An exploration of what L&D is for

“See Sukh, I don’t think we do ourselves justice by talking about ourselves as learning professionals. I think we do more than that. That’s why I think we need to talk about being performance consultants.”

“I get you. And I’m not sure we are performance consultants – not as performance is ordinarily defined in business. I can’t advise of financial performance, operational performance, for example. That’s not where I’m at nor do I think is where L&D are at either.”

This was last night’s conversation with David James. We really got into it. A proper debate about how we describe what we do. How we describe what we do is important. It defines us.

And I think there are multiple levels we operate at in our L&D roles.

We are experts in learning design and delivery. Give us content and we’ll pull together a well designed course, deliver it quite well and get positive feedback about the learning experience. That’s what we’re meant to deliver, and in most cases we do. Having had a good learning experience does not equate job improvement or performance improvement/enhancement.

We are experts in learning design using digital technologies. We can pull together content into engaging e-learning, curate digital resources and content in accessible ways, and role model how to share knowledge and insights at the point of need. That’s what we should be doing too. Delivering digital learning can be closer to improving performance, but there are often other barriers to overcome – accessibility of the platform, usability of the platform, relevance of the content.

We are also great at understanding business needs and translating that into learning needs. We can understand the strategy of a business and provide multitude of learning options that will enable the success of that strategy.

I agree with David. We are more than learning professionals.

I’m not convinced we are performance consultants. That’s just not part of the equation we get involved in – or should be involved in.

We influence performance, for sure.

Performance is meant to be managed by the people doing the job. Our role is to help them perform better, but not by being a performance consultant. We don’t do time and motion studies (or the modern equivalents), we don’t measure outputs, we don’t document work processes and identify improvements. If we were being true to the title of performance consulting, we’d be doing those things too.

Which leaves the equation incomplete and I am currently stumped. I’m unsure how to better frame what we do. Learning, yes. Performance, I remain unconvinced. Something else is happening and at play which we enable as L&D.

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Changing the conversation

Last week, I had a musing.

This musing lead to a really good set of responses which I want to share here.

Nick Shackleton-Jones got involved and responded saying:

As you follow that thread, we had a good exploration of what we thought.

Ainsley McLeod had the following to offer:

I enjoyed Ains’ thinking and where it took him.

Mark Hendy thought about it and said:

He carried on reflecting and we had a good exploration of his thinking.

Twitter user, Inner Spiration, added these thoughts to the question:

Our conversation covered the difference between ‘younger years’ and the ‘us of today’.

Lorna Leeson got involved too and this was her initial bit of thinking:

She raised some good points that are worth thinking about.

Later, David Goddin added his thoughts, too:

Interesting about the comfort + needs + interest. Read it to see where we took that part of the conversation.

For Paul Batterham, he was pretty clear when he could change the conversation:

His further thinking was helpful, too.

After some time, Mike Shaw had some helpful thinking about seniority:

We had a good bit of shared reflection on what this meant for him.

I had a response from Leanne Griffin about the question, and this is what she had to say:

And Meg Peppin had this thought to share, too:

I enjoyed this bit of thinking from Doug Shaw:

His thoughts on just doing what needs to be done made sense to me.

And finally, Gemma Critchley shared her thoughts on getting involved when she cares about the outcome:

It was a great set of responses, and a lot there to think about further.

What does it get you thinking about?

Inclusion is the starting point

I take part in a regular Twitter chat called #LDInsight. It’s run and facilitated by a number of volunteers who help run the @LnDConnect Twitter account. The question last week was

What are you doing to address unconscious bias in your design?

It’s a great question and you should check out the hashtag for a lot of good thinking and practice happening in this space. Here’s my tuppence.

