Wednesday 16 January 2013

The Need to Adapt to the Speed of Change or Die: lessons for L&D from the retail industry


Yesterday another great British institution slid into the history books.

HMV opened its first retail shop in Oxford Street, London in 1921 with great brouhaha. Composer Edward Elgar took part in the opening ceremony. Yesterday, 91 years on, the company shut its shops and handed its administration over to Deloitte with the expectation that its assets will be sold where possible and the company laid to rest.

Music lovers spent many hours (or weeks) browsing HMV stores, which were part of the only ‘chain’ for music when I first came to England in the early 1970s. Richard Branson’s sole Virgin Records & Tapes shop along Bayswater Road in Notting Hill was always worth a visit (although it specialised in ‘krautrock’ – not one of my favourite genres) as were the other independents in Charing Cross Road, but HMV had the variety and the volume.

HMV’s demise has come at a time that is tough for the retail trade. The global economy is still depressed, and confidence amongst consumers still low. Alongside HMV, other British consumer stalwarts have failed in past weeks – Jessops, the camera chain (founded 1935); Blockbuster, the DVD and video rental chain (founded 1989); and Comet, the electrical retail chain (founded 1933). Along with these, the UK and Irish Virgin Music stores were sold in 2007 and went into administration in 2009.


It seems that Deloitte and PwC are the only winners in a world where financial administrators are the current kings.

Lessons for L&D

I’ve been asking myself if there might be lessons for L&D departments here. I think there are.

A common strand runs through all of the above outcomes. It’s not just exposure to tough economic times and having to make changes to do more with less, and do things differently. Almost all individuals and enterprises are facing that.

Each of the above were overtaken by circumstances (and technologies) that changed faster and to a greater extent than they thought possible, understood, and planned for.

As with the many bookshops that have been forced to close in the face of new entrants to the publishing and distribution market – Amazon and Apple – the retail music industry certainly saw what digitisation was doing.  However, they didn’t grasp that it would create totally new distribution channels, new entrants from very different industries, and that it would disintermediate significant parts of the old value chain, side-line others, and build new markets that rendered old ones obsolete in the blink of an eye.

I was struck by the sheer blinkered view and ignorance of two ‘experts’ in the retail world as they analysed the demise of Jessops on BBC Radio 4 last week. One said “the real advantage of going to a store like Jessops was that you could speak to an expert who could advise on everything you might need to know about buying the right camera. You don’t get that when buying online”. The other agreed.

Have they never posted a question online? or read Amazon reviews? or joined something like and read the annual buyers guide, joined a forum or community and asked one of the tens of thousands of experts there for their freely-given advice?  Why would you put greater trust in someone who worked for a store with a vested interest not only in encouraging you to buy from them, but also to buy the products that gave them the highest return? Is it because you can see ‘the cut of their jib’ or you can assess their knowledge far better by looking them in the face? Does an expert look different to the rest of us? I think not.

Equally, I asked myself, why would people prefer to get information and learn through the intermediation of their L&D department if they have the alternative of doing so faster and more easily from other practitioners and colleagues, or people in their network who may or may not work in the same team, company or country as them? Especially if they can gain that knowledge and expertise without leaving their desk or workflow.

The answer, I believe, is ‘they wouldn’t’.

Some L&D professionals will counter with the challenge “how will you know that you have been given the right information and have been helped to learn the right things?”. The answer is that people will only know that through developing a level of trust in their sources of information and learning. And they will develop trust relationships by using the information, advice and expertise they’re provided with.  If they find it helps them get their work done better, faster or smarter then they’re more likely to ask again, and a competence trust relationship builds.

I don’t have the data to prove it, but I have a gut feeling that over time any one of us will build a network of trusted colleagues and advisors that will give us equally, if not better, information and advice for action than any traditional L&D department can possibly do – and certainly faster. Especially if we take the advice of Harold Jarche in thinking about the power of loose hierarchies and strong networks, and if our organisation actively encourages building a sharing, co-operative and collaborative culture of continuous learning.

What’s the point about this?

The point is that L&D departments need to adapt and do things differently, or do different things, if they are to remain relevant. Information dissemination (often the bulk of many training courses) doesn’t constitute the best use of time for specialists in building workforce knowledge and capability, nor for the intended recipients. L&D specialists should be focusing on understanding critical business problems that are being caused by underperformance and then working with stakeholders to design the best ways to solve them.  This may, or may not, involve designing, developing and delivering physical or virtual training, eLearning or some other intervention.

