L&D’s biggest failing

Next week I’m going to be at the CIPD’s L&D Show. Taking a quick look down the seminar programme and aside from a lot of great content to learn from, there’s a glaring omission. But it’s not just from the CIPD. It’s also true of other L&D based conferences. Learning Technologies and Skills Conference and Learning Live are also guilty of it, as are conferences organised by Strategic HR Network. I’m selecting these organisations as I’m aware of them – this is not a slight against any of them.

What’s the one topic no-one is talking about?

How to make a career for yourself in L&D.

And here’s what L&D lays claim to.

Investing in people is the single best activity a business can perform for its people.

Through L&D activities, organisations can improve performance, improve employee engagement and improve retention.

L&D is at the core of all business activity. If a business isn’t learning, it will die.

Hmm. Big claims.

So let’s say I believe those claims.

Let’s say I believe in L&D.

Let’s say I’m a school leaver and I want to break into L&D as a profession.

Who do I sign up with to do that? Because there sure as hell isn’t a vocational qualification for it.

If I’m at university, and decide I want to specialise in learning and development, I have to do a HR degree before I can focus on L&D. Ergo L&D isn’t strong enough on its own to merit its own degree.

I’m an experienced business person, and decide I’d like to pursue a career in L&D. What conversion course can I do to help me do that?

Oh, there’s none of that available?

And instead I have to fumble my way through a maze of learning theories, enter into a trial and error contract with myself about how I might make this happen, and at some stage on this path I may strike lucky.

Generally speaking, people do not seek out being in L&D. I did, but I’m an anomaly. Truly I am. For the majority of people in this profession, they fell into it because:
– they became an expert or specialist in something which was a sought after skill
– a role needed filling and they realised they could do it because you know, they like people
– it was part of their HR qualification and decided this was the nice part of HR
– something else

Let’s put on hold for a moment that there’s no entry point to the profession.

Let’s pretend for a moment there is an entry point to the profession, how do you progress once there?

See in most other professions, once you start in a junior role, there is often a clear path that leads you to becoming more professional, more expert, more experienced and more senior.

Not in L&D though. When I look back over my L&D career, every time I’ve wanted to progress to the next level, there hasn’t been through a natural progression path within the organisation. Every progression has been because I’ve moved organisation to a more senior role.

Cripes. And I know that my story may not be true of everyone, but I would bet it follows most.

And I haven’t even talked about learning the whole gamut of learning theories that help learning take place either via learning sessions, through digital environments or through online collaboration tools.

So there you have it. A rant about the state of L&D as a profession which essentially says, there is no career path, and once you’re in it, everybody’s advice about progression is right, and everybody’s advice is wrong because there’s no agreed standards.


Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

16 thoughts on “L&D’s biggest failing”

    1. I guess that’s going to be a perennially difficult thing to do because the entry points for anyone are what they define themselves. I don’t know if I’m actually looking for a set of standards. I’m just concerned that anyone seeking this out as a career option has little guidance to help them get there.

  1. So much to respond to here Sukh, I need to think about it. I agree with most of it, and it matches my experience and the majority of L&D people I know, however I also worry about constraining the organic nature of it …

    I will be back with more and like Meg, wonder if we are the group of people to investigate it?

    1. Yes I agree, the organic nature of it is pretty special, and I’m not about that. I’m focused on ensuring we can help people know how to make a good difference when they decide to be part of the profession.

  2. Hi Sukh
    Thanks for this post, As ever, your writing made me think hard, which is always good exercise for my tiny brain.
    For what it’s worth here’s what I think:
    Right now L&D looks like where all the fun is happening. It’s fluid and, whilst there aren’t necessarily always clearly signposted entry points the “profession” is attracting agile, thoughtful, clever people who don’t necessarily “fit” elsewhere. Good. Elsewhere is grey monotony in suits. At least some great people escaped the flood of mediocrity.
    Momentum is building. Clients are better educated and smart buyers are key to continuing growth and maturity in the market. There are enough models going round to keep some semblance of differentiation between practitioners and there is good qualitative data with which to promote excellent outcomes for learners. That’s the best kind of marketing.
    What happens next in the cycle? Commercialisation, commoditisation, structure, qualifications and so on. It’s a bit like the early days of computing. Cool people finding their way and having fun doing it morphs into corporate monoliths like Microsoft. The wallpaper still looks fun but scratch the surface and it’s highly polished corporate beige.
    The fun gets sucked out of it for the original players so they go find another game. Some will end up building Apple. Some will cycle back to the beginning and become pioneers in a new field. I know which path I’d rather follow.



    1. You raise some good points here, Simon, about the consequence of what happens when something becomes formalised. And in truth part of me wonders that might look like, and part of me wonders what might be in the absence of it.

