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How L&D can transition from learning practitioner to ‘learning coach’


Dominic Ashley-Timms and Carol McLachlan from Notion Business Coaching reimagine the role of L&D in the post-pandemic landscape, and explain why coaching is key to this.

24th Aug 2020
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The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted how profoundly important learning cultures are in successfully navigating complex and changeable environments. In order to stay in the game and continue to contribute fully to the learning agenda, L&D must redefine its purpose – and its playbook. In the world beyond the Covid-19 pandemic, L&D can really add value by transitioning from learning practitioners to learning coaches.

The writing was already on the wall for L&D. Even before we’d ever heard of the Coronavirus, alarm bells were ringing. In 2019 the Towards Maturity report revealed a frightening skills gap in the L&D field, big enough to make us question its future survival.

As learning coaches, L&D professionals will play an absolutely vital role in underpinning a culture of continuous learning.

The question of whether the bells rang loudly enough for L&D to take notice is now redundant, because any plans made by L&D to fill the chasm will have been grossly inadequate and frankly too little too late in the face of Covid-19.

The pandemic has accelerated an already urgent threat to L&D that can no longer be ignored or pushed aside to a future date. Organisations that had failed to achieve a learning culture prior to Covid-19 (over 80% of organisations) will now be playing catch-up, and whether they do or not lies, twitching, in the hands of L&D. What L&D teams choose to do next will surely determine their rise or downfall.

Covid-19 could be the perfect storm in which L&D teams learn to broaden and deepen their spectrum of influence if they take hold of the opportunity and rise to the challenge. If they fail to quickly acquire the skills they need to help drive organisational performance, however, through the development of high performance learning cultures, the risk of extinction will continue to loom over them.

learning culture hub link

Learning coaches will be essential

In the same way that HR embraced its own existential crisis and wrestled to assert its value by integrating into their respective organisations as HRBPs, the same defining moment has arrived for L&D.  

If L&D wants to stay relevant and survive, it must choose to wean itself off the lower value ‘design and delivery’ end of the value chain, towards the immensely more valuable (and scary) ‘application and benefits capture’ end.  

Gaining the necessary Operational Coaching™ skills will be a prerequisite if L&D professionals are to transition from learning practitioners to ‘learning coaches’.

By coaching individual learners (and their line managers), learners should be held to account for following through on their learning action plans and also be coached around obstacles getting in the way of applying their learning to the benefit of the organisation.

As learning coaches, L&D professionals will play an absolutely vital role in underpinning a culture of continuous learning that includes:

  • Finding out what would have to happen to excite people about learning.
  • Making sure that people have a financial, psychological and emotional investment in learning so that they fully engage in the learning available to them.
  • Having a broader role in driving the processes that generate learning.
  • Influencing managers that might be getting in the way of people partaking in training so that they begin to contribute to a culture that values learning.

Helping individuals and organisations to respond to change in a confident and agile way by making learning generate a competitive dividend is nothing short of a change management initiative, and needs to be managed as such.

Culture Pioneers link

Learning coaches will become key voices in an ongoing and critical conversation

Critically, learning coaches must also learn how to get closer to the business and start thinking more about how to connect the dots in a way that brings about genuine and sustainable behaviour change that will support the future success of the organisation.

Rather than being the gatekeepers of learning, L&D needs to embrace more of an ‘enquiry-led approach’ itself, and in doing so, transfer ownership for learning into everyone’s hands.

There may be some fear associated with doing so (job protection may be rife in the current climate) but by letting go of control and taking on more of a coaching role, L&D can actually secure a much stronger foothold and make a far greater impact.

There are specific ways in which L&D professionals, performing as learning coaches, can engender an environment of continuous learning and, by making a significant contribution in each of the seven areas outlined below, position themselves as key voices in an ongoing and critical conversation.

Seven essential roles of the learning coach:

  1. Helping to agree and establish crystal clear policies about how and when learning is undertaken to better enable autonomous and independent learning (e.g. agreeing the appropriate balance in accountability between ‘paid’ and ‘discretionary’ time for mandatory vs. career building eLearning).
  2. Identifying and taking action to engender the cultural acceptance of prioritising learning
  3. Aligning the leadership and their vocal support about the importance of learning to the organisation.
  4. Engaging managers in supporting a culture of learning as well, holding learners to account.
  5. Engaging (and coaching) learners directly in their own development and application of what has been learned.
  6. Providing social proof of the benefits of learning through effective communication and promotion strategies (the success stories).
  7. Celebrating learning and making the gap clear between ‘those who learn’ and ‘those who don’t’.

Ultimately, it will be the L&D teams that are brave enough to put their money where their mouth is that will survive. The field is wide open for L&D teams to roll their sleeves up, to step in and make a real difference by becoming vociferous champions of learning, coaching and engaging managers to support a cultural change where learning is a priority, which co-exists and supports business priorities, no matter what.

Interested in this topic? Read Why the reinvention of L&D post Covid-19 must start with learning culture.

Replies (1)

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By [email protected]
08th Sep 2020 10:57

I really like this and some great insights into a new world. I feel thankful reading this that we have already as a team seen the benefits of this approach and changing our offering to suit this 'new normal'.

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