The future of L&D

Have you had a chance to look at the latest report from the Learning and Performance Institute about the Capability Map of L&D professionals? It makes for interesting reading. You can download a free copy of the summary report here, and if you’re a paying member you can download the full report here.

Here’s what I’ve taken away from the report. L&D will become a dead profession in the next five years unless we undergo radical change. Or thought about another way, L&D has the prime opportunity to position itself as a value adding service to the business.

Either way the future for the profession is highly volatile. I’m not even being sensational about this.

What are L&D professionals good at?
– Managing the learning function – hurrah!
– Live delivery – phew.
– Learning resources – yay!
– Performance improvement – come on!

What are we poor at?
– Business skills and intelligence – financial management, industry awareness, and procurement – oh man, that’s a hard message to hear from all of us who think we’re doing a good job.
– Analysis and strategy – assessment and evaluation, competency management, performance analysis – wait, we’re meant to be advising the business on all these things.
– Learning information and architecture – data interpretation, information architecture – this doesn’t surprise me.

This isn’t my opinion. 983 of you said this.

Learning and Development hasn’t moved on beyond identifying learning needs and developing and designing interventions that meet these needs. It’s stuck. It’s stuck its heels in, and is refusing to accept it needs to change. “We don’t need to change, it’s the culture of the organisation that needs to change,” or “I’m trying to move the organisation to become a learning organisation, and they’re just not ready for the journey”. I hear this a lot.

There are L&D professionals sitting there, right now, all worried about how they can argue the toss with HR about whether or not the Diversity programme should be an e-learning package or face to face delivery. There are L&Ders trying share their knowledge about presentation skills by videoing and giving feedback to the people attending. There are L&Ders who are trying to re-design their e-learning offering to make it more inclusive and accessible. Because that’s what we’re good at doing.

We’ve been sold to. We’ve been sold McDonald’s, when we should be seeking freshly cooked, natural goods to make our own food.

For L&D to be effective in the world of tomorrow here are the things we need to learn and need to learn fast:

User Experience

I don’t mean the UX of going through a learning intervention. I mean the UX of people experiencing your company brand. How do we improve that UX? What does that mean for the way people are working? What does that therefore mean about the skills, knowledge and behaviours they need or use? That then informs about the L&D intervention required.


L&Ders tend to be better at devising engaging, interactve learning interventions which give them high scores on their evaluation forms. What we’re bad at is taking customer data to inform if the L&D intervention made an impact. Forget big data, and ROI evaluation strategies. I’m talking about the basics. If I send someone on a time management course, can I see that the customer has an improved experience of us? That’s the direct link I need to be able to make. I should be able to collect data which either supports or refutes this.

Commercial Acumen

The world we operate in means commerciality is high on everyone’s agenda. Understand the pressures the organisation is facing. Those pressures mean they are natural barriers to people’s learning. If people aren’t learning, they’re not improving. If they’re not improving they won’t be commercially focused. Get under the skin of the organisation. Get all anthropological about the way you operate. That’s where our learning begins and therefore how we devise truly innovative learning interventions.

Collaboration with Suppliers

Gone are the days of partnering with the likes of ASK Europe, or Reed Learning, or Ashridge Business School to deliver your L&D programmes. For any of us to stay relevant, we need to come up with solutions which are exciting, innovative, and fresh. You know what stifles that thinking? Thinking you can come up with a solution by yourself. Or providing a brief and asking suppliers to tender their solution. You know what would be exciting? Sitting in a room with suppliers, and everyone is on equal footing. You jointly discuss the situation, and what is needed for the organisation to move forward. Agreements are then made about who can deliver what. Collaboration rules.

Financial Acumen

What does profit and loss mean? What is a balance sheet? What is the difference between profit and surplus? How do I write a business case? What is CAPEX? What is EBITDA? Fundamental questions about the financial running of a business. This is what gets talked about at senior levels. This is what we need to know better.

When we get reports like this from the likes of the LPI, I get all het up. I think “ah fudge it, I’m going home cos we all suck”. When I’ve had my rant I think, actually this is the time to be excited about the profession. We have such skills and knowledge available to us, and all we have to do is ask. It’s crazy thinking, and it’s so simple. I just need to get up, walk over to some different people and start to ask a different set of questions. Suddenly I’m learning about things I never knew I needed to care about, and actually I can suggest ideas to positively improve the way we do things. Suddenly I’m not the one receiving information at the pace of the organisation, but I’m being pro-active about finding out about the organisation and new opportunities become available.


An L&D Philosophy

Learning and development is one of those fields that has to justify its existence on a regular basis. It’s not that organisations don’t believe in the need for L&D, they just don’t necessarily believe in needing people who are qualified to do the job actually doing the job. That is, they’d just rather not if it’s all the same. After all, all the person does is to stand there and wang on about how all we have to do is communicate with each other, and anyone can put some e-learning together can’t they.

At the same time though, there are plenty of L&Ders who make careful and thoughtful efforts to ensure the work they do isn’t just important, but the organisation doesn’t doubt the importance of having such a function. When the learning events that take place make a real difference. When the theories and models used in the learning events are actively used by people on a day to day basis. When the learning that took place actually creates behavioural change. This is where L&D is at its best.

Our profession is in a serious state of flux at the moment. The continuum is at its most polarised. On one end you have organisations who cannot and will not invest in their people with any kind of formal training, and only do it themselves on a wing and a prayer. Because they’re that shit hot. On the other end of the scale you have organisations where L&D is creating lasting change. Because the organisation has got it right. And at different points along that scale you have varying degrees of L&D intervention, either by internal or external professionals.

L&D doesn’t happen by accident. It happens through a systematic process which helps to define a course of action. There is a methodology and a way of doing things. Solutions present themselves and need to be followed through. The L&Der is about facilitating that change and making it happen. It’s not a science, and you can’t measure the direct effect of change. Well you can, but when did you last measure how effective your driving skills were?

Yet, when you can point to a person acting in a way which helps the organisation move forward, this is what L&D is there to achieve.

When an organisation is able to produce people who are advocates of their company, this is because L&D is embedded throughout.

Where there is a culture of people wanting to learn from projects and make the right decisions for the future of the organisation, that’s L&D at work.

I’m a believer in sowing the seeds for future growth. If I can do that, if I can give someone a way of doing something in the future which makes a positive difference to their life, then I’ve succeeded. The challenge with this philosophy is it is timeless. The challenge with this philosophy is it is free of measurement. The challenge with this philosophy is that it can’t be predictive. Everything an organisation wants to know about how L&D will make a difference is a paradox.

Learning happens all the time. If we could predict the moment when someone will make a difference, then we will have cracked the very nut of freewill and found a way of creating drones.

Thank God we’re human.