Business minded L&D

So you know how we hear lot’s in the profession about being more business minded to give ourselves value? Well, I’m onboard with that as a concept and as an ideal. It helps me to understand there are things I can and should be doing which will help me to be better at the job I do. If I choose to.

But what does it mean to be more business minded? How do you get more commercial acumen? How do you gain business acumen? As an L&Der, does this stuff actually make a difference to the job we do?

Well, it can make a big difference. It’s what sets ‘trainers’ apart from ‘L&D professionals’. To my mind, there’s a role for both in organisations.

We need trainers. That is people who are proficient (or even possible expert) in a particular skill set, and can help others learn that skill set. That’s all we need them for. They come in, deliver the training and leave. In terms of evaluation, they’re lucky if they get happy sheets completed, and a sign of success is if they’re brought back for more sessions in the future. They may call themselves consultants to feel better about their product, but titles don’t really matter in this regard. If someone comes in and delivers training, I expect a fairly high standard of delivery, mostly because I’ve helped to commission them, and so the return on expectation as well as return on investment needs to be quite high. In terms of tailoring their content to meet the needs of the training, I would fully expect this to happen, with a full consultation about how to make it relevant for the people involved.

L&D professionals need to be good trainers. Not effective, but good. I know, I know, how do you quantify good from effective. Let’s not go there today. Training is a core part of what L&Ders do. Then there’s the rest of what comes with the territory.

L&Ders have to be consultative about the organsiation itself. That is, they need to be going out there and finding out just what the different parts of the organisation do on a day to day basis. It’s one thing knowing that retail planning is all about floor space and how much rack space is optimum for different products, it’s another thing knowing why and how they’ve come up with those equations, and how does that affect brand success and thereby retail success. That meat on the bones, that’s the shit which makes things happen in organisations. It doesn’t matter if you’re in retail, professional services, manufacturing or healthcare. Getting to the core of each part of the organisation is one of the key ways to understand how the organisation becomes successful. This is one of the steps to business acumen.

Talking with the leaders is another key part in the mix. The people leading the organisation are the ones who have stories to share, and their stories are worth heeding well. In those stories are nuggets of information which provide context to a lot of what you see happening around you. The culture is like this because. The process is like this because. The success of the organisation is like this because. The leadership is like this because. It doesn’t matter which level of leadership you engage with, as long as you get a range of stories. That’s what helps you get under the skin of the organisation. Once you’re there, you’re part of the fabric. You’ve become part of the story, and whatever you do in your time will help to mould that story. Those leaders will help craft it continually, and they’re the ones to keep listening to. Doesn’t mean you have to act on everything you hear, just listen.

Get a sense of what the press, social networks and media are saying about the organisation. How is it doing? How is it perceived to be doing? How are people talking about the organisation? What’s the recruitment like? What’s the brand like? What’s the message people leave with when interacting with the organisation? This is all valuable information. It helps to craft more stories you can use to help you understand about the organisation.

Read business related material. Be this from the likes of Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, a business book, a blog, or listening to BBC Radio 4, you have to be in the know about current affairs. It’s what affects organisations daily. Understanding the strengths and pressures being faced in society can help to inform you of what your organisation might be facing. It’s not to be underestimated how savvy the people at the top are. They’re tapped into these conversations readily. You need to be to.

Those four things, they provide L&D with the basis of how to be business minded. The next step is probably the hardest. Aligning what you do to the organisations goals. From everything I’ve described above, you have the knowledge – the acumen – to be good at what you do. To then take the organisations goals and create meaningful aligned L&D goals is hard. You might think you want to create a course on Time Management, and it might be needed, but which organisational goal does it relate to? How about that leadership workshop? That e-learning provider? Those external trainers? The training budget spend? Which areas of the organisations goals can you draw a clear line of sight to for all of these things and more? Once you can do that, that’s when you’ve got it sussed. And if you’ve done that – can you share that success story with the rest of us? Cos that’s like the golden egg right there.

Other things like creativity, innovation, technology, social learning, informal learning, all become part of the mix, and can make for a highly effective L&Der. But those things come with the continued CPD every L&Der needs to be maintaining in their own way.


This is your life

Yesterday I spoke about the first steps in developing business acumen in the workplace. Already you can start to see that it’s wrought with an array of challenges simply in defining what does business acumen mean for the business. Simply, it is about helping people to understand the consequence of decisions on the business. From a decision to introduce a work/life balance policy, to introducing fresh fruit to the business, there is always the ripple effect, and there is always a consequence. We can’t plan for every outcome, but we sure can be mindful of making the right decision.

Those first steps were about when introducing new starters to the business. It’s then interesting to look at what’s happening with current people in the business. I’m not talking about learning and development specifically here, I’m talking about developing business acumen across the business. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.

