Founder and CEO Learning Futures Group
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Is purpose the way to save learning and development?

American capitalism says its time to stop focusing only on the bottom line, but why does it think 'purpose' is more important, and what should we in L&D make of it?

5th Nov 2020
Founder and CEO Learning Futures Group
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It’s something that 89% of leaders think drives employee satisfaction. It’s also a factor 73% of people believe will help companies increase profits and improve communities. What’s more, 84% of senior company personnel believe it impacts an organisation’s ability to transform.

What is this elusive thing? I’m sorry to say that if you were hoping it’s training or workplace education, you’re going to be disappointed.

With purpose rising on the corporate agenda, there’s an incredible opportunity to help people understand through data how they can make better decisions.

No, what I am talking about here is something that The Business Roundtable  (the US equivalent of the CBI) last year identified as ‘the point’ of American business now, and it also links organisations as diverse as not just Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, but also (perhaps surprisingly?) Bank of America, too.

“CEOs need to be thinking of offering not just value to shareholders, but for a range of stakeholders including their employees,” it said.

Enough with the mystery, after all, Halloween has been and gone. What I’m talking about here is the idea of ‘purpose’. The idea that we’re all in this company or public sector body or charity or whatever for more than the salary, and that we’re trying to accomplish something here; that what we do means something. Specifically, the leadership organisation I referred to, The Business Roundtable, has decided that a business should now be putting the interests of employees, customers, suppliers and the communities on a par, if not ahead of, that of shareholders.

What that is supposed to mean in practical terms is that CEOs need to be thinking not only about offering value to customers, but also about how they can invest in employees, deal fairly and ethically with suppliers, better support the communities in which they work and operate and, in last place, generate long-term value for shareholders.

What purpose is – and what it isn’t

I immediately need to caution you that ‘purpose’ doesn’t mean ‘good cause’. It’s fantastic that your CEO says they're behind Marcus Rashford's campaign, and even better that they support a company whip-round for school meals. Purpose, however, as it’s starting to be understood by more and more business people, is a bit deeper.

RedThread Research is a fairly new US HR advisory group you may or may not have heard of yet. Its team decided to do just that, to go deep and find out what ‘purpose’ might actually be. After all, there’s a lot going on right now (ahem) in business, what with Covid-19, widespread pivots to more digital ways of working, and in some cases massive headcount reductions. Is purpose real, or is it just PR? Do huge multinationals really care that much about what they do, as long as the bottom line is healthy? Very importantly for our community, what is the contribution (if there even is one?) of learning and development in purpose?

RedThread’s researchers have done a lot of work on 'purpose' since the start of the first lockdown. What is starting to come through, its co-founder and principal analyst Stacia Sherman Garr recently told me, is “a surge of interest in the topic of personal purpose and purpose-driven organisations” that also marks “a fundamental shift about how people perceive their relationship to work and employers”.

Is purpose just something the CSR people take care of?

There are a lot of moving parts in all this. There’s the ethical issue for sure, which could have a generational aspect. We all know about the so-called ‘Glassdoor effect’ where Gen Y employees ‘mark’ companies on metrics that can be very different to even my generation’s valuation of what a good employer is. (For us it was salary and how often we could all go out for beers and curry – don’t pretend you were different!)  

What I really agree with her about, however, is her observation that, “it's not just about a pay cheque, because you can get that in many other ways such as being a contractor. Really, work now is about individuals coming together to fulfill their purpose”.

Actually, there are all sorts of wider shifts going on here too, especially automation, which is making us look at the contributions people make that are different from the machines and thus what is it that we, as humans, are trying to do and trying to achieve in the eight hours a day we’re on company time.

Fascinatingly, Stacia’s research is also drawing on even more aspects of this, like a drop in the faith we have in things like politics and a weakening of community. Bringing it back to what we, as individuals can do, however, I asked whether purpose is just something the CSR people take care of, or a thing the CEO only really talks about? This is no longer the case, she explained. “Really, all the different areas of talent management are critical in creating a self-reinforcing system that enables people to fulfill their purpose at work”.

She and her colleagues have also found that the organisations that are doing solid work in this area are also good at helping their employees understand how that organistional purpose connects to their own individual purpose. In fact, it’s now a formal part of the syllabus. “In some of organisations they will even offer workshops or resources to help people understand their own purpose and to get a deeper understanding of what the organisation's purpose is,” she said.

Making a difference

I find that really exciting, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised because L&D was actually there in the whole purpose manifesto, it's just that we didn’t notice it (nor have we, as a community, called it out enough).

Read the original Business Roundtable’s 2019 Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation and you’ll find that a commitment to investing in employees is not just about compensating them fairly and providing important benefits, but also “includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world”.

There’s a lot more to say about purpose and L&D, and it’s definitely going to be one of my main focus areas for the next few months. For now, all I really want you to think about is how you react to one last insight from Stacia: “Our hope is to give HR leaders a way to see where they can plug in and make a difference here. There’s an incredible community of HR practitioners out there who want to use data to make their organisations and their people's lives better. We're moving in this direction of distributing authority, building respect, creating greater transparency, encouraging growth, and ultimately building cultures of trust that enable people to align and fulfill their purpose and do their best work”.

The bottom line is that with purpose rising on the corporate agenda, there’s an incredible opportunity to help people understand through data how they can make better decisions. HR is an incredible leverage point to do that, with training as the perfect tool. Is purpose the way to save L&D? You know what? Yes, I’m taking it.

Chris Pirie is leading a special dedicated set of podcast discussions with RedThread probing the issues raised in this article on his independent 'Learning Is The New Working' podcast.

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