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Knowing when to quit
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A key to next-gen learning: Letting go of what’s not working

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Does your L&D function know when to call it quits? Dani Johnson and Heather Gilmartin Adams of RedThread Research give us their valuable insights.

16th Nov 2021
RedThread Research
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It’s no secret that the pandemic forced most L&D functions to throw out their tried-and-tested, in-person, instructor-led-learning playbooks.  

Time to move on?

We think that’s a good thing: Throwing out the playbook was exactly what L&D functions needed. Frankly, they can no longer afford the waterfall development methods, course orientation, or attendance-based measurements of the past. Those methods don’t keep up with the way learning happens in organisations today, let alone help them get ahead — and as the pandemic taught us, they definitely don’t adapt well. We need to move on.

But moving on requires letting go of what has been — what is no longer working. That’s hard for most humans to do (and last time we checked, L&D functions were made up of humans!) 

There can be natural resistance to identifying — and letting go of — what’s not working

In recent months, we’ve spoken with dozens of learning leaders as part of a series of research studies on next-gen learning. These leaders helped us understand why letting go is so important and shared ways to offboard learning approaches that aren’t working in their organisations. 

In particular, these leaders showed us that letting go requires organisations to do two things: redefine what it means for the L&D function to succeed; and change systems and processes to make letting go easier. Let’s dive into both components.

Redefine success for L&D

Candidly, there’s an emotional aspect to letting go. L&D teams often work hard to create learning solutions, and those solutions are often successful for a time and often define their own success by those creations (and L&D professionals may attach a measure of their professional identities to them), so there can be natural resistance to identifying — and letting go of — what’s not working. That means L&D functions cannot afford to define success in terms of the things they create. 

Instead, success must be defined by the outcome: do employees acquire the knowledge and skills they need to help the organisation succeed and to grow in their careers? That’s a big change from the traditional definition of success in L&D, where success = courses completed. This learning framework can help L&D teams think about their role and what success might look like under this new definition.

It’s much more difficult to stick with something when there’s evidence showing it’s not working

Additionally, L&D must truly believe that when something isn’t working, it’s good data—not a failure. One leader told us: "Get excited about all the data you can collect and the insights you can generate from testing what’s working and what’s not!" Defining success and failure differently is key to sunsetting the learning approaches, methods, content, technology, etc. that are no longer effective.

Implement systems for letting go

The leaders we’ve spoken with in the course of our ongoing research suggested some very specific processes they’ve implemented to help their organisations let go of learning efforts that aren’t working. Here are the best ideas we’ve heard so far:

1. Gather tons of data

It’s much more difficult to stick with something when there’s evidence showing it’s not working. For that reason, the leaders we spoke with recommended gathering as much data as possible. They mentioned not only qualitative feedback from employees and their managers but also usage, click, and other data that can be gleaned from the tech platforms in your organisation. 

Leaders said they look for correlations between business metrics and more traditional L&D metrics to see if a learning effort is working. Implementing processes to routinely collect and analyse both learning and business data can help make the case for keeping, reworking, or letting go. 

2. Adopt a lifecycle management approach

Some leaders said they view learning methods as disposable or having a short shelf life. Everything has a lifecycle, they said, which means it’s natural to pull things that no longer work out of the system. This attitude makes it emotionally easier to offboard what’s not working, even if an L&D team worked hard to create it. 

A lifecycle management approach also helps with planning. Contracting, sunk costs, culture, inertia, and a host of other factors can pressure organisations to keep learning solutions alive even if they’re not working and/or aren’t used. A lifecycle management approach puts the expectation and processes for letting go in place from the very start.

Handing keep-or-cut decisions to the relevant business function struck us as a forward-thinking way to ensure the right decisions are made

3. Implement strategic pauses

Sometimes it can help to simply put time and distance between the realisation that something isn’t working and the final act of letting go. To create that distance, one leader said her organisation implements “strategic pauses” to help offboard learning offerings that may not be working. She said: "If something isn’t working, we’ll do a “strategic pause.” We stop providing the program and evaluate if it’s really needed. If so, we rework the offering. If not, we find a way to offboard it."

4. Give up control over offboarding decisions

If it’s difficult for L&D functions to let go of what they create, one solution is to give decision-making responsibility to someone else. One organisation did just that. The L&D function asked various business units to take over the lifecycle management of the learning solutions they use. If a program or piece of content continues to be useful to the business unit, that business unit keeps it alive. If not, it’s let go. 

Handing keep-or-cut decisions to the relevant business function struck us as a forward-thinking way to ensure the right decisions are made. As L&D functions face the daunting task of enabling learning in the new world of work, shifting the definition of success and implementing processes to let go of what’s not working can help ensure learning meets the needs of employees and organisations.

Read more on next-gen learning at RedThread Research—and stay tuned for the final report, infographic, and webinar in December and January.

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