Learning and development: report finds organisations still “playing it safe”


Learning and development (L&D) teams have, for some time, been accused of failing to adapt their practice to a more agile business environment. The latest benchmarking report from Towards Maturity suggests that there is still room for improvement. Roisin Woolnough reports. 

L&D knows it has got to change in order to keep up with the times, but it just has not managed to do it yet. This is one of the main findings of the latest Towards Maturity report, “Embracing change: improving performance of business, individuals and the L&D team”.

Learning and development budgets

For more detail on how organisations allocate learning spend, XpertHR has produced its annual learning budgets survey.

Learning budgets survey 2015

The 2015/16 Industry Benchmark Report found that despite L&D being aware for some time that it has to change, there has been little progress since the last report a year ago.

“I am disappointed that we are still talking about some of this stuff,” says Dave Buglass, head of organisational capability and development at Tesco Bank and writer of the foreword in the report. “It is disappointing to see that L&D professionals are still playing it safe, failing to fully adapt to the new world of work and learning.”

However, Laura Overton, managing director at Towards Maturity, thinks this latest report and her conversations with industry professionals about its findings show real promise that L&D is on the cusp of change. She thinks momentum is building.

“The message that L&D has to change is understood and is resonating with people around the globe now,” she says. “If people are willing to act with their hunger for change this year, then we will definitely see a major shift over the next 12 months, but they do need to act, rather than talk about it. Largely, we are still talking about business alignment rather than doing alignment.”

Buglass argues that L&D should move a step further even than aligning their strategy to the business strategy. “My strategy is the business strategy,” he says. “It’s not an L&D strategy. A lot of HR functions, including L&D, are too busy navel gazing, looking at their own strategy and their own function.”

Understanding why change is needed

According to Overton, that alignment should be easier now that L&D professionals have a much better understanding of why change is required, what change is required and how to do it. “We are being much clearer about the role of L&D in business agility,” she says. “We are clearer in our articulation about the journey of the L&D function.”

However, she does admit that there is still a long way to go. L&D purportedly has the desire to embrace new ways of working, thereby impacting positively on business productivity, efficiency and engagement.

“It is disappointing to see that L&D professionals are still playing it safe, failing to fully adapt to the new world of work and learning.” – Dave Buglass, Tesco Bank

But, 70% of L&D teams are failing to actually improve business productivity, according to the report. Three out of 10 organisations are achieving improved productivity and engagement as a result of their initiatives, four out of 10 are achieving increased efficiency, but only two out of 10 are achieving improvements in the learning culture of their organisation.

According to a section of the report’s findings, called the 5 Stages of Benefits, 21% of respondents have achieved a learning culture. That learning culture includes self-directed learning, shared good practice, learning engagement and performance management.

Achieving a learning culture was cited as the most difficult improvement to achieve, much harder than improved efficiency (achieved by 41%), improved individual processes (39%), improved productivity and engagement (29%) and improved business responsiveness (24%).

It is this improvement of a learning culture that is critical to business success and the success of L&D, Overton suggests. Today’s workplace is one where learning needs to be a continual part of the workflow, where employees are enabled to learn at the point of need and in the way that best suits their requirements.

“The Holy Grail is helping organisations learn how to learn,” says Overton. “They have to make the move from delivering programmes to overall organisational change. Almost 100% of people want to achieve a learning culture, but the extent to which they are achieving it varies.”

Out of the classroom

L&D knows it has to move away from the course mentality, but still delivers a lot of face-to-face training. “It is still designing big events and courses, such as two- or three-day classroom sessions,” says Sarah Lindsell, director of global and UK learning technology and transformation at PwC.

“But learners want learning to be faster and at the point of need. L&D has to design nuggets and have assets out there that can be quickly pulled together and go to market in real time. If it can’t figure out a way to get learning out there quicker and change the way it designs learning, we will be sidelined. People have to shift their mindset.”

The proportion of face-to-face training (55%) that is delivered has remained static the past few years, but nearly three out of four organisations featured in the report think that it will decline in the next two years. Currently, only 26% of learning is delivered as a blended programme.

The greatest increases in learning styles predicted for the next two years are

  • communities of practice 78% (28% increase from last year);
  • virtual classrooms 72% (27% increase);
  • learning communities 72% (26% increase);
  • competency management systems 60% (26% increase); and
  • online evaluation of business impact 57% (up 25%).

Yet, only 19% of L&D budget has been channeled into learning technologies, a figure that has also remained the same for the past three years.

Learners want choice. What will happen if they don’t get it when they need it? They will go elsewhere to find it. The report makes it clear that L&D needs to think of learners as consumers. “L&D has to be consumer savvy but a lot of functions are struggling to make the connection,” says Buglass.

“Business leaders still see L&D through the same lens. It has been a major obstacle to change.” – Laura Overton, Towards Maturity

“Of all the HR functions it has the biggest opportunity to make a change as it touches pretty much every individual in an organisation. It has the potential to be the most consumer centric, but when seven out of 10 do not even know how their staff learn what they need to do their jobs today, we are clearly missing an opportunity.”

The evidence is that learners are already doing a lot of self-directed learning. L&D has to engage with that by assisting and empowering learners on their journey.

Top performers

Some organisations are already doing this and are reaping the benefits. Towards Maturity, as a benchmarking body, highlights the top-performing organisations taking part in its research. That top 10%, called the top deck, show significantly better results in key areas.

According to Towards Maturity, top-deck organisations have aligned learning to need, have an active learner voice, design beyond the course and are proactive in connecting.

As a result, when compared to those in the bottom quartile of the Index, they are over eight times more likely to improve talent/performance management, increase sharing of good practice and improve the application of learning in the workplace.

Furthermore, they are more than six times more likely to report improved productivity, faster response times to changing business conditions and to be delivering greater value for money.

Overton hopes that the top-deck findings will inspire L&D functions to follow suit and up their game.

This year, for the first time in the history of the report, Towards Maturity included a call to action to business leaders. Why? Overton says it is not just L&D that needs to be thinking and acting differently, but also the business leaders that work with L&D and commission the training.

“Business leaders still see L&D through the same lens,” she explains. “It has been a major obstacle to change. If business only expects L&D to deliver the course and deliver it cheaply, it won’t get outputs. It’s a wake up call for business leaders as they need to have different expectations of the L&D function.”

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