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using past lessons to improve future performance
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The L&D performance imperative

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Reflection on the past is often critical for mapping the future. Charles Jennings looks back at the lessons that will enhance our L&D practises in 2022.

27th Jan 2022
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A year ago, in January 2021, I wrote a TrainingZone article addressing the need for L&D to prioritise business value and bring learning and working closer together. Twelve months on these two imperatives are still at the top of many L&D leaders’ 2022 resolutions. They should be, for they highlight not only challenges but also significant opportunities to move L&D forward.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards” - Søren Kierkegaard

If we are to increase the business value L&D can create for our organisations, and bring learning and working closer together, then we must consider taking three important initial steps: changing expectations; breaking long-standing ties, and building new capabilities.

Changing expectations

Our stakeholders overwhelmingly expect L&D to deliver formal training solutions. In turn, L&D devotes most of its resources and effort to fulfil those expectations. Why wouldn’t we?

Our annual budgets are often built around a series of formal learning projects mapped out with our stakeholders in advance. Our capabilities have been developed to deliver content-rich formal learning solutions.

We’re measured on the delivery of an agreed number of courses, participation levels, course completions, or accesses to our learning platforms. Sometimes we work with our HR colleagues on initiatives to develop learning solutions to improve employee engagement or major upskilling projects and we use engagement scores and closing skills gaps as our metrics. 

Many of us find ourselves stuck on a one-lane track where it’s difficult to either turn around or speed up

However, this approach and way of working often creates a treadmill for L&D where all bandwidth is consumed with ‘taking orders’, delivering on those orders, and moving on to the next. Of course, there is innovation within L&D, but even where innovation is present it is often constrained within formal learning constructs.

Examples include many virtual reality and augmented reality implementations, scenario-based learning, the use of avatars, gamification, mobile delivery, even formal courses aimed to increase innovation. Innovation is an important element of L&D, but LD innovation needs to extend beyond the ‘training bubble’.

This is not a criticism of L&D. It is the result of our past lack of expectation management. Managing both our stakeholders’ expectations and our own. It is also part of our inability to separate learning from schooling and to utilise the various roles of formal and informal learning as well as other fundamental and systemic influences in creating cultures of continuous improvement and high performance. Many of us find ourselves stuck on a one-lane track where it’s difficult to either turn around or speed up.

Writing back in 2004 Jay Cross pointed out that “we need to cross the chasm between “schooling” and “learning in the workplace”.  Jay’s relentless focus was always on ‘working smarter’, real business metrics and business outcomes rather than learning and learning outcomes.

L&D leaders could do well to make sure they educate their stakeholders in the important difference between schooling and learning. It will help them develop a new relationship based on joint problem-solving and jointly exploiting opportunities with a full toolkit of solutions rather than an offer of training to meet every need.

A simple term which, to some extent, explains this circular ‘no win’ trap is the Conspiracy of Convenience, which I first heard used by David Wilson, CEO of Fosway Group and which resonated with me at the time as CLO.

In 2004, some 15 years ago, the Corporate Executive Board (now part of the Gartner Group) published a case study of the Accountability-Oriented L&D Framework we implemented at Reuters to address this conspiracy of convenience. Our objective was to reposition L&D for alignment and accountability for results.

HR business partners often function as messengers carrying orders from business stakeholders for new courses or updates to existing courses

At the time, I was quoted in the CEB study as saying: ‘I decided to undertake a rigorous analysis of how the learning function could be more responsive to critical business needs. We faced a “conspiracy of convenience” — it was all too clear that some senior line managers thought training was the answer to just about all their performance challenges. While training delivered specific courses and managers were happy, neither we nor they could definitely say whether value was created.’

The Conspiracy of Convenience 

  • To appease stakeholder demand for training solutions,  the L&D department produces courses, eLearning, and catalogues of programmes. 

  • This satisfies measures of input.

  • The stakeholder is happy. They asked for training and L&D delivered it.

  • The L&D department is happy. It satisfied stakeholder demands by delivering the formal learning solutions requested.

  • No-one measures business or organisational impact.

  • Everyone’s happy, despite the fact no-one has proved positive results.

In 2022, many L&D departments still overwhelmingly operate in order taking mode. Our internal clients request training as a solution to their problems or to exploit opportunities. Formal learning solutions are our main product.

HR business partners often function as messengers carrying orders from business stakeholders for new courses or updates to existing courses. These same HR business partners are also often equipped with shields to deflect questions and analysis L&D may  with demands from our business stakeholders  

We recruit our L&D expertise primarily for the design, development, and delivery of formal training and individual development. We may apply any number of labels to the solutions we develop: ‘learning pathways’, upskilling, bootcamps, eLearning modules, coaching frameworks, development programmes and so on.

We may call it ‘learning’ or leadership development or attach any number of titles but, no matter how sophisticated, all these approaches rely on the design, development, and delivery of structured training.

