Director Tulser, 70:20:10 Institute
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How can L&D embrace business-aligned learning in difficult times?

The ‘new normal’ for L&D cannot just be making the pandemic-induced shift from classroom training to online training a permanent fixture. For the profession to become business-relevant the transformation must go deeper, argues Charles Jennings, Partner Strategy and Performance at Tulser and co-founder of the 70:20:10 Institute.

2nd Jul 2020
Director Tulser, 70:20:10 Institute
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Champions keep playing until they get it right.
– Billie Jean King

Over the past three or four months a great deal has been written about the post-coronavirus ‘new normal’.

‘New normal’ isn’t, well, very new.  The term appeared during the 2008-2012 global financial crisis. It was a warning to economists and policy makers who believed industrial economies would revert to the models and ways of working that existed before the crash. 

In reality, an economic ‘new normal’ failed to emerge after the global financial crisis. Banks and other financial institutions were propped up by governments, economies slowly recovered, and, despite some tinkering and quantitative easing, policies were little changed. Ultra-low interest rates encouraged a surge in consumer demand and the developed world largely went back to its pre-crisis ‘normal’ rather than to a ‘new normal’. 

The global financial crisis had little impact on L&D other than to accelerate the trimming of numbers in many L&D departments, an inevitable outcome in difficult times when senior leaders see L&D as a cost rather than a value creator.  The other impact was an increase in the demand for finance regulatory and compliance training. 

Is the ‘new normal’ just more of the same for L&D?

The current crisis feels different, but will there be a ‘new normal’ for the L&D profession or will it be just a hiccup before L&D returns, once again, to doing more of what was done before?

There’s no doubt that many aspects of our lives will be altered forever by this virus. In a few months our workplaces and working lives have undergone huge changes, and these changes are likely to linger. 

Several years of digital transformation planning and efforts have been usurped by the virus as necessity overwhelmed us and people simply had to work digitally and remotely. After years of prevarication and a belief that ‘managing by presence’ was as important as managing by output we’re seeing that remote workers can, and usually do, deliver comparable results to their office-bound selves.

CEOS, CFOs and others are realising that real estate overheads can be reduced with little impact on productivity, that business travel for meetings may not always be as critical as we once thought it was, and that maybe one or two face-to-face meetings and nice meals out with colleagues every year will suffice. 

There is no doubt that these and other factors will lead to fundamental changes in business and operating models for many organisations irrespective of their size and the nature of their work.

But will L&D also take this opportunity to change its ways of working and its core business model as well?

L&D’s online COVID stampede: will corporate education return to the classroom?

The first, and most obvious, question is whether the current rush to convert and re-design formal learning content from face-to-face into online environments will lead to a longer-term change. 

While the move to online education is certainly a necessary short-term solution for L&D departments in the current situation, it’s a little worrying that many L&D leaders may think this is all that’s needed for the ‘new L&D normal’.  

Writing recently in FORBES, Brandon Busteed, the Global Head of Learn-Work Innovation at Kaplan, makes a solid business case for online corporate education and argues that corporate education will never return to the classroom.

“Companies have realized they can do it faster, more effectively and less expensively online while their employees also widely prefer it too. The expense and time of bringing together groups of employees for in-person training is exorbitant in comparison to high-quality online versions. Air travel, hotels, windowless conference rooms and convention centers, the risk liability of group training events and, frankly, the poor quality and unmeasurable outcomes of in-person corporate training have always been complaints.”

Busteed also highlights other factors like the need for speed, the general failure in re-skilling and up-skilling as reported in IBM’s Institute for Business Value study, and the need to address the ‘richness and reach trade-off’ described more than 20 years ago by Thomas Evans and Philip Wurster in their seminal book ‘Blown to Bits’.  In this book they also analysed another dramatic change-maker, the new economics of information and ubiquitous connectivity through the Internet. 

Whether you agree with Busteed or not, there’s no doubt that the dial has shifted significantly for face-to-face training and development. 

Switching from classrooms to online may help in the short-term, but longer-term systemic solutions require a systemic re-set of L&D business models.

As someone who has been involved in developing, reviewing and using online formal learning environments for many years, I have learned empirically that well-designed online courses can be as effective, and sometimes even more effective, than classroom training.

However, it’s important to remind ourselves that formal courses alone – whether they are online, in classrooms or in some green and leafy countryside hotel or corporate centre – are never enough for expertise development, irrespective of the channels used. 

So online provision is only one aspect of the wider change that L&D leaders need to address. There are more and bigger issues that need to be tackled.

Bigger challenges for L&D professionals

Irrespective of whether courses and learning resources are online or not, the major issue L&D needs to address is its ability to help organisational leaders solve their business problems. 