With the prolification of technology in all we do, it’s easy to let staff share knowledge across a variety of platforms. At HRD two years back, I remember Peter Butler, former Director of Learning at BT talk about how they used Sharepoint as a platform to allow anyone to produce videos and upload them about the work they do. At the time I thought, yes that’s brilliant! I think the same now. Give people the opportunity to share knowledge, and they will make the best use of it. By and large, people are good willed, and willing to share what they know. Here within LBi, we have an internal blog which is used by many different departments to share content they find across the interwebs, and creates a good place to find good information and inspiration.

How does that link to making better business decisions? Because by sharing information on what you do, others are better able to understand how you might need to be involved in making something happen, or how you might need to be consulted for something to be effective, or why the idea might need to be refined because you hadn’t considered something. Good business sense?

Expanding on the previous, it’s quite easy these days to also create e-learning modules about different business services. This is really useful as people can go in and access these when they want. They can go quite in depth and allow for better exploration of what a team does, how they produce work, when they should be involved, and what they can do to help collaborate. Sounds quite rosy doesn’t it? Good business sense?

What about the management team, what business guidance are they being given? Let me guess. You put them through management training, and they receive a quarterly update from the Exec on business performance. That’s not developing their business acument. That’s skills training, and cascade of information. What they need is something like this. They need to go through a Finance for non-Financial Managers course. They need to go through a business simulation. I once worked with a company called Profitability, who may not be the best company to have a client relationship with, but by God did they have an awesome two day business acumen exercise to take you through. Truly cuts to the heart of what it means to make good decisions and how they impact business performance.

Do you distinguish between the management team and the leadership team? If so, then the leadership team are likely to be the Exec or the Senior Leadership Team, right? What about these guys? Aren’t they also liable to receive some sort of continuous professional development? They bloody well should, because they’re the ones who are meant to be guiding the business to absolute success. Send them on MBA courses, or get Cranfield School of Management involved to give high quality training. Invest in executive coaches who have steered businesses to success and help guide this team to identifying the right objectives to be focusing on. The value of an external facilitator at this level is quite vital. Sometimes the Exec team in particular can get so caught up in themselves, they lose sight of how to make good business decisions and get wrapped up in politics instead.

Internal knowledge sharing sessions are awesome. I don’t mean team meetings where someone is asked to present something for 20 mins. I mean regular internal business wide presentations that are an hour long, and allow the opportunity to discuss and share some fascinating insights, knowledge, and new thinking that helps to inspire the business to do and try new things. A lot of people in your workplace have their own pet projects they’re working on right now. Some would like to have a pet project. Others didn’t know they could have a pet project. Ultimately, what you’re trying to do is engage the workforce to share what they know. Where’s the business sense in doing this? You never know where a good idea might come from. Any business that has success, finds it because those ideas get surfaced in the right way.

Welcome to life!

In my role of L&D, one of the things I’m always keen to ensure we’re getting right is how we help the business understand itself. Not just itself, but also the consequence of actions taken on the business, and how we might make better business decisions.  Yes, I’m talking about business acumen. The thing is when you try and break that down, it’s a really hard thing to create L&D initiatives around.

I’m going to do a short series on how we might develop this very important skill in organisations, and what we can do to support the business enabling decision making to be better. Gosh that last sentence had a lot of horrid business speak, but sometimes needs must.

I think the first step in handling this topic is to have a well developed set of opportunities for your new starters. They are the ones who are being recruited into the business to bring about something different and or new, and is vital they receive the right kind of introduction.

The ‘hygiene’ stuff has to be in place. That is, give them a station to work from, the right tools, a line manager, probation objectives, set up on payroll, and all that kind of stuff. We’re talking onboarding, so let’s get it right.

The things that start to make the difference are what happens around all of the day to day tasks. Have you got a developed plan for them which shows them what they can expect to learn, who from, when, within their first six months? This provides security to both the new starter and the line manager in setting clear expectations for what will be achieved.

They may have a distinct role within the business, but this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be exposed to everything the business does. Get them meeting people in other departments. Shadowing for a day can be highly insightful. One to one meetings are great way to nurture relationships. Is there information they can access in their spare time on wikis or e-learning modules that have been created?

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know I’m proud of our company Induction at LBi. It’s consistently one of the best learning events we deliver to our new starters. A number of things have come together to make this happen. The Exec, Senior Leadership Team and Department Heads all see the benefit in being personally involved. The insight they bring when delivering their presentations is highly relevant and key to developing understanding of how the business operates. The day is mixed up with exercises that help the new starters think about how decisions impact the business through using case studies. We also focus a whole piece just on the culture of the company. Not a presentation, but a workshop piece which works better than selling how great we are to work for.

