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.

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.