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How to bridge the disconnect between L&D and other business functions

L&D doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to providing solutions that meet business objectives. We are often seen as ‘out of touch’ or existing in a separate silo from other departments. But why is this, and how can we rebuild our reputation to become the valuable partner that leadership teams need?

13th Mar 2020
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In corporate learning and development, we exist to build the competence of individuals and teams and – with the support of other parts of the organisation – thereby increase capability, performance and productivity. In a nutshell, if you work in L&D that’s your purpose.

So why is it that repeated reports say that those working in business think that L&D teams are not as relevant as they might be? Where is this disconnect coming from?

The disconnect between what we do and what the business wants is that the business can’t tell us what they want and are reluctant to engage in any serious analysis about how they could improve capability.

First, we have to admit our own shortcomings.  As a result of tradition or custom and practice, we have fallen into bad habits. For example, leadership programmes that are all about theory and learning models and not about solving the day-to-day problems leaders and managers face; compliance programmes that have become – thanks to learning management systems and a culture of back covering – annual tick box exercises; onboarding programmes that talk about the history of the business but don’t explore the reality of life in a department and the real challenges staff face every single day.

There’s a reason we fall into those practices, however. Often, when we talk to the different functions about what they need, they can’t tell us – or at least they can’t explain the issues in a way that helps us solve the problem. Anything that is not going quite as it should be is because ‘training’ is required. Most of the time it isn’t but, anxious to prove our worth, we try to shoehorn a square course into the round capability hole that has been revealed.

Identifying the problem

When we talk about how people should do their jobs, the best we get is homilies from leaders and those who will be the target of our learning. We are told people need to ‘focus on results’; ‘listen to our customers’; ‘improve team work’; ‘break down silos’. These are all fine ambitions but lack any specifics about how this should happen and how we will know if it has. They become meaningless entreaties to the staff to ‘do better’. Most people already know that was what was expected.

So, the second disconnect between what we do and what the business wants is that the business can’t tell us what they want and are reluctant to engage in any serious analysis about how they could improve capability. The reasons they don’t want to engage are: a) leaders might need to change their own behaviour and approach and b) they don’t trust L&D because it is fashionable to think that we are ‘out of touch’ and not focused on ‘measurably improved business performance.’ It is a vicious circle.

Finding practical solutions

There is a third reason for the disconnect. As L&D teams we seek the advice of external partners who can help – but how in touch are they?

One of the reasons L&D teams do not always have a good reputation is because we rarely work alongside our colleagues and help them when the most assistance is required. 

I wasn’t able to attend the Learning and Technologies Conference and Exhibition this year, but I did check out the 200 plus exhibitors to see if there was anything new and interesting. Each exhibitor writes a few paragraphs describing what they do and why visitors should check them out. I read them all. Only four or five talked about how they improve the performance of their clients. As value propositions go, these statements were valueless. Sometimes they told me where they were based, their turnover or that they supported modern learning cultures (whatever the heck that means). I’ve worked with learning technologies for more than 30 years, and if I don’t understand what these businesses actually do for their clients and how they help improve performance, I’m not sure how others would.

I hear the same jargon being repeated by L&D people in internal meetings. People are not quite so rude as to visibly roll their eyes, but the sense that L&D is not occupying the real world is reinforced again and again.

So what do we do about it?

It will take time to rebuild our reputation but we can start by defining and describing the skills and behaviours people need to perform in their role or achieve the changes the business thinks are required. We will need to gain buy-in for these skills with leaders, and those who should be demonstrating these competences. Once defined, we need to go back and explain the difference between skills and behaviours and outcomes.

Improved team working, for example, is an outcome. The behaviours we expect individuals to have to work more effectively with their colleagues may be process behaviours (regular meetings, sharing information and documents) and interpersonal communication skills (active listening, summarising, proposing, etc). Improved team working is an aspiration not a skill, and therefore cannot be ‘trained’.

We should follow up this process of educating our colleagues about how individuals can be assisted to change their behaviours by analysing what is stopping people performing as they should.  In some cases – and only in some – this will require training. Once we are all agreed that’s the right solution and not the knee jerk response to any performance issue, then we should design interventions that enable people to develop and use those skills. Most importantly, we should define how the planned intervention can impact day-to-day activity on the job, how it will be supported, how it will be monitored and measured.

Some of that support will be provided by managers, and one would hope that senior leaders would also add their support by monitoring application and implementation and recognising efforts made. This is our chance to be visible at the point of work. One of the reasons L&D teams do not always have a good reputation is because we rarely work alongside our colleagues and help them when the most assistance is required. If we expect people to try something new, the least we can do is to be alongside them offering encouragement, feedback and support when our initiatives are tested most.

This visibility throughout the behaviour change process is important if we are to show our colleagues how we can positively impact individual and team capability and performance.

Interested in this topic? Read The role of L&D: aligning business objectives with learner needs.

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