right time in the just right context is far more useful than recalling something we've learned some time ago and hoping it is still relevant and 'right'. With the increasing speeds of change and the ongoing knowledge explosion, what we learned three months ago is more likely to be out of date or simply wrong today than was the case even two or three years ago. We're living in exponential times.

Living with dynamic knowledge

As we continue to move from industrial to knowledge-based economies the half-life of much of the information that we use on a daily basis will continue to get shorter. The currency of most of the knowledge we use will have smaller and smaller windows of usefulness.

The implication of this trend for the current content-rich model of training and development that's used so widely today is really profound. In short, not only is less more, but in many cases nothing is better than any at all! That's a difficult pill for many L&D people to swallow.

"The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides."

But think about it in practice. Is it better to get people to commit information to memory, knowing that it will be short-lived (and possibly out of date when they come to use it), or help them become skilled in the approaches and techniques to find the current, correct information quickly when they need it? Think for a few seconds and it is obvious that the second strategy is the better one. Teach people to fish rather than providing them with fish. What use is there in someone trying to remember their tax coding, when it may change two or three times in a year? Surely it's better simply knowing where to find the current (correct) coding when you need it. Having the metadata and the search skills is far more useful than memorising the detailed information in this and many other situations in the day-to-day pursuit of our work and life.

The message this sends for L&D is that our jobs as enablers of performance clearly need to change from being knowledge dispensers to becoming learning guides. Helping our colleagues navigate their way through information and mis-information. Through what is currently 'correct' and what may have been correct some time ago but isn't any more.

A new focus for training: Forget the ephemera and get down to core skills

L&D needs to move from providing detailed task-based information to helping people develop a core set of useful generic skills that will provide them with the tools to find, analyse and make decisions to act at the point in time they need to act.;

This is a very different world than one focused on producing modules, courses and curricula full of ephemeral information – detailed content that has a relatively short half-life and is unlikely to be remembered in any detail beyond a post-course assessment, even if to that point.

We need to remember Herman Ebbinghaus' findings from 1885 - 125 years ago - that on average we will forget about 50% of what we've 'learned' within 60 minutes if the information has no context and we don't have the opportunity to reinforce it through practice.

The core skills we need

So, what are the core skills we need to help people develop so they can operate in this ocean of information?

To be honest, I don't have a definitive list. But I think I know some of the capabilities L&D should focus on. If we help people develop these, at least they'll be on a solid footing to extract positive and practical use from the volumes of information they come across each day:

Search and 'find' skills To find the right information when it's needed
Critical thinking skills To extract meaning and significance
Creative thinking skills To generate new ideas about, and ways of, using the information
Analytical skills To visualise, articulate and solve complex problems and concepts, and make decisions that make sense based on the available information
Networking skills

To identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organisation

People skills

To build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing

Logic To apply reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
A solid understanding of research methodology To validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

Of course there will be other core context-focused skills that people need to learn. They will tend to be complex skills that need lots of guided practice to master.

However, that doesn't change the fact that, going forward, L&D will need to focus less on content and more on developing core capabilities and skills.


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’s 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 (1996), 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. Conspiracy of Convenience was

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.