There are a number of things we have to make sure we understand about unconscious bias:

  • Self awareness doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible to unconscious bias
  • Training in unconscious bias doesn’t mean you now don’t have unconscious bias
  • Through many forms of influence (e.g. upbringing/societal/political/environmental) our biases are formed and reinforced
  • In some cases our biases help us to make good decisions
  • In other cases our biases will try to protect against perceived harm/fear/attack
  • Narratives and persistent messaging influences bias (e.g. M&S food is better quality than Aldi)

As I’ve been reading about the area of bias and how it influences human behaviour, one of the areas I see it being manifest is in decision making. We like to think, as rational, adult, educated humans that we make decisions based on sound judgement, through calculated logic and through objective criteria. That can happen, and the reality is more often than not it doesn’t happen that way. Buying a house for example is rarely a logical choice about money, it’s nearly always about how you feel about the house. Decisions in businesses are a different kind of decision making. In those instances it’s about the policies or the principles that are being upheld. That’s what drives the decision making. So if a value or principle of your organisation is to be fair, you’re likely to make decisions that are in that vain. If a driver is commercial advantage, decisions will be made against that aim.

It’s fine to make decisions against a line of thinking as long as it’s explicit that’s what drives the decision making.

We can fall down when we do not design into the decision making process factors that will mitigate against poor decision making due to influence of bias. For example being commercial is no bad aim, but if you’re doing it by discriminating against a group, then it has to be questioned where the moral and ethical lines are drawn. Often times our decision making doesn’t actively include thinking about mitigating against unconscious bias, and very rarely are we in a position where decisions have to be made immediately. I’m not referring to medical life and death decisions, I’m referring to normal regular everyday life decisions. We can nearly always take time to think a bit further to ensure we’re being inclusive.

The other place, more specifically in L&D, that I see us not paying enough attention to being inclusive is in the design of learning solutions. Inclusion tends not to be the driver in the design of learning solutions. Instead the driver tends to be about designing a good learning solution. After all that’s either what we’re hired or commissioned to do. Designing a good learning solution feels like the right thing to do and the right thing to focus on.

And it is.

Except what I often observe is that there is little thought process in the actual design to ensure bias isn’t unwittingly influencing decisions we make about the actual design itself.

For example:

  1. If you’re writing communications for the learning solution, what language are you using and how inclusive is it?
  2. If you’re writing a case study, what’s the demographic of the person you’re writing about?
  3. If the people registered for your programme are all from a certain demographic, how are you raising that with the course sponsor?
  4. If you’re using a model or a theory, what’s the evidence base for it? If it’s a model presented as being backed up by research, what groups was that research done with? If that research supports one group over another, what’s the validity of that model?
  5. If you’re holding a conference, how are you explicitly let it be known that you want a diverse and inclusive line up of speakers?
  6. If you’re holding an open session and you have registration from a certain group, how else can you market your product so it’s accessible to more groups?
  7. If you’re co-delivering, how are you making choices about who your co-facilitators are and what bias that either reinforces or provides for different thinking?
  8. If you can’t avoid making certain design decisions, how can you design into the session acknowledgement that those decisions had to be made?

The thing is about diversity and inclusion is if you think they’re important, it has to be designed into the idea as the idea is forming. Trying to design in D&I into a solution once it’s started taking shape is harder because your product is already forming in a certain direction. Once you give an idea a voice and it starts to take shape is when our bias starts to influence what the idea ends up looking like.

I think if we approach design with inclusion as a lens, it allows for a better learning solution. Of course the learning solution should meet a clear business need and it should be well designed to deliver a good learning experience. If we also are explicit that inclusion is important for the design then we can also enable that to happen.

Facilitation skills aren’t enough in L&D

It used to be the case in L&D that if you could train well, could design a good training session and had half decent facilitation skills you’d do pretty well in your role.

And as L&D started to grow in its breadth of roles and what it could deliver, that skillset became part of a host of others that needed to be developed too.

Instructional Design became an important skill as it became clear that e-learning could be more than just click next PPT screens. It became really important to understand how to design e-learning, how to create engaging digital content, and how to have a good user experience of learning.

Budget management became important too. Normally overseen by an operational manager, L&D needed to understand how to have commercial conversations about buying a range of learning provisions from outsourced training to using freelance consultants to buying e-learning to buying an LMS. It’s not a natural skill for many in the profession who just want to design and deliver training.

