What can L&D learn from OD?

The world of OD can sometimes seem a bit of a mystery. Is it about change management? Is it about leadership development? Is it about employee engagement? Is it about performance management? Is it about programmes of change? Is it about process improvement? Is it about facilitation?

In L&D we have questions about what we do which are no less confusing.

I guess for me, it’s less about trying to define OD by saying it is a set of things and more about the mindset and how we invite people to have dialogue with one another on all manner of topics – like the above questions and also many other organisational components too.

I see how L&D goes about its work, and at the best of what L&D can offer it approaches things with an OD approach. When programmes of learning solutions are designed really well, leaders are clearly bought into the way forward, there are clear comms helping people navigate from old world to new world, and organisations are enabled to progress.

It’s this piece I want to unpack for a moment to help fellow L&Ders broaden their thinking with regards to OD. One of the key things that helped me understand OD better is by considering an organisation as a system where each part impacts on and influences how other parts of the organisation work. Change something in one part of the organisation and there will almost certainly be an impact to other parts. Realising that this happens then means we have to consider:

  • How Team A are gearing up for the change
  • How Teams B, C and D are informed about the change and they are invited to help further think how the change will impact them and what they may need to change
  • How Team A are letting the wider organisation know what it’s planning to do
  • The potential upskilling of team members and/or potential of different leadership for the new thing
  • Clarity on how processes will need to change and be updated/improved
  • Potential of new technology and the way this changes things

Thinking of things from this approach means you cultivate collaboration across teams, have better comms processes, improve leadership, are mindful of organisational impact. This is just one example of how OD as an approach can help.

If we’re designing e-learning or buying in e-learning, it can be hard to consider the way it gets taken forward and embedded as a learning option in the context of the above. There’s often been an attitude of “if you build it they’ll come”. And to some extent people will seek out and/or complete e-learning, but mostly they only do this because it helps meet compliance training requirements. How often are questions asked around:

  • How will the e-learning enable better performance?
  • What other support mechanisms are needed for learning from e-learning to be readily practised at work?
  • How are managers equipped to facilitate learning from e-learning?
  • If compliance is the need, how else is it reinforced outside of the e-learning?
  • How are leaders reinforcing messages related to content available via e-learning?
  • Is it enough for 100% of people to complete the e-learning or are other metrics needed?

These are just some questions that can be asked and I’ve focused on e-learning as an example.

And I often see that when L&D design and deliver its learning solutions, they can be really good and really effective solutions, but may not always be well received by the organisation. Often that’s because it hasn’t taken the time to use an OD approach to communicating, including others, and making things accessible. It’s taken the approach of “if you build it they’ll come” and that is where it has stopped.

I think what I’m trying to share and provide some insight into is that often times L&D act in isolation from the business by just remaining responsible for the L&D provision. When L&D is at its best, it enables organisations to come together and be progressive organisations. For learning solutions to be effective and for them to be well received in the organisation requires broader thinking of organisational impact.

And I’m also mindful to not suggest that all L&D solutions need an OD approach. Some things we do in L&D can just carry on and will make little organisational difference to people. (Like whether or not we use evaluation sheets at the end of courses). And sometimes taking an OD approach can over-complicate the delivery of a learning solution and that’s not helpful to the organisation either.

As ever, thoughts and comments are welcome.


Back to Learning Design Essentials

What does good learning design look like?

If this were the 1990s, learning design looked like hearing someone in the business needed communication skills development and designing a course around that. It was attending an in-person classroom. It was about designing against learning styles.

In the 2000s, CBT – computer based training – was a thing, and e-learning started to become a scalable solution. It wasn’t a great solution for learning solutions, but it was an option. It was often click next approach, and quite static learning.

Somewhere around then, the LMS became a go-to tool for managing and recording learning activity.

Also somewhere along those timelines, more and more different forms of facilitation became more developed.

Over the 2010s we’ve seen digital learning, social media, enterprise communications solutions, video based learning all explode and offer multiple ways to provide content to people. Over that period, we’ve also been more aware of how to better uncover actual business needs, and possible ways learning solutions could meet those needs.

So what makes good learning design?

In a recent post, David James writes about how L&D is stuck, and it’s stuck because it’s not focused on what the business really wants, it spends a disproportionate amount of time focused on developing and delivering on ‘core’ offerings – core skills development, internal systems training, new manager training. However, if we spent more time understanding what the business needs, we open up the possibilities of how learning solutions can be provided.

