In theory, the case for a strong Learning & Development function has never been more clear-cut. The modern day workplace is characterised by more disruption and change than ever before and the pressure for improved business results is increasingly intense. By definition therefore, it is vital that people at all levels keep learning, adapting and improving to keep pace. However, this mission critical importance is not reflected in the perception, impact and standing of the majority of Learning & Development functions. In many cases:
Learning & Development is still the first budget cut in tough times.
Large sums of money are spent on development initiatives that don’t make a difference to individual or business performance.
Many L&D functions are viewed as tactical, admin resources whose prime role is to arrange training courses and who have little strategic value or clout.
In fact, a recent article in the Financial Times proclaimed that “Most business training is a waste of time and money and organisations need to call a halt to current practices and reconsider their approach”.
So how can L&D departments evolve to correct this perception and to contribute more to the growth and performance of the organisations they serve?
The answer lies in transforming from what are often thought of as ‘training’ departments to more like ‘performance improvement’ departments.
Of course there are certain types of knowledge based and functional training that all organisations need to provide - some of which are required for compliance purposes. However for more sophisticated skills and behavioural based learning, training on its own is rarely the driver of lasting improvements in performance. Knowing something is not the same as doing something and it takes more than ‘training’ to actually change habits and build confidence to do something differently. L&D functions therefore need to become synonymous with performance improvement. There are two fundamental principles to this:
Understanding what the desired performance improvement would look like in concrete terms and building learning approaches that will deliver this improvement – This involves being able to consult with the business, understand their needs, challenge their thinking and define specific and tangible improvements. They then need to design and structure appropriate learning ‘solutions’ to specifically deliver these improvements. They must then work hand in hand with their internal ‘customers’ to ensure that these solutions drive and sustain the desired improvements.
Evaluation, measurement and tracking of improvements – In the majority of cases, this is currently limited to the completion of a ‘happy sheet’. This is sometimes complemented with pre and post course tests/quizzes that can sometimes help measure knowledge acquisition. Given the complexities of changing behaviour and improving performance, this level of sophistication (or lack of sophistication) is simply ridiculous! It always staggers me how organisations spend huge sums of money bringing external 'experts' into their organisation and then their evaluation consists entirely of asking what their people think of these experts. Surely they should be asking these experts for their feedback and observations on their people? This is what happens in any other performance improvement field. You don’t send athletes away to training camps and then only ask them what they thought of the coaches and the food? You get detailed feedback from the coaches on the performance and capabilities of the athlete. So why is this archaic practice still acceptable in the workplace? In all honesty, its madness!
The good news is that in some organisations, there is already a blueprint for this type of evolution. It comes in the form of Salesforce Effectiveness or Sales Enablement functions. Where they exist, they tend to be a collection of people or teams whose entire focus is on the improvement of sales performance. As with all performance improvement initiatives, their role is multi-faceted - typically comprising of training, evaluation, coaching as well as other factors that influence performance such as sales process optimisation, forecasting, reporting, measurement etc.
Moving forward, L&D have a fantastic opportunity to evolve more into ‘Business Enablement’ functions – comprising of valuable and skilled resources who can help their business define the desired improvements in performance, create multi-dimensional solutions to drive these improvements and track and measure their impact and effectiveness. Then, and only then, will the perception and value of L&D to the business be of the strategic importance it could and should be.