The Importance of Speed

I think Eric Schmidt made an excellent observation when he explained why Google’s interface is so simple – no ads, no clutter, just a query box, a banner (sometimes replaced by a ‘doodle’) and two buttons - ‘search’ and ‘I’m feeling lucky’ (I’ve yet to find anyone who regularly uses the latter).

Schmidt explained that the basic Google interface is designed in that way, and won’t change fundamentally, because people “will always use the easiest and fastest way possible to find information”. If they have difficult-to-navigate interfaces, or if anything gets in the way, then they will go elsewhere if they think there’s an easier option for them. First they ‘google’ it, then they ask someone nearby, call, message or email a trusted friend or colleague, phone a help desk, or read the manual (if there is one) – in that order. If Google created any obstacles, it would not be first choice.

There is a lesson in Schmidt’s advice for specialist learning technology interface designers, although it may come too late for some. Many organisations have wondered why employees look for ways not to use their Learning Management Systems and other learning technologies. Poor interface design is often the answer. I recall using one enterprise LMS that required 13 clicks of a mouse (some counter-intuitive) to register and launch an eLearning module. And we wondered why the generic eLearning library was under-used!

The point is that people need to work at speed, and anything that gets in the way will be bypassed or ignored. If an L&D department can’t respond at speed and deliver value it will be seen as a failure.

L&D Reinvention

ChangeHMV and the other failed institutions didn’t understand how rapidly and extremely their worlds were changing. By the time they did (if they did at all) it was too late.

L&D professionals need to take heed.

The world of learning and development has also changed. The same drivers are disrupting L&D as disrupted the music retail industry, and the camera sales industry, and the DVD rental industry, and the publishing industry, and the automotive industry, and the marketing industry, and the finance industry and countless other industries. People expect to be able to solve their problems with their performance quickly, and they expect to do so without leaving the workplace. They expect to manage their own career development, and build their own portfolios of experiences. They expect their employers to support them and provide resources to help, but they don’t expect their employer to ‘manage’ their learning and development from start to finish.

The lesson here for L&D professionals has been spelt out many times.

Most workforces are more like an orchestra than a battalion of soldiers. The role of L&D professionals needs to become more akin to a conductor (or even a page-turner for a pianist) than a sergeant-major. Expecting everyone to line up and follow the same instructions is a recipe for failure. We need to develop approaches and strategies to support organisational and individual goals in a much more nuanced way.

If there’s one lesson L&D needs to take from the failure of HMV and the others it is to fully grasp the speed and nature of the changes that are sweeping through most organisations – increased expectations of speed, relevance, and solutions that are just-in-time and not a minute late. Not only that, but also the increased expectation that L&D departments will deliver high value solutions to organisational challenges and help drive performance and productivity.

If an L&D department can’t make the internal changes needed and build the capability to do these things, then it deserves to follow HMV into oblivion.


Monday 7 January 2013

Internet Time Alliance Predictions for 2013

The Principals of the Internet Time Alliance decided to take a collective look ahead to the new year, and share our predictions. You’ll see overlap but also unique perspectives:
Charles Jennings
An increasing number of organisations, independent of size, nature or location, will acknowledge that their traditional training and development models and processes are failing to live up to the expectations of their leaders and workforce in a dynamic and global marketplace. Some will take steps to use their financial and people resources and exploit new ways of working and learning. Others will be hamstrung with outdated skills, tools and technologies, and will be too slow to adapt. A confluence of technology and improved connectivity, increasing pressures for rapid solutions and better customer service, and demands for higher performance, will force the hands of many HRDs and CLOs to refocus from models of ‘extended formal training’ to place technology-enabled, workplace-focused and leader-led development approaches at the core of their provision. We will move a step or two closer to real-time performance support at the point of need.
Clark Quinn
cqWe’ll see an increasing use of mobile, and some organizations will recognize the platform that such devices provide to move the full suite of learning support (specifically performance support and informal learning) out to employees, dissolving the arbitrary boundaries between training and the full spectrum of possibilities. Others will try to cram courses onto phones, and continue to miss the bigger picture, increasing their irrelevance. Further, we’ll see more examples of the notion of a ‘performance ecosystem’ of resources aligned around individual needs and responsibilities, instead of organized around the providing silos. We’ll also see more interactive and engaging examples of experience design, and yet such innovative approaches will continue to be reserved for the foresightful, while most will continue in the hidebound status quo.  Finally, we’ll see small starts in thinking semantic use in technology coupled with sound ethnographic methods to start providing just such smart support, but the efforts will continue to be embryonic.
Harold Jarche
hjPeople who know nothing about connectivism or collaborative learning will profit from MOOC’s. Academics and instructional designers will tell anyone who wants to listen just how important formal training is, as it fades in relevance to both learners and businesses.The ITA will keep on questioning the status quo and show how work is learning and learning is the work in the network era – some will listen, many will not.