By uncovering what the business really needs, we get to understand how people are likely to actually apply the learning they get from a traditional classroom, and develop aids and resources for people to use when they are in the flow of their working. The trap of things like training manuals or workbooks is that people do not refer back to them for learning resources as they don’t answer the performance question at hand. Often the workbooks or manuals provide generic content and not about the actual task at hand. E.g. if you need to know the key tips for selling a product, it’s unhelpful to have to refer to a sales model, and more helpful if you have the key tips available at hand.

You also get to explore how different learning solutions can build up to offer multiple opportunities to hear a message, practise the learnings and reflect with others. If delivering a person-led workshop is still a key need, you get to ask yourself and the business what else needs to happen before and after which allows for multiple opportunities where learning is provided and reinforced. Depending on the context of your organisation, the tech capability, managers capability, leadership involvement, resources available to you, there are myriad ways in which you can make the best use of learning options such as:

  • coaching
  • virtual classrooms
  • e-learning
  • video learning
  • reading
  • questionnaires
  • quizzes
  • facilitated learning
  • action learning sets
  • and so much more

To my mind, the above also means that you don’t have to be focused on particular models or theories. Obviously if that’s where you want to hone your craft and how you get paid, then crack on. What I think can happen, though, is that such a fixation limits your design thinking and capability because you’re more focused on fitting the problem around the solution as opposed to finding a good solution to the problem. I know many practitioners who get trained in particular views of the world and want to design all their solutions based on that view of the world, where there could be (and often are) many other ways and approaches which could offer better solutions.

What does good learning design look like? It looks like offering your audience a multitude of ways in which they engage with you, your learning offering, with different modes of access. If I hear about learning design which is focused on one method at the expense of other options or focused on one model or theory over others, I’m going to call into question the validity of the design and the credibility of the design too. It also means, quite excitingly, that there’s no right answer, and the options for learning design can be varied and diverse.

Is your opinion valid?

One of the things I’ve been struggling with in the post-truth world we now live in, is that its become legitimate to claim whatever you want, with seemingly little more than your own thinking, and an apparent lack of need for evidence your thinking stacks up to scrutiny. And if your thinking or opinion is challenged or critiqued, it’s almost frowned on, and if not frowned on, it’s almost dismissed as an annoyance.

What this presents is that spurious claims can be made, and the person presenting the thoughts and arguments doesn’t have to respond. They can simply state how wrong the alternative opinions are. And if you’re the person trying to uphold a sense of quality of thinking, you’re seen as being insensitive and judgemental.

Actually, I lie. I don’t struggle with this modern trend. I’m frustrated and annoyed by it.

On a daily basis, my timeline tells me any of the following:

  • racism doesn’t exist, it’s a social construct designed to discriminate against white people
  • sexism doesn’t exist, it’s a feminist construct designed to take power from men
  • the Earth is flat and scientific evidence is constructed to fool the masses
  • there is no such thing as climate change, it’s a political construct designed to damage the work of a certain group of scientists
  • anti-Semitism / islamophobia aren’t real societal problems, it’s the ‘left’ trying to be ‘social justice warriors’ and not facing reality of ‘the power of Jews’ or ‘the terror of Islam’
  • Brexit will be the best thing to happen to the U.K., even though there’s no evidence to suggest we will actually be better off as a nation (in fairness, we won’t know the true effect until it actually happens)
  • homelessness/poverty/ill-health is a choice, even though the evidence clearly points to poor social/health support systems by the government to provide better solutions
  • I could go on

My frustration in the above is not that people believe or claim these things to be true. They do so from a position of exclusion and protectionism and I understand how that can drive the above to be stated. My frustration and annoyance is that attempts to provide progressive views on the above, thinking and evidence that such things are reality, and that there are better ways for people to think and to live as a society, are met with intolerance and defensive positions.

My concern, is that because the above takes place, a lot of people are left feeling powerless to say anything different. They don’t want to offend or upset others, so opinions and thoughts are validated, no matter how offbeat they may be. And in the online world if you are challenged, the simple response – even in regular discourse – is to be ‘unfollowed’ or ‘blocked’ so as not to have that person in your timeline. That should worry us all. We should not be in a position where we cannot challenge poor quality thinking for fear of reprisal or for wanting to be ‘followed’.

Yes, trolling happens, and I think one of the reasons it happens is because most people using social media don’t know how to stand up against it. That lack of knowledge, I think, means people have a lack of strength to defend either their own positions, or to challenge the poor thinking they’re faced with. Instead, people swing to a position of validation of the person and their thinking, emboldening them.

I have no easy answer to the above. It’s happening in so many spheres of life, and in so many different ways, I easily feel overwhelmed by own levels of frustration. There are many good people who are challenging ill-thinking with some great quality thinking. Unfortunately, they are challenged back so often with defensive posturing and ‘whataboutery‘ that they’re then wrapped up in having to further justify their positions and get lost down rabbit holes of non-productive arguments. I watch the conversations happen online and it’s exhausting.

