Banish courses and rethink L&D – World of Learning 2019

World of