Is the learning and development profession stagnating? Kathy Morris, head of leadership and development at Hays, believes a lack of strategic business thinking means L&D doesn't command the respect it could. Matt Henkes reports.
Every year the learning and development (L&D) profession is asked to justify its existence by defining the value it delivers to business. Why does this question resurface again and again?
Kathy Morris has recently taken up a new role as group head of leadership and development at the international recruitment giant Hays. She believes in the current climate, where skills are mooted as some of the scarcest and most important commodities in industry, the learning and development profession should occupy a loftier perch in the general business hierarchy.
Kathy Morris, head of leadership and development, Hays
The perennial question of value is countered every year with what would seem the obvious answer: L&D develops people so they can increase the value of the business. If this was truly the case then surely we would see L&D increase in standing with senior level management and gain the respect across industry which Morris claims is all too absent.
While there are undoubtedly numerous departments that are highly successful and extremely strategic, the profession in general, she argues, is not strategic enough. "The most prevalent objective on the agenda of virtually every L&D professional is to say they're going to align themselves with the business objectives," she says. "It's easy to say, but the prevalence of that objective is matched only by its fuzziness."
One of the key problems is that, on the whole, people are not valued in business. So how is a profession which specialises in dealing with people ever going to bring value and get that top level respect?
Get respect, get strategic
To be taken seriously at the highest level, where you first get your buy-in, an L&D department needs to demonstrate that its value is not just in training people and good use of technology, but also being in step with what the business requires in order to achieve the edge against its competitors. "L&D professionals need to be more conversant with client processes, with what the business problems and performance targets are," says Morris.
The best way to get visibility is to tap into what the business' strategic goals are as early as possible. It's the start of a new year, the perfect time to have a look at the programmes you're currently running and see where they can be aligned with the company values and objectives. "First off, look for quick wins," says Morris. "What programmes do we currently have running that we can immediately say are aligned with the areas of focus for the year?"
Get your measurement and benchmarking operating as quickly as possible. There are targets and KPIs in every organisation which L&D can effect. Look for ways to measure the value you're creating so you can present results to the board in numbers that will really make them pay attention.
Once you have your quick wins, take your organisation's key strategic objective for the coming year - what can you do to build or develop a very visible initiative that will match directly the key objective, preferably with as little spend as possible? "It's no longer about training or technology for its own sake," says Morris. "It's identifying what is needed against those strategic objectives and developing those specific skills in the best way possible."
All sage advice, but you would have thought that professional development teams would be doing this already. The situation is certainly improving. Last year, a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) study showed that managers in the L&D field had moved up the ranks of HR industry specialists from being among the lowest paid to the second highest, alongside recruitment specialists and employee relations. Charles Cotton, CIPD adviser on rewards, called L&D workers "the shock troops in the war for talent".
Once again, Morris accepts there are teams currently out there doing a very good job but talking to people in the industry, she feels it's still very much about off-the-shelf training. In other words, it is what people say they need rather than identifying what the business needs, and there's too little done in terms of engaging management at the higher level.
She concedes the last point may be difficult if, at that higher level, you're not taken seriously. However, the way to get that credibility is to get more strategic – talk to them in business terms, demonstrating how you will add value. "Once you get that initial buy-in support, clearly you have to be successful," she says. "But once you do that, you're made."