If L&D leaders and practitioners are going to achieve business alignment, they need to think beyond the channels they are using to get information and training to their clients. Switching from classrooms to online may help in the short-term, but longer-term systemic solutions require a systemic re-set of L&D business models. And this is a far more complicated change and development process.  

These new performance-based L&D roles are different from traditional L&D roles. They are focused on performance outcomes rather than learning inputs

My colleague, Jos Arets has written extensively about the importance of changing business models and the processes required to make the change. Jos’ article provides a framework of archetype business models for L&D to transition from learning value to business value. 

Building L&D capability for business alignment 

One important part of this change process, but certainly not the only part, is the need for L&D professionals to develop or improve their business- and output-focused capabilities. 

Without a performance mindset, together with the tools and processes needed to analyse organisational problems and deliver the right solutions at the right time, and without a set of business-focused capabilities, L&D professionals will continue to struggle to deliver real business value. And L&D leaders will be challenged to align with business priorities if their teams don’t build or possess these capabilities. 

Without these capabilities: 

  • L&D will likely remain focused on individual development when we know the focus should be also (and primarily) on teams and the organisation’s development as a whole 

  • L&D will likely remain focused on knowledge and skills when we know that most organisational and business problems are not the result of lack of knowledge and skills but are due to ‘environmental’ factors such as poor or absent process, lack of guidance when it’s needed, and other barriers to getting work done

  • L&D leaders will likely remain challenged to demonstrate business impact so long as their teams have a learning mindset rather than a performance mindset

  • L&D will remain a junior branch of HR rather than a value creator aligned with organisational priorities

To become business-relevant, L&D professionals working at all levels need to adopt and apply a solid, evidence-informed methodology for analysing problems, identifying the root causes and influencing factors, and then designing and building solutions. 

That’s the reason why, at the 70:20:10 Institute (now Tulser), we created the 70:20:10 Methodology with five new roles for L&D.

The five performance-based roles

Five performance-based roles

These new performance-based L&D roles are different from traditional L&D roles. They are focused on performance outcomes rather than learning inputs. They are also focused on business alignment, responsiveness, and impact rather than on learning impact. They require new capabilities and use new processes. The outcome of using them, however, is a robust performance-based and business-focused solution.

The five roles and their associated high-level tasks and outputs are shown in the list below. The roles and tasks are compared to typical L&D roles, activities and outputs.

The five new roles are:

  • Performance Detective: focuses on identifying critical business issues, critical tasks, performance gaps, and other factors that contribute to the problem.

  • Performance Architect: focuses on designing performance-based solutions to address organisational goals

  • Performance Master Builder: focuses on performance-based solutions which may or may not include formal training.

  • Performance Game Changer: focuses on deploying performance-based solutions and embedding them into organisational culture. 

  • Performance Tracker: focuses on defining relevant business metrics and measurement to demonstrate the speed and extent to which the business problem has been solved. 

Traditionally, L&D roles and activities are focused on learning needs, learning designs and learning outputs. Then, inevitably, we run into the insurmountable challenge of trying to measure organisational performance change. These new performance-based roles address that problem.

Details of these five new performance-centric roles for L&D are also explained in the book ‘70:20:10 Towards 100% Performance’ written by Arets, Heijnen and me.

Moving forward

L&D is facing an open goal. There are huge opportunities to change our ways of working and change the L&D value proposition.  The current crisis has opened our organisations up to embracing change.  All organisations are looking for innovation to take them forward. Most are also looking for more efficient and effective ways of achieving their aims. 

For L&D the current COVID crisis has opened a unique window of opportunity to demonstrate real business value and alignment. Leaders are open to new approaches that can add demonstrable value.  We would be foolish not to take it.

Replies (2)

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By KDeepa
09th Jul 2020 10:15

I agree with you Charles, simply switching from classroom to online learning will not help, the transition needs to follow a well-planned approach. Thanks for the insights on new roles in L&D. Sharing an infographic that lists options that can be tried to promote eLearning before switching to a completely online training framework. https://blog.commlabindia.com/elearning-design/elearning-classroom-shift...

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Replying to KDeepa:
Charles Jennings
By Charles Jennings
09th Jul 2020 11:23

The point I am making is not that new online training frameworks are needed, but that L&D professionals need to get out of the 'training bubble' althogether, build their capabilities so they can help solve business problems (rather than 'training problems'), stop focusing only on individual knowledge and skills, and learn to co-create solutions that add real value to their organisations. The business value of most training, whether face-to-face or online, is never measured in terms of delivering real business value and is unknown. Most training is a leap of faith. The current crisis is an opportunity for L&D leaders and profesionals to re-focus their efforts on the real work which is helping people do their jobs better and helping their organisations increase response to change, agility, innovation and other characteristics that make them successful.

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