Apart from the need to change our stakeholders’ expectations, we need to change our own.  A simple first step in making this happen is to ensure every project L&D takes on starts with a rigorous analysis of performance needs at organisational level. Performance consulting or the ‘Performance Detective’ work as described in the 70:20:10 /Performance-Based Learning Methodology as critical if time, effort, and money is not to be wasted on developing solutions which don’t deliver tangible business value. 

Effective performance consulting achieves all the following outputs: 

  1. Determines, prioritises, and quantifies the specific need, whether it is overcoming an existing deficiency, supporting change processes, exploiting opportunities for improvement, or positioning to make best use of expected future events.

  2. Determines the existing and required performance at three levels: organisation, team, and individual performer. 

  3. Quantifies the performance gap across all levels.

  4. Determines the root causes that underlie the current performance and the factors that influence existing and future performance.

  5. Maps the stakeholders to ensure solutions are co-created and ownership of solutions and results are shared.

Breaking long-standing ties

In many organisations, most L&D resources are still devoted to supporting individual skills and career development and activities are usually prioritised to underpin competency frameworks and HR-led employee engagement and workforce retention objectives. 

Other L&D activities support onboarding and compliance requirements and, where requested, L&D leaders also respond to specific initiatives such as providing training and employee development for the rollout of new enterprise systems and software, new leadership development initiatives, and support for new products and services.

We recruit our L&D expertise primarily for the design, development, and delivery of formal training and individual development

The resulting L&D solutions are inevitably a suite of learning pathways, learning experiences and other formal learning solutions. Of course, this is the natural outcome if the focus is on individual skills and competencies and HR engagement and retention objectives, but these solutions often fail to deliver tangible business value.  

This individual and formal learning focus is illustrated by the typical key L&D trends identified for 2021 and 2022 in the following examples:

  • Upskilling and reskilling 

  • From classroom to online

  • Learning analytics

  • Personalised learning

  • Refined pathways and programmes

  • New learning experience platforms

  • Gamification

  • Microlearning

Whilst each of these may be important for L&D leaders to consider, they are virtually all bound within formal learning constructs. They reinforce the primacy of formal, and the master-servant relationship between HR and L&D where individual employees are at the centre and methods and solutions are derived to meet individual, rather  than organisational, needs.

These two long-standing ties need to be loosened or broken if L&D is to become more relevant for business leaders. There is no doubt formal learning is important in some situations, but a strategy built around formal first will inevitably be limited. Equally, basing L&D solutions around individual competencies and learning pathways is unlikely to address organisational and team needs in the most effective ways possible. 

If L&D is to increase its business impact, it needs to break the long-standing ties to both formal learning alone, and to being driven by HR-focused priorities and measures. 

To do this, L&D needs to move from the learning paradigm into the performance paradigm. This means designing solutions that address business and organisational needs instead of, or as well as, individual needs; solutions that are defined by the analysis of critical tasks rather than competencies; solutions that don’t assume the problem or opportunity to be addressed is due to lack of knowledge or skills when we know these are often not the root causes; and using business measures rather than learning measures to determine impact and value.

Building new capabilities

If L&D is to deliver on the first two steps, then it needs to build, or to engage, a whole range of new capabilities. 

To extend beyond the ‘training bubble’ and address the performance imperative, L&D needs to embrace not only solid standards-based and evidence-informed instructional design approaches, but also to build a suite of capabilities,  methodologies, and tools to analyse organisational, team, and individual performance needs, identify influencing factors, map and engage stakeholders, and describe the critical tasks for each change, improvement, or opportunity, and design. 

The L&D team also needs the capability to conduct performance solution design (designing for explicit performance improvement rather than learning design) and to deploy and embed the solutions in the organisation. Existing instructional design capabilities may help, but they are not enough for performance-based design. Nor will a focus on closing skills gaps suffice. 

None of this is a surprise to most L&D leaders. Many learning professionals have been aware of these three requirements for years

Co-creation of measurement plans with stakeholders is also a critical, but not the final, step. Most L&D teams are adept at producing learning measurement plans once they have developed learning solutions but have little experience in developing plans to explicitly measure performance improvement.

Time to take action

None of this is a surprise to most L&D leaders. Many learning professionals have been aware of these three requirements for years. 

We know we need to change expectations. We know we must break some traditional ties. We know we need to build new capabilities. However, knowing and doing are different. We need to start turning that knowledge into action. Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer expressed this challenge very well in their book The Knowing-Doing Gap. Every L&D leader should have their words pinned above our (virtual) desks: 

“One of the main barriers to turning knowledge into action is the tendency to treat talking about something as equivalent to actually doing something about it. But just talking about what to do isn’t enough. Nor is planning for the future enough to produce that future. Something has to get done, and someone has to do it.” (Pfeffer and Sutton, 1999).

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