Jane Hart
Many traditional-thinking organisations will waste a lot of time and energy trying to track social interventions in the hope that they can control and manage “social learning”. Whilst those organisations who appreciate that social learning is a natural and continuous part of working, will acknowledge that the most appropriate approach they can take is simply to support it in the workplace – both technologically and in terms of modelling new collaborative behaviours. Meanwhile, we will continue to see individuals and teams bypass IT and T&D departments and solve their learning and performance problems more quickly and easily using their own devices to access online resources, tools and networks.
Jay Cross
jc2013 will be a great year. As William Gibson wrote, “The future’s already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” The business world will become a bit more complex — and therefore more chaotic and unpredictable. Moore’s Law and exponential progress will continue to work their magic and speed things up. Learning will continue to converge with work. Increasingly, workers will learn their jobs by doing their jobs. The lessons of motivation (a la Dan Pink) and the importance of treating people like people will sink in. Smart companies will adopt radical management, putting the customer in charge and reorganizing work in small teams. Senior people will recognize that emotions drive people — and there are other emotions in addition to passion. Happy workers are more engaged, more productive, and more fulfilled. What’s not to like?

Thursday 3 January 2013

Determinism, Best Practice, and the ‘Training Solution’

clockworkDeterminism is the philosophical idea that every event, including every human decision and action, is the inevitable result of preceding actions and that, given certain conditions, there is only one outcome. Nothing else can happen.

Deterministic views of the world assume everything is a jigsaw puzzle rather then a chess game and that for every problem there is a single solution.

The logic follows that if this single solution can be identified, then all that’s required is for the series of steps to be described that lead to it and the outcome can be repeated at will.

Although determinism is part of our world, we shouldn’t assume that its principles can be applied everywhere. Anyone who has even the most rudimentary understanding of chess knows that to adopt a strategy based on determinism is to often invite failure.

The ‘Best Practice’ Conundrum


However, it seems that the majority of training and development approaches and processes are based on deterministic models.

We first need to identify best practice” is a cry often heard in HR and L&D departments as organisations set out on their journey to develop a high performing workforce.

“What’s wrong with that, then?” you may ask.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeing how other organisations achieve their results and trying to learn from them.  But do not assume that if you do the same then your results will mirror theirs. That is simply bowing to determinism. Human behaviour and the nature of organisations both tend to be complex and highly variable, and neither lend themself to deterministic approaches.

Best practice is the result of deterministic behaviour and exists only in relatively simple systems.

If a chemical engineer is looking to design a new process or parameters for distillation in a chemical plant she may be able to identify the volumes and sequences that produce the highest amount of pure distillate. Others following an identical process will achieve identical results. This is the positive use of determinism – repeatable processes, identical results.

In more complicated and more complex systems there is no best practice, no single solution that can be transferred from one problem to solve the next without modification.

When we’re dealing with human and organisational learning and performance we’re dealing with highly complicated and complex systems. If we’re to learn from others we should be looking at good practice and novel practices that we can adopt and adapt and massage to work in our own specific context.

The point I am making is that we certainly need to learn from others on a continual basis, but don’t assume that if we find something working well elsewhere all we need to do is to follow the same ‘recipe’ to get the same results.

It’s Not Always Simple

I’d recommend that every HR, Talent and L&D professional make themselves familiar with Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework if they are looking to better understand the important differences between learning and managing in simple, complicated, complex and chaotic systems. Cynefin is a sense-making model – where patterns emerge from the information and data – that explains how to respond to ordered and disordered systems.