I facilitate the whole day. Having someone present the whole day like this is absolutely key to the success of the day. People know who they can turn to, if the agenda needs changing what to do, if exercises need to happen, what to do when the technology goes tits up. Someone needs to be there to just get things done. More though, the facilitator gets a sense of the success of the day. Are people ok? Are they grumbling? Are they being fed enough? Do they need a break? Are they engaged?

Good things should also be happening on the Induction. Host a lunch, everyone appreciates a free lunch. Get people from the HR team to be part of that too. We are a social bunch, and there’s nothing like breaking down some barriers eh. Have fresh fruit available just because it’s a good thing to do! Give people plenty of opportunity to mingle and just chat. Doing the hard work is good, relaxing the brain during the day is good too. Celebrate the end of the Induction. We’re an agency, so this naturally involves alcohol. Whatever you choose to do, it helps to give a sense of, wow that was a long day, and we did a lot, and now we can enjoy the end of the day too, as opposed to being shuffled back to their desks.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The company Induction is by far and above one of the key L&D activities, that I believe just has to take place. If there’s no other formal learning and development intervention in place, and you had to pick one to do, this is the one to pick and do. It doesn’t matter if it’s not monthly. But it has to be regular, and it has to be excellent.

Some thoughts on digital

In an interesting conversation today, I’ve been given a reassurance that recent posts concerning business acumen and the future of L&D seem to be on the mark.

L&Der at Client A came to visit to learn about digital marketing. The meeting was with me and others to help them understand what the world of digital means. Through the conversation, it arose that L&Der was blissfully ignorant of what she wanted to learn about. And what equally arose was that the digital space is a growing beast that is not understood by those not involved in various social channels.

Working at LBi for the last 2 and 1/2 years has been an interesting experience for me. Before my time here, I had a passing interest in all things internet, as do most people. And then I started to learn about what it is we actually do. And not only us, but what the millions of people who use the internet do. And I don’t mean just searching for porn.

The digital environment has created an unprecedented shift in the way we think and interact. Over the last few years we have seen online environments grow to have millions of users. Millions – not thousands. What other platform in recent history can lay claim to giving millions of people a voice they never knew they had? School systems and universities only capture the youth and those who choose to go on to higher education. Armed Forces certainly is impressive and vast but is limited and quite exclusive. Civil servants probably capture the widest berth of the population, but they tend to be roles that are not very fluid. Movements/religions such as Christianity and Islam are certainly practised by a large population of the world and give a lot of people a common voice in some respect.

But phenomena like Facebook and Twitter have completely changed the way people interact. But, more pertinently, it’s the technological advances that have enabled all this to happen. Not more than 20 years ago, the internet was an interesting thing only a few could access via dial up modems at a speed of 56kbps if you were lucky. There were interesting websites such as Yahoo and AltaVista in existence then. And then over the course of some over-inflated egos and unfounded valuations a lot of people lost a lot of money. But the internet never went away. It persisted. And we’re now at an age where smartphones can give you access to the internet on a demand basis. Want to know the weather? Check the app. What’s in the news? There’s an app for that. How much should you tip your waiter? There’s definitely an app for that.

So what does all this mean? Well, for businesses, it means their thinking on what it means to be in existence has to include a digital strategy. Not just having a website, that won’t suffice anymore. It’s all about engagement and getting your consumers to be your advocates. Huh? You what now?

Beyond this though, it means that working practices and organisational structures need to take into account the fact that the internet has gone beyond something that can be directed. It is a beast. But it can be controlled. Not through policies or through restricting access. But through education and open learning. I’ve read some articles this week about companies restricting access to social networks citing reasons such as data protection and non-productivity. Frankly, if those are issues in your workplace, they would happening irrespective of is social networks were involved or not.

For me, what it means is we are now at a point in time where digital means life has just become absolutely fascinating. I have instant access to everything at my fingertips. Importantly though, I have access to a vast network of people who I can choose to interact with, or not. Content on platforms across the interwebs is pretty much shareable and comment worthy. Facebook/Twitter have made sure that everyone has a voice. Whether people choose to engage with them is a different matter. Those that do, often have the most insightful, relevant and exciting things to say.

We’re not asking the right question

The ongoing debate about graduate quality, and education is an interesting one and for anyone who cares about the future of the economy, is quite frankly an issue that cannot be ignored. I wrote a post some time ago about the future of L&D, where the discussion was focused on how L&D needs to be involved in helping businesses develop the skills it requires for success. Mervyn Dinnen, last week wrote a post about how the skills his son is learning seem to reflect the skills required by businesses, but for some reason they’re not being recognised as such.

