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The future of L&D: two key drivers to propel the sector forward in 2020 and beyond


Today’s business environment is fast-paced and volatile. To keep up the pace and continue to be a useful business partner, L&D needs to radically shift its mindset. Here are two ways we can do this usefully. 

24th Feb 2020
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Learning and development as we know it today needs to change radically if its going to remain a useful business function in future. This is something I’ve been saying for a long time and, while some within the L&D function may think it’s crazy, people in other areas of the business – such as product designers, marketing and others – say it’s long overdue.

So what is this drastic idea, you might ask? To wrap it up neatly, I think L&D needs to move ‘backstage’. Rather than focusing on being seen by the rest of the business, we should concentrate on being ‘felt’.

L&D needs to learn how to ask the right questions when people come to us with a business challenge. We must lead with curiosity and a desire to understand the challenge with empathy. 

To illustrate my point, I’d like you think about the last time you went to the theatre or to a gig. If you look at any great show, they are all set up in the same way: the performers are at the front of the stage, with the audience sat in their seats watching – but the real unsung heroes are the backstage team. These invisible people are the glue holding everything together. Without them, the show wouldn’t be the same: they control the lighting, the props, the structure – pretty much everything that holds the show together.

This is what L&D should be doing. We’re not the ‘front man’, we’re the unsung heroes that help those people do their jobs and achieve their potential. If we’re not performing this function, the business will move past us – so how do we make this change happen? In this article, I’d like to discuss the two big trends that will help L&D move onwards and upwards and achieve this.  

True design mindset

A focus on design is the biggest change that could happen in the L&D sector. A true design mindset is not problem-focused, but rather a solution-based approach that involves analysis and imagination. This means L&D needs to learn how to ask the right questions when people come to us with a business challenge. We must lead with curiosity and a desire to understand the challenge with empathy.

I am sure you’ve heard the saying ‘when the only tool you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail’. Having a deep understanding of the various principles of design allows us to stop seeing everything as a nail.

L&D has some way to go if it wants to become the indispensable ‘backstage crew’ that business requires to achieve success. 

This design mindset can vary and includes (but is not limited to): human centred design, service design, experience design, occupational psychology, system thinking and so on.

My ‘design flow’ is something I’ve built from my application and understanding of human-centred design, service design and experience design etc. over the years but it’s in constant iteration as all design should be. Design mindset is organic and no one tool fixes all problems. This is how people and businesses stay relevant and ahead of the curve.

Journey towards a polymath approach

The skills we used a decade ago can and will go out of date. Previously, L&D was focused on developing ‘T shaped’ people – those with a broad understanding, but depth in one specific area of expertise. The skills landscape is evolving, however, and to keep up with today’s business challenges we now need polymath individuals.

A polymath is described as: ‘an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems’.

Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci were both deemed polymaths, and some say a modern example of a polymath is Elon Musk. This may be a gold standard and perhaps somewhat unreachable for a lot of people – and we may never get there 100% – but the journey towards achieving this is much more interesting than the end result anyway, as we remix remaster and connect dots and patterns in our understanding.

Either way, key traits we can look to develop are:

  • Curiosity in your professional and personal life.
  • Being open to failure and variety.
  • A thirst for knowledge and drive to be an expert in many different areas.

Of course, this is easier said than done (Lord knows, I’ll probably never be one!) but we can enjoy the journey all the same.

Moving forward

In summary, L&D has some way to go if it wants to become the indispensable ‘backstage crew’ that business requires to achieve success. By applying the two principles described above – true design mindset and developing polymath capabilities – we can start to achieve our full potential. Both of these things can be tricky to apply, especially if you are starting with no understanding of them. My advice, therefore, is as follows:

  • Be hungry, be curious about problem solving, let go of the term of ‘L&D’ and apply a design ‘as a way of thinking’ to big juicy problems.
  • Look at how other industries are addressing their problems and the process behind it.
  • Understand how good L&D functions can work backstage without being seen, but most definitely can be felt if we fix the right problems.

Interested in this topic? Read Behavioural change: why growth mindset is not simply a training course.

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