You had to learn how to create a strategy for L&D for the business. That was just never part of the skillset we were taught or learned about. Yet it’s vital for business operations and establishes your credibility as an L&D leader and as a business leader as someone who wants to provide L&D for the organisation. Add to that writing business cases too and again it’s a set of skills that don’t come naturally to a group who prefer to do work in workshops and design learning interventions.

We had to become proficient at using and becoming confident with systems like an LMS and what it can and can’t do. What reporting can it produce? How much can it automate for learning administration processes? How easy is it for people to find courses and book on? What other systems does it need to interact with and what security concerns does that raise? All sets of questions that you didn’t know you needed to know the answers to. And if you’re buying in a system for your organisation and never done that before how do you even know where to start?

It became important to learn how to be an internal consultant in the business and not just order takers for training courses. How are you building networks and connections with business leaders? What is their opinion about L&D and how can you influence them? When business leaders ask for training how are you helping them explore a range of options and designing the right set of solutions? What conversations are you having internally that help you identify yet to be identified as business and learning needs?

And it became even more challenging to be comfortable with the models and theories available about learning or about the human condition. Go to any learning conference and you’ll be hard pressed to make good decisions about working with particular suppliers or vendors because arguably they offer similar products just with their own angle on what works. And add to that the evidence base for many of those models and theories will either be non-existent, minimal or anecdotal at best. That’s not good enough for a profession meant to be focused on improving workplace performance.

This is only some of the expanded world of L&D that is now relevant and business as usual for many organisations. I come across many in the profession who are great at being facilitators but don’t want to know about or be involved in these other aspects of the role. I’d argue that if you want to develop a career in L&D the above are important elements to either gain better understanding of or gain actual experience in.

Smartphones and training

For a long while, when training I let people know we’ll be working with adult rules. That people do what they want, when they want, how they want. For me, it sets up how I intend for the training to be. That it’s about shared responsibility and shared power in the room. As the trainer/facilitator I have a role to play and so do the group I’m with.

One of the things I openly advocate is that people don’t have to put their phones away. It’s just not my role to mandate what people should or should not be doing with their personal property.

I see and observe many trainers making clear that this isn’t part of the bargain of training. I’m just not convinced it needs to be. The argument is normally something like “if they’re on their phones how can they be paying attention to the training?”

Which is a fair question. Except it means that we’ve forgotten some important elements of human behaviour and of learning design.

Not everyone can pay attention to everything in a training session at the pace you need or want as a trainer. I’ve had plenty of people ask me to repeat something because they weren’t paying attention or because they got lost in their own train of thought or because they were thinking of something else at the time. That happens with or without smartphones.

Some people like to doodle or fidget when they’re processing what they’re hearing. If someone is doodling we often respond with “are you bored” type comments. Who are we to know what that person is or is not learning?

Smartphones do give the opportunity for distraction, I don’t doubt that at all. But, what if their use was actively encouraged in the training? Instead of “put them away” why not “on your phone plug in and watch this TED video so we can discuss after, or “here’s a URL for a great site about coaching. Read it and it’ll provide a great way to lead to the next exercise.” Those are valid uses of smartphones and lets people know that training is actually a modern learning environment.

One of the common arguments against traditional training is that they’re removed from the work context. That’s true. Advocates against training will also say people learn everyday via their smartphones. That’s true too.

If the session is designed to actively use smartphones what we’re doing is enabling people to better learn on their own terms by using their devices as learning tools as well as the many other uses it gets used for. If that’s a good outcome I’m unsure why it’s frowned upon.

My final piece here is that if the design of the learning is good enough, people will be engaged with the learning experience and not feel the need to have to use their devices until they feel appropriate. If they are reaching for their devices it probably says more about the poor design than it does the person’s attention capacity or capability.

Related to this is also that I reckon it’s often the trainer reacting to the lack of attention on them as the trainer. They’re in a role where they expect people to pay attention to them and when that doesn’t happen it’s almost like an affront and direct challenge to their role and their credibility as a leader of that session.

I’m definitely interested to hear people’s responses to this.

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.