The key point for HR, Talent and L&D professionals is that training is only appropriate in Simple and Complicated systems where cause and effect relationships exist, are discoverable, predictable and repeatable.

In other words, we can design, develop and deliver training to help people address future situations with the confidence that similar actions will produce similar results. Best practice exists only in simple working environments. Good practice (multiple good ways of achieving outcomes) exists in complicated working environments. In complex and chaotic environments (where most knowledge workers reside) traditional training and development approaches that are carried out away from the context of the workplace have little or no impact.

As such, Cynefin questions much of traditional management training and development.

Harold Jarche has been using the Cynefin model for some years to explain the nature of complexity. He offers some good guidance and potential strategies for working and learning in a complex world.

Together with Clark Quinn, Harold has also identified some of the challenges and opportunities created by complexity and how they can be addressed through employing the Coherent Organization Framework to understand and unpick the interrelations between work teams, communities of practice and social networks; define the differences between collaboration and co-operation; and explain how the interaction in the different contexts are synergistic.

Clark’s diagram here gives a clear view.

Jarche recommends coaching, mentoring, linking cognitive surplus with time surplus to solve real problems in the workplace, addressing difficult challenges, and building networks and communities. None of the recommendations include formal training.

This is an approach I have been focusing on for several years and why I have championed the 70:20:10 framework and established the 70:20:10 Forum to help organisations develop their people rather than train them.

Implications for Training

All of the above highlight some fundamental issues around the course/curriculum training model as the principal L&D tool in a complex world.

Where best practice can be defined it seems to make sense that the standard training and development model will work. Where good practice can be defined, training and development may also help by building better analytical capability and judgement. Beyond that, context is critical, complexity abounds and standard training and development approaches fail to have impact.

The issues are highlighted in the areas of management and leadership development. Despite huge budgets and huge amounts of time spent on designing, developing and delivering essentially away-from-work leadership training and development, we still have a situation where the overall quality of leadership is low, employee engagement is generally low and we are not innovating and exploiting our workforce potential nearly as well as we should be doing.

According to a survey undertaken by ORC International, a global customer research, employee engagement and financial services research firm, only 43% of UK workers believe that a positive relationship exists between staff and managers within their organisation. ORC also reports that just under half considered their company to be well-managed.

‘Engage for Success’, a UK Government-supported panel, estimates that the UK’s employee engagement deficit in 2012 to be costing £26bn in productivity each year.

Both of these data points tell us that something is broken.

But they also tell us that there is a great opportunity for improvement by adopting new approaches that will develop our workforce and, particularly, our leaders and managers, more effectively.

Development rather than Training

Mike Myatt identifies some of the important challenges around leadership development in a recent HBR blog article.

Myatt points out that “US businesses spend more than $170 Billion dollars on leadership-based curriculum, with the majority of those dollars being spent on Leadership Training”.

He goes on to say “Here’s the thing – when it comes to leadership, the training industry has been broken for years”.

Myatt touches on the limitations of the deterministic best practice issue in this way:

“When a trainer refers to something as “best practices” you can with great certitude rest assured that’s not the case. Training focuses on best practices, while development focuses on next practices”.

Myatt’s solution, like Jarche’s, is for organisations to create an environment where development occurs through mainly work rather than through training.  Myatt goes further and lists the limitations he sees as being offered by the ‘training solution’ and their alternative ‘development-focused’ perspectives.

Examples of the difference between ‘training’ and ‘development’ Myatt provides include:

4. Training focuses on the present – Development focuses on the future
5. Training adheres to standards – Development focuses on maximizing potential
6. Training is transactional – Development is transformational
8. Training focuses on the role – Development focuses on the person
10. Training maintains status quo – Development catalyzes innovation
12. Training encourages compliance – Development emphasizes performance

13. Training focuses on efficiency – Development focuses on effectiveness

14. Training focuses on problems - Development focuses on solutions

You may or may not agree with these binaries. They may represent extremes.  However I think Myatt is right. There are changes we need to make:

  • We need to address broken training models.
  • We need to get better at matching our people-development solutions to specific contexts.
  • We need to focus on equipping our workforce for the future, whatever that may hold, rather than trying to ‘fix’ them for the present.
  • We need to help our leaders, managers and workers to better exploit the learning opportunities in their daily workflow.
  • We need to ensure our HR, Talent, and L&D professionals develop their own skills and capability to help make all this happen.