This isn’t a call to arms. I’m not asking anyone to do anything. I don’t even know what I want to do or can do about the above. I see it happening, and conversations move at such pace, it’s easy to forget what just happened because the next thing is already unfolding. I’m definitely not asking for people to suggest I should do things or try things, so if that’s your reaction, then please hold off on it.

Cognitive bias in L&D

One of the harder topics to address through L&D solutions is the topic of cognitive bias. It’s a hard topic to address because as more research has been done in the area, we’ve uncovered many forms that bias can be manifest, and we’re also learning that in many cases your biases will be at play without your conscious thought. When we talk about topics like coaching or delegation, we can point to models and mindsets that need to be adopted. Much like diversity and inclusion, when we talk about cognitive bias, it becomes really hard to pin down where the action needs to take place.

In this piece from John Amaechi, he argues that unconscious bias training is largely ineffectual because it’s not addressing the right things. I see his point, and what he’s arguing about is the need to address systemic problems with how bias is manifest, and that’s much harder to acknowledge and correct. It can be done. Recently, National Geographic examined their own writing and reporting and found that they were reinforcing stereotypes and they were racist (and therefore our thinking and bias about those stereotypes). That’s a powerful step to show that there are organisations willing to look at what they’re doing which may be unwittingly reinforcing the beliefs, culture and status quo which benefits the many, provides a safe buffer for them and releases them from the guilt that they are in receipt of a better set of circumstances.

Heavy stuff.

And I’m concerned that in L&D we’re only reinforcing the same. Don’t believe me? In a recent piece of research carried out by Don Taylor, he presented data that shows women are still not occupying the top strategic and senior roles in L&D. Maybe this isn’t something L&D themselves can fix due to hierarchy structures, but it does say something about how this profession is as subject to systemic inequality as any other.

Anecdotally, I’ve written for several years how it is very observable at conferences there is not enough being done to have a better diversity of speakers. And the common response is – it’s hard to find a diverse range of speakers. To which my response generally is – you’re not looking hard enough and you’re taking the easy route with known quantities.

I’m also drawn to our thinking when it comes to the design of learning solutions and how we either actively or don’t look at the data in front of us and how we act on it (or not).

  • If we’re facilitating an away day and notice the group are samey, how do we ask the question of why it’s a homogenous group?
  • If we’re leading a management training session and there’s a predominance of a group, how do we raise a concern that this may present a problem to the organisation?
  • When we’re delivering a session on delegation and coaching, how do we heighten people to the reality that they may favour better development of one group over another?
  • When we’re designing e-learning and using scenarios, what stereotypes are we reinforcing unwittingly?
  • When the LMS is the de facto place people go to access learning, is it usable by those who are sight impaired?
  • When we’re talking to stakeholders, what is the diversity make up of that group?

I could go on.

I am not saying that L&D are not addressing these things (and not limited to these things). I am not saying that we are being consciously unfair.

I am highlighting here that there is still much to be better understood and for us to be more purposeful in our design and thinking. I’m keen to hear examples from practitioners and leaders in L&D for how they not only raise awareness of cognitive bias but also how they actively work to address where it is having a negative impact on others.

Deeper, Learning

Last year I attended the facilitation shindig run by Julie Drybrough. The shindig is designed to provide a space to explore different aspects of facilitation, for facilitators to practice their craft, to learn some new things, and go deeper in thinking about how they work with groups. It was a really good learning event.

Through his Emotion At Work podcast, Phil Willcox has been exploring lots of facets of emotions, emotional intelligence, and different ways we can understand the human condition. What I really appreciate about his podcast is how he allows the conversations to go really deep and for his guests to really explore what they want to talk about. His guests are either highly qualified, highly experienced, or their research is really interesting. It’s proper good quality content.

The world of L&D isn’t getting any easier. We are required as learning professionals to do more, at pace, across a range of needs, with multiple learning tools or techniques, and in some way hope and pray some of it makes a diffefence.

What Phil and Jools provide for, is that we don’t have to make learning happen in certain set ways. They provide alternative routes to helping people learn. Jools’ approach follows a traditional in-person mode. For the purpose of the content and the depth of content she invites people to explore, she doesn’t throw content at you, teach you models galore and force you into action planning. Hers is a more deliberate approach of design where you slow down, take your time and reflect deeply. It’s also not delivered in traditional 2-4 day slots. It’s done once every two months (ish).

