Managing Director Notion Ltd.
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How ‘operational coaching’ can save L&D

The role of L&D is changing and so, as we embrace our future as learning coaches, we also must adapt our skill set to ensure we’re delivering the best value to the business, argue Dominic Ashley-Timms and Carol McLachlan from Notion Business Coaching.

15th Oct 2020
Managing Director Notion Ltd.
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Having previously discussed how L&D can transition from learning practitioner to ‘learning coach’, we will now turn our attention to the skill set they can use to put this change of role into effect.

In the face of a far reaching reassessment of all learning and budgets and a radical and rapid lurch towards digital learning, the very survival of L&D as we know it depends entirely on moving up the value chain, now. L&D practitioners need to embrace new roles as learning coaches inside their organisations. Those who are serious about surviving this torrent of change will need to acquire brand new and essential skills, and fast.

To be really effective, learning coaches must learn, adopt and use (and be the model for using) coaching related behaviours in their frontline work with all managers and learners alike. 

Let’s be clear, becoming a learning coach is not about muscling in on the executive coaching space, but it is borrowing the idea from this activity about taking personal accountability for action, and then applying it in order to capture the enormous value potential from new forms of digital training that are now being implemented everywhere. To do that, however, two major issues need to be addressed.

If you build it they won’t necessarily come

We speak to many organisations that have wrestled with various LMS platforms in order to be able to offer a suite of learning to their educationally undernourished employees, only to then bemoan the fact that they can’t get their employees to partake of the training available, or worse, that when they do, they see little or no measurable results whatsoever.

A number of factors are at work here. Either:

  1. Employees haven’t been shown the value of investing their time in learning, i.e. no direct correlation has been made explicit to them between the benefits to those who choose to learn versus those who choose not to.
  2. There is vagueness and ambiguity surrounding the offer of learning and moreover, the company’s policies that might support learners taking time out to learn when compared with the expectations of performance in their roles. Consequently, learning is often relegated in favour of work priorities.

‘Bite-sized’ video-based learning is still too didactic

So much of the revolution in ‘bite-sized’ video-based learning is still largely didactic. It sets out to instruct or inform rather than inviting learners to wrestle with new concepts and then develop the new mental models and strategies that will help them to translate their learning into practice and improved performance. Sadly, so much of what is viewed is quickly forgotten.

Indeed, research is beginning to emerge about the longevity and efficacy of video based learning when it’s left in the hands of learners without the subsequent stimulation and encouragement necessary to then apply what’s been learned into their day-to-day work. Carnegie Mellon University has shown that bite-sized or purely video based learning typically only stimulates the same brain centres as watching TV, i.e. cognitive engagement is only transitory and any learning value quickly dissipates. Encouraging people to partake fully in the learning available to them and then capturing the value from that learning by ensuring that it’s applied, are both areas that can be addressed by helping organisation’s to develop a serious ‘learning culture’ (with all that that ‘change management’ project entails); a quest designed exactly for learning coaches to support.

future L&D leaders hub link

Enter the learning coach

To capitalise on the online/eLearning revolution, learners need to develop accountability for their own learning as well as new habits to ensure that what they’re learning becomes actionable into the business. This can only happen if learners (and their managers) are able to ask themselves better questions, in fact, the questions that their training should have been asking them if it had any cognitive intention at the root of its design.

To be really effective, learning coaches must learn, adopt and use (and be the model for using) coaching related behaviours in their frontline work with all managers and learners alike. This unique approach is known as operational coaching, and it’s fast becoming an essential skill set that all learning coaches will need.

What is operational coaching?

Operational coaching utilises what we have come to call an ‘enquiry led approach’ (ELA) which enables those who use it to have highly effective conversations ‘in the moment’ and ‘on the job’ in order to help themselves and others to learn continuously, to adapt and to improve.

Unlike executive coaching, operational coaching enables practitioners to develop their personal and situational awareness and then utilise coaching related behaviours to engage in often unstructured conversations that can occur in a chance encounter and take as little as 30 seconds. In fact, operational coaching conversations can sometimes be exactly one question long but the change that occurs over time, with regular and consistent application, can be transformational.

How will learning coaches benefit from operational coaching skills?

A key part of incorporating operational coaching skills into the learning coaches’ role is developing their ability to ask powerful questions that elicit a much deeper reflection from learners about how they might translate their learning from specific programmes into their work in order to improve performance.

By aligning themselves with particular managers and by ensuring that no training programme proceeds without the appointment of an internal learning coach, learners can be held to account after the completion of their programme for parlaying the actions they’ve determined into accomplishments.

This ‘close quarter marking’ of learners will also signal a radical shift in the seriousness with which organisations take their investment in training and development, and more importantly (and possibly for the first time), the evidence that’s being generated that it is having any effect at all on performance improvement.

Engagement in the learning process is at the heart of the value that learning coaches have to offer their organisations. By stepping into the breach to help managers hold their team members to account and by working with learners directly to apply what has been learned, greater value can be extracted from all learning activities leading to a measurable ROI.

If learning coaches can adopt operational coaching skills as an integral part of their new role, they’ll become change agents and powerful influencers in advancing the learning agenda and ensuring that value is derived from the investment being made in learning. With operational coaching skills, they’ll have the ability to reach beyond the 1-2% enjoying executive coaching, to the 98% of the organisation where the bulk of the productive effort lies and where learning and the changes in culture really happen.

How will organisations benefit from operational coaching skills?

With higher levels of enquiry, an L&D function that resolves to re-dedicate and train its practitioners as learning coaches, will be able to move closer to the business and have more influence with leaders and managers. They’ll be able to ask the questions that aren’t being asked about what the business needs and also challenge entrenched thinking about the role and impact of learning in the workplace, influencing the gradual shift towards developing more of a learning culture and thereby moving learning higher up the value chain.

Learning coaches will also have the opportunity to support and hold to account those managers (and leaders) that choose to undertake training in operational coaching. In this way, they too can begin to adapt their management styles to better support the continuous performance improvement and shared accountability of team members.

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

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