  3. Nice analogy, Simon. What I love about the looseness of the L&D “profession” is that the emphasis is on results. Don’t show me your L&D diploma, show me the results you’ve gained through your practice.

    I don’t find this a “failing” at all. In fact, it keeps the emphasis on where it should be: on the output created by our activities, not on the input necessary to gain a piece of paper. Imagine that all HR activities were so oriented, rather than on certification and degrees. HR would then get the respect from line managers and other “hard” business people that they so desperately yearn for.


  4. Sukh, I’ve already tweeted some thoughts on this to you but I don’t think it’s a failing to have multiple entry points or career routes. I think the main problem is lack of marketing of L&D as a viable career to early career people/school leaves. We have an L&D apprentice so that route is very possible thou probably not well enough known. I also think there are a plethora of qualifications and professional standards out there, CIPD has them, LPI offers them (what’s their Capability Map if not a blueprint for development?) so does BILD not to mention the many and varied vocational qualifications for adult training offered in the tertiary, FE and He’d sectors. I’d agree none of these are perfect and many focus too heavily on formal training but they do exist. rather than creating another set of professional standards I’d rather the community spent time engaging and mentoring those new to or considering the profession both young people and those considering a career shift into it, more guidance on what a career in L&D looks like. I also don’t think it’s true that you can’t progress in one organisation, I’ve been in my organisation in 17 years and in that time I’ve moved into L&D, got qualified and moved through professional accreditation. Obviously we all have our own specific contexts and histories which shapes our perception and his is just mine. maybe we should consider developing a pamphlet which shows the range of careers you can have in L&D with case studies info on qualifications etc. We’ve done this really successfully for social science in the UK by getting the key professional bodies on board to fund and develop shared resources like this: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/_images/Stand%20Out%20and%20Be%20Counted%20-%20web%20version%202_tcm8-25019.pdf

    Just a thought. thanks for starting such an interesting discussion.

  5. Agreeing with the comments here. I think a qualification could present a narrow view of L&D. I think the fluidity of L&D comes from a combination of experiences and need. The need to innovate not something you can get from a course.

    CIPD, LPI etc could produce some resources, as Kandy talks about, outlining routes into L&D.

    There is a point about recruiting though. Try searching for an L&D job in any job search tool; what phrases, keywords do you use? It seems OK if you search using HR-related keywords but what if you don’t naturally sit with HR? (try training manager for example and you get a load of management jobs you don’t want; and the ‘&’ in L&D doesn’t help!).

    Here’s a challenge: as an experiment try searching for jobs – report back the keywords they could be useful to those looking.

  6. A definition of profession:
    “the development of formal qualifications based upon education, apprenticeship, and examinations, the emergence of regulatory bodies with powers to admit and discipline members, and some degree of monopoly rights”
    Bullock and Trombley, 1999

    Formal? To keep it monetised.
    Examinations? To keep it standardised.
    Regulation? To create a hierarchy.
    Admitting members? To create a club.
    Discipline? To manage the hierarchy.
    Monopoly? To take ownership of it.

    I don’t want L&D to be a profession if those are the ‘rules’.

    1. BAM!!! High five, Andrew! You hit the nail on the head.

      @Julian: in response to your challenge, I’ve always used “learning director” as a search term.

  7. Hi.

    At first glance I might agree that this article hits the nail on the head, so as to speak.

    Has L&D not yet gained traction as a ‘profession’ and appears, at least in the UK, to be HR’s poor relation?

    The CIPD has focused heavily on HR and a pure L&D specialist cannot gain recognition at Membership or Fellowship level without the need to undertake irrelevant (at least from an L&D professional’s perspective) HR topics.

    If you were to Google ‘Train the trainer’ you’ll receive a plethora of providers, none of which seem to offer an accredited, skills-based assessable standard, except arguably one, which hasn’t been mentioned in this thread.

    Moreover, no ‘one’ provider appears to offer a development framework for L&D professionals moving from straight training skills, through facilitation skills, blended and elearning, design, L&D consultancy and management skills, plus an L&D Quality Assurance programme. Such a programme is available and offers L&D specialists a defined career progression, with skills-based, assessable, modular short courses, leading to Diplomas awarded by the British Institute for Learning & Development.

    At second glance, I half agree with the sentiment. There is clearly work to do, but The Training Foundation’s mission statement ‘Professionalising Learning & Development’, with its TAP methodology and Qualifications Framework is already available and addressing these issues.

  8. Hi Sukh,

    Just saw your post and thought you might like to know that we are going to be holding a fringe seminar at this autumn’s World of Learning conference (30 Sept – 1 Oct) on getting in to the L&D profession and we’re looking at other ways we can connect L&D job seekers with careers advisors and relevant employers.

    If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how you would like to see these topics presented at the event then please contact me direct on sophie.barnes@vmgl.com

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