Phil, with his podcast, invites guests to share what they are researching, the insights they’ve realised and what they’ve read, and allows for real deep exploration. It’s not micro-learning by any stretch – typical episodes are at least an hour long. It’s proper discussion and development of thought. The digital format means I listen on my commute when I can focus on the content and take my time with it.

These two approaches are different to how we ordinarily design and think about learning. They also go against the grain of fast paced, more now, micro everything, video everything, bitesize everything, social everything. They both demonstrate that for better learning to happen, better design and better execution matter too.

Modern Learning – it’s in the design

The below is essentially the outline of what I’m going to be talking about at Learning Technologies conference on Weds 31 Jan.

I’m one of a set of L&D bloggers who try to make sense of the L&D landscape as it shifts and evolves with insights and developments into learning itself, technology and L&D practice. The modern challenge of L&D is that there is a lot to consider in terms of resources, delivery mechanisms and content when crafting a solution. Also, it’s often the case these days that an insightful model or theory can only take you so far. Most L&D needs now require us to think far more in a multi-disciplinary approach than we’ve ever needed to before.

I’m also less and less interested in the ability, capability and knowledge that one person has or owns. In the modern world, that’s just not enough. It is unrealistic and unhelpful to think that one person can answer the many questions or provide a solution to every business need I have. The modern L&D vendor has to be able to demonstrate that they have an active network through which they are able to do what is required. Not just through an associate pool or network, but through the people they know, the thinking they do and the discussions they’re involved with.

And modern times demand that we pay attention to the awareness being raised about inequality, discrimination and attacks against women, people of colour, or other nationalities and the many different ways our privilege unduly influences our behaviour against other people. If we do not think that these societal impacts do not feed through to the way people think and behave at work, and what they bring with them when they are in workshops and courses, then we are being naive. At a fundamental level, we have to ensure that our learning solutions – however they may be designed and however they may be delivered – are providing safe spaces for people to invest their time, efforts and energies into their personal and professional development.

When we think about learning solutions, and learning design, and the many different ways that L&D bloggers and speakers evangelise about what should be done, we should be driving towards a set of solutions which provide people with the right set of resources and content to enable to them to perform better. Designing a modern learning solution is about being able to provide a learning experience which smartly makes use of:

  • technology
  • digital learning
  • social networks
  • dialogue
  • workshops
  • facilitation

When I put together the Modern Learning Leader programme, it was these fundamentals that I approached the learning design with.

I knew I wanted to bring people together and have them go through a learning experience the likes of which they’ve never done before. I wanted to do this to be able to demonstrate how it can be done, do a live experiment, and learn as I went along.

I’d also decided on the main topics I thought L&D Leaders would want to be able to explore. These were:

  • The Human Condition
  • User Experience
  • Adult Learning Theories
  • Instructional Design
  • Learning Technologies

I was also aware that these topics on their own could easily fill up a traditional course, and wanted to be more purposeful about how people were able to access that content, think about it usefully, and arrive at a workshop primed and ready to have full debate and reflection on their learning.

To that end, I decided that it would be useful to have these all delivered via webinars several weeks ahead of the workshop itself. I purposefully sought out speakers who could talk well about these topics. I was glad of the diversity of the group. Of the 5 speakers:

  • 4 were white people
  • 1 was a person of colour
  • 2 were women
  • There was a mix of ages
  • There were differing levels of education, experience and knowledge across all 5

I was also mindful that I didn’t want the webinars to be one directional. So I set up a Slack channel where people who had signed up to the programme could talk directly with the presenters. This allowed the presenters to ask questions about content that would be relevant to cover, provide links to resources and content ahead of their webinars, and in one case a full video used as a primer.

The use of Slack provided that initial experience of modern learning design because I had unpacked the mystery of the speakers and created an open forum. That doesn’t normally happen in learning solution design. Normally everything is funneled through a point person. I didn’t want to be the sole voice passing messages one way – and also highly aware that I would only colour things with my own bias if that were to happen.

The webinars themselves were no different to any other webinar you may have experienced. The main difference was that the presenters had already met their audience in the main because of the Slack channel. There was an established rapport, and the content had been developed directly for the group. I mean, short of a 1:1 approach, you really can’t get more targeted than that in your design.

In the lead up to the workshop itself, I used Slack to ask a different question each week which prompted practise around reflective thinking. The questions were never about actions or plans, instead asking questions focused more on insights, reflections and learnings. That allowed for some rich discussion to take place, for others to listen well and to build on thoughts and snippets.