I think there’s a further consideration we have to have here, before solutions can be provided for our apparent broken education system. I think we’re not asking the right question. Business leaders that claim our graduates are not fit for purpose, are taking a stance based on their view of the education system and what it provides for the workforce. And that’s a valid point of view to have, although it’s a one track line of thought. This line of thought goes something like this – I have a successful business, I need an intelligent workforce to enable my business to continue to be successful. The first place I will look for this intelligent workforce is in the national education system. The second place I’ll look is the apprenticeship schemes available. The last place I’ll look is the migrant worker population.

Most medium-large size businesses have an L&D function of some sort that is tasked with continuing the learning and development of its population. They have to consider graduates, to the unskilled, to interns, to the experienced, to leadership and management development. They have to consider organisational development, cross-cultural issues, health and well-being, diversity and more.

In a post recently I wrote about how business leaders are not thinking about learning seriously enough. And this is where I think it comes to. There’s an expectation that someone else will do the development. There’s an expectation that someone else will fix the problem. There’s an expectation that it’s someone else’s responsibility, and be free from the task of actually doing anything.

The question I think that needs to be asked is – How can I develop the business acumen needed to sustain the future of my business? I think that places the onus of responsibility squarely at the feet of business leaders, and no one else. If you think the education system – which by the way is one of the most sought after education systems in the world – is broken, then what are you doing to help? Are you creating a curriculum to develop the skills you’re looking for? Are you realising that expecting your staff to be 100% utilised is not effective and does not allow for growth of the business? Are you providing a structured development plan for any new member of staff to go through that develops their business acumen to the required level? Is business acumen one of your core competencies? If it isn’t, why isn’t it?

Business acumen is a huge, vast topic. It doesn’t just sit with a leadership and senior team. It sits with everyone. If your business objective is to create renewable sources of energy, does the person in IT Support understand how their role is vital to the company achieving its objective? Does the agency worker you’ve brought in understand how their particular project is going to enable the business to achieve this aim? Does the consultant you’ve brought in to do a leadership development session understand that whatever they do, needs to help the team think about how to achieve this objective?

And, importantly, business acumen is everyone’s responsibility. Have I been reading about what’s happening in the industry? Did I know about the release of the iPad, and think about how it might impact my business? Was I allowed to present a case for doing something about it? Was there enough trust in staff to be able to deliver what they have promised? Did you attend the conference on new technologies and think about what your business is doing to do the same or different? Did you sit down, consider, and then write about something so important that it made a difference to the workforce? Did you take personal responsibility for getting a project delivered on time? Did you make sure you have regular catch up meetings with your team? Did you set clear objectives for your staff?

BUT WAIT, that’s not all. Business acumen is simply one piece of the pie. What about Creativity? What about Innovation? What about Operations? What about HR? What about IT? What about Marketing? What about Sales? What about Personal Impact? What about Product Development? What about social media? These and more are pivotal to business success. So, the issue about the education system being broken, is like I said, one view. The other view we have to consider is, what are we bloody well doing about it?

>L&D? That’s not what I do.

>A few things over the last couple of days have inspired me to re-think what I’m trying to achieve professionally. In reading the December issue of Harvard Business Review, a lot of articles in their resonated strongly with me about the need to look at the way a business functions and building the right support networks to help those needs. Be it a wellness programme, how to use social media to engage with your customers, whether or not your staff are allowed to use social media, or looking at what leadership looks like in your organisation, there’s clear discussions that need to be had about the best ways to enable any and all of those.

I shadowed an external trainer yesterday to gain an understanding of what he was helping a group to understand and achieve. The topic matter was straightforward enough and in fact we are well placed as a business to deliver this same topic ourselves internally. He used a few models and exercises to provide context and direction, but it’s nothing new or licensed to the trainer, he just saw a few good models from his career and is using them in training. Nothing wrong with that.

And I watched a video post by Nick Shackleton Jones about Affective Content and how we’re really only open to training when the right motivations are in place. This is a fascinating post about how ineffective learning is – be it traditional stock and trade, or be it e-learning. True learning for most people takes place when the emotional need is highly motivated. For example, when you start a new job, we often describe it as a steep learning curve, because we are literally engaging the brain to learn a new way of behaving. After a given amount of time though, this will plateau and any learning after this point will most likely come from on the job experience.

So what is it I need to be doing? Become a business consultant and advise how an organisation should be structured? Hunt down external trainers who charge obscene amounts of money for training that could be facilitated internally? Wait for employees to self-realise that they need to engage in some learning and then come find me?

Although facetious, those are serious and searching questions. L&D is now no longer about training, or about developing courses, or about how good a facilitator you are. It’s about sharing knowledge. Businesses are so busy in this day that a lot of departments have become siloed and worried about staying alive. Businesses have always been guilty of that in fariness, there just seems to be a greater lens on it at the moment. And that’s where L&D needs to really come into its fore. I don’t know everything, and I shouldn’t know everything, but I do know how to get the knowledge from Bob to Bert. And that’s what I do.