People Development Specialist Education & Skills Funding Agency
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Viva la revolution! Why L&D must fight for its future in this time of change and uncertainty

For too long L&D have been the order takers for training courses rather than the valued business partners that enable learning to happen in the flow of work. To realise L&D’s true potential, a radical change in mindset and reframed approach is essential. Make no mistake, my friends, disruption is here and it’s called Covid-19. 

1st May 2020
People Development Specialist Education & Skills Funding Agency
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Cropped studio shot of a group of women raising their fists in solidarity against a gray background
iStock/LaylaBird

I’ll start this article with a challenge. How many people in the L&D profession believe that we are teachers, educators and/or purveyors of learning? That ‘learners’ learn better through face-to-face ‘training’ in the classroom?

Ok, now comes the controversy. If you believe the above to be true, you are probably in the wrong profession. You are teachers but we are not here to teach, you are educators, but this is not education – I could go on, but I think you get the point (and I work for the Department for Education).

Learning is a natural organic process that occurs with or without L&D. We cannot presume to lay claim to owning or controlling such a force of nature and learning happens all the time, all around us, everywhere.

What worked 50 years ago probably isn’t really that relevant anymore – things have moved on (a lot). We need to move beyond pedagogy and just let go of learning...we just need to facilitate, curate, enable and get out of the way. 

Who do I believe we are as a profession?

We are a bunch of super talented, multi-skilled, multi-disciplined and passionate people, who fundamentally want to make work, workers and the workforce better by improving performance and business outcomes, and by helping improve our people and organisations’ skills and capabilities.

That should be our mission statement, our modus operandi – yet it’s not. Here’s the rub. We’re largely still ineffective and that’s why we are at a tipping point my learned friends, where we either disrupt or be disrupted.

What is L&D’s role?

We are enablers and facilitators. We are business partners and curators. We are architects who scaffold the eco-systems in our organisations to enable learning and knowledge to flow freely across teams and silos and to support learning in the flow of work.

We support solutions at the point of need – whatever that solution might be. Our people tell us repeatedly that they don’t have time to learn, but I challenge this. I say that learning is not in time. That’s on us.

We have pushed learning out of the flow of work – where it belongs – and boxed it in to training, content and classrooms (read the ‘the great training robbery’). We got away with this for years, it felt good, we got lovely feedback and we made lots of suppliers very rich and very happy.

I’m not convinced, however, that we provided a rich experience for our people or generated any return on investment for our organisations.

Let’s build better workplaces

The broad sweeping revolution I am calling for pays no credence to what’s gone down previously. We need to let this go, along with many outdated L&D models, research and philosophies.

What worked 50 years ago probably isn’t really that relevant anymore – things have moved on (a lot). We need to move beyond pedagogy and just let go of learning. We need to trust our people to take control of their own destiny – with expert support and guidance from us where needed. Largely we just need to facilitate, curate, enable and get out of the way. Our greatest accomplishments as learning professionals in the post Covid-19 world will be building learning cultures that are underpinned by collaboration, sharing, purpose and autonomy.  If you’ve not read either Nigel Paine’s seminal book Workplace Learning or the recent Back to the Future – Why Tomorrows Workforce Needs a Learning Culture report by Emerald Works – I suggest you do. Both are essential reads for any seriously credible professional wanting to impact their organisations through a culture of continuous employee development.

I’m not advocating for having no responsibility – quite the contrary. I’m saying that we need to re-focus our energies where it matters. In his book Driving Performance Through Learning, Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD, wrote a manifesto for the modern L&D professional, which I would say is mandatory reading for all L&D professionals and those with any interest in improving organisational performance and outcomes.

coronavirus hub

I spoke about the revolution in detail when I was a guest on David James’ L&D podcast last year and I’m speaking on the subject again at the Symposium HR conference in London in September. It is a passion of mine and I am committed to changing our profession for the better.

My position is clear, and I am steadfast. We must move beyond being order takers and repeating the same failing cycle of training order > produce content > deliver workshops. It is a recipe for failure.

We have a responsibility to our profession, to ourselves and our stakeholders to challenge and stop reinforcing the stereotype that training away from the workflow is the answer. This is fundamentally wrong. We must focus on supporting learning at the point of need, not sending our people away from the very challenges they are trying to solve.

We’ve essentially radicalised ourselves and our stakeholders to think and act in a certain way when it comes to L&D – we need to reframe our position.

Business partners don’t take orders, they work in partnership with the business collaboratively to find solutions. They/we are a key part of the business, not a bolt on of HR, of the business. We are a highly skilled professional discipline that is best served in the heart of the business, be that as a paid employee or consultant.

What is our value?

To be clear, L&D’s value cannot ever be measured through slideshows, happy sheets (L&D vanity metrics) or completion rates (bums on seats). True value is measured by how we move the needle in terms of business performance outcomes and to achieve this we need to understand a) the business challenges and b) the problem we are trying to solve and why.

Having sat both in and out of HR I can honestly say our place is in the business – this is where we can have maximum impact and where we can influence and drive operational excellence from the front line. Some might see this as superficial navel gazing, but I disagree, as it’s an important point about our ability to remain relevant, agile and effectively support our organisations.

Make no mistake, we're at a tipping point right now. I don't think any of us expected Covid-19 would be the great disruptor of our times, but it is and we have to take the opportunity that the crisis presents.

We have two choices as far as I see it. We either emerge from this with a newfound sense of purpose and direction, or we do what we’ve always done and in doing so miss the opportunity and exist on the periphery of the business until they realise they no longer need us – which shouldn’t take long.

Friends, we need to rise to this once in a lifetime challenge with responsibility and purpose. We must support our organisations to plan ahead to the post-pandemic world, in which we have a key role rebuilding the economy and being resilient to any such future external challenges – this is where a learning culture comes into its own.

The revolution is here – do not waiver, stand tall, stand firm!

Interested in this topic? Read Business-aligned learning: the role of L&D.

Replies (2)

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Nigel Paine
By Nigel Paine
30th Apr 2020 19:21

This is an excellent article that expresses a passionately held view by Mike. He is right to point out that these are times like no other and therefore opportunities like no other. We can come out of this with refreshed and vibrant learning organizations ready to face a different future or hunker down to the same old same old and fail to learn and fail to move on. Unprecedented times require a different approach: not tinkering with the learning environment, but building a strong learning culture. It is a shame that some organizations do not the difference between the two.

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By KDeepa
12th May 2020 11:17

Great article Mike. The importance of a learning culture can't be stressed enough. Sharing a blog that has ideas to reconfigure corporate training during COVID-19.
https://blog.commlabindia.com/elearning-design/covid-19-impact-virtual-t...

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