The future for L&D: All drugs and no rock and roll?

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CRM calamityBest Headline 2008

PillsLess money, less development, more outsourcing, more coaching. Do everything else online - even though we know that doesn't work. Are these the real trends in L&D or are we bamboozling ourselves with myths and half-truths? Graham O'Connell asks: Is the future all drugs and no rock and roll?

Let's talk money first of all. There is no doubt that central L&D budgets have been under close scrutiny. Before the recent economic crisis Key Note, who run one of the largest surveys on training, were predicting a tiny growth in L&D of 1.5% for the next four years. That is pretty much standstill. But in the economic climate my bet is that investment in L&D will come under increasing pressure, and soon.

Photo of Graham O'Connell"Team coaching has buzz around it and I shall be keeping a close eye on that hybrid with no name, that mix of coaching, counselling and mentoring which is perhaps the most useful of all one-to-one support techniques."

But in recent years there have been enormous investments in technology, leadership development and training which supports front-line business operations. Add to this considerable devolvement to line managers, unprecedented access to learning at your desk (if you work at a desk) and more and more localised learning, whether in the form of tailored events, team coaching or 1:1 support. Getting accurate figures on how much this all costs – in time, money and effort – is hard to come by because it is not all accounted for in the L&D budget.

I suspect that the total organisational spend in real terms has gone up year on year, though the cost per item of learning (and, one hopes, the cost per outcome ratio) has come down. That also means that the total amount of development, or at least the access to a wide range of development opportunities, has grown significantly over the last 10 years. Let's hope in the next 10 years that this embedded and organic development - which is so fundamental to employee engagement and, ultimately, to sustainable performance - is not eroded too much by the understandable desire to cut expenditure.

In the 1990s outsourcing was the sure-fire route to better, faster, cheaper. You could export risk whilst importing capability. You could keep you head-count down and get professional, shared services just when you wanted them. By 2000 if it could be outsourced, it was. Now organisations are looking again at the in-house:out-house mix. Business partners, OD consultants and L&D managers tell me that selective in-sourcing is sneaking its way back, creating better internal capability, providing a stronger cultural fit and, believe this or not, delivering better overall value. Many HR functions still have a way to go in transforming how they operate but those working with individual and organisational learning are getting more sophisticated by the minute.

"I also predict that biotechnological implants and smart drugs, like Piracetam derivatives, are less than 10 years away. Maybe they will be offered to high flyers as just one more option in talent development programmes."

In 2001 I described coaching as 'the new black'. Surveys tell us that it is now both widespread and immensely popular. But as more challenging questions are being asked about the undoubted benefits versus the often hidden but high costs, I am detecting a slight reverse swing of the pendulum. Team coaching, though, has buzz around it and I shall be keeping a close eye on that hybrid with no name, that mix of coaching, counselling and mentoring which is perhaps the most useful of all one-to-one support techniques.

As to technology, I have given up trying to predict whether there is a pendulum much less which way it will swing. I confidently predicted that virtual classrooms would take off and that online networks were just a passing fad. Fortunately, our Virtual National School was created by those who know better. I am now just as confidently predicting that blended learning, mobile learning and social learning are all here to stay.

I also predict that biotechnological implants and smart drugs, like Piracetam derivatives, are less than 10 years away. Maybe they will be offered to high flyers as just one more option in talent development programmes. Arthur C. Clarke, who sadly died recently, would have been able to describe what a future world would look like if these predictions are even half true. I cannot. I just hope that I can get by with the aid of positive psychology, more understanding on how the brain works and being able to tune into the mood music of organisational change. Drugs and implants are a little too scary for me.

Graham O'Connell MA Chartered FCIPD FITOL FInstCPD ACIM: Graham is head of organisational learning and standards at the National School for Government. He has particular responsibility for developing and promoting best practices in learning and development.

As a consultant Graham has 25 years' experience in technical, management, trainer training and as an adviser to organisations on the strategic aspects of L&D. He has extensive overseas experience including working in countries as diverse as Russia and Bermuda, China and Kosovo. Graham still does some occasional tutoring on CIPD and University of Cambridge qualification programmes and runs occasional Masterclasses. He also runs a number of networks including the Strategic L&D Network (for Heads of L&D in the Civil Service), the Henley Public Sector Knowledge Management Forum and the Leadership Alliance Exchange.

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