The workshop itself, which lasted two days, was then an open session of exploration. By the time the group had arrived to this point, they had:

  • Explored 5 broad topics about learning
  • Discussed and asked questions
  • Reflected on their learning
  • Experienced content delivered through webinars exclusively
  • Engaged with each other and cultivated relationships due to Slack

That all happened before they arrived at the workshop. Just think about that for a moment. I had designed the programme in such a way that people were absolutely primed and ready for reflection and debate before they’d even arrived to an in-person session. We don’t tend to do that in L&D. We tend to focus our entire efforts on the design and delivery of the workshop with all those points I’ve just mentioned happening through the two days we were together. Imagine if you could do that ahead of time, what does that mean the two days can be then used for?

Which is where the two days came into their own. The group spent nearly 2 hours contracting with one another about their learning experience and learning journey they wanted to continue on. I didn’t direct it. I didn’t flipchart it. I didn’t capture individual expectations. There was already a level of trust with each other that they could just delve deep into their thinking without (much) reluctance.

One person reflected and said “I was able to reflect and commit mentally and emotionally to personal change in a face to face setting”. How often does that happen in an L&D workshop? What luxury of time can we afford to people in that setting where they can articulate their experience in such a way?

The two days was self-driven completely by the group. They decided where they needed to focus their efforts and discussions. I provided some guidance and a loose structure for how those thoughts and discussions could take place. The rest was up to each individual. We even had time to go for an hour’s walk in the surrounding area and pay attention to our experience of the physical environment.

The above, as I’ve described it, is not how we normally think about or design learning solutions to happen or to take place. What I wanted to demonstrate, and I think I have, is that you can upend typical structures we’re used to, and bring them into modern practice. I think the above demonstrates what that modern practice looks like, feels like, and how it happened.

In the above, I have taken inspiration from models and theories such as:

  • Minimum viable product
  • Time To Think
  • 70:20:10
  • User Experience
  • Design Thinking
  • Social learning theory
  • Facilitation shindiggery
  • Working out loud

This is just one possibility of how we can think about modern learning. There are many, many other ways it could happen. It most definitely matters about context. No one way of thinking can accommodate each and every need that arises. Through this approach for this programme I’ve been proud to be able to prove and demonstrate how we can provide high quality learning experiences by taking a multi-disciplinary approach to learning design and delivery.

Agency in L&D

Human Agency.

Our self‐understanding as human agents includes commitment to three crucial claims about human agency: That agents must be active, that actions are part of the natural order, and that intentional actions can be explained by the agent’s reasons for acting.*

I often wonder in L&D if people are attracted to the profession (in whatever form of the profession they enter) so that they can impart their wisdom, as opposed to believing that people have agency as described above. And I wonder if there are people who want to tell people what to think, that’s not L&D at all. It’s evangelism.

Part of the world that L&D inhabits is to impart knowledge. It’s the fundamental purpose of the function / profession. My question is less that we impart knowledge, and more about how it’s done.

I observe that there are trainers / facilitators / presenters who simply want to tell people what to think. And to tell them what they must be thinking. And to prove their cleverness by inferring on someone’s behalf. I see it often. And whenever I do, I become more alert. I become more alert to the person and their lack of belief in others and their agency.

A while back, I realised that I can only share things as I know them. That I know things in a certain way means it makes sense to me in a certain way. I learned that I could be challenged on my thinking and from that challenge I am forced to address my understanding. It also meant that I could only speak on behalf of me. I realised I could not, and should not, presume to talk for anyone else.

It has become my fundamental way of being. My belief in others that they have the freedom, permission and support to explore their thinking, to arrive at their own answers, and to decide a course of action as is best seen by them.

Which sometimes works against the loved frameworks of L&D we are comfortable with. In most courses and programmes and solutions we deliver, we explicitly take away a person’s agency. We essentially design learning solutions in such a way that says “you do not know, this is how you will know, you are now better for knowing”.

When I have the platform to speak with others, be that at a conference, in a workshop, on a panel, on a webinar, or any other platform, I am very aware that I cannot prescribe thought. I can share what I know, and invite people to explore that with me. If that takes them to a place of insight, that’s good. If it doesn’t, that’s also good because they have their agency.

I am concerned that there are people who do not realise agency is fundamental to human learning. That there are many out there who are willingly and confidently and enthusiastically misunderstanding how to support learning in others. That they believe they can hear the words a person is saying and then speak for them. That they can tell a group what they must be thinking because they are so insightful. That they can tell an individual what they need to do, because they’ve been there and done it.

And I’m aware in writing this, I am suggesting agency should be a fundamental design aspect of L&D. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m wrong. It’s up for debate.

*taken from the abstract for Understanding Human Agency, Erasmus Mayr http://m.oxfordscholarship.com/mobile/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199606214.001.0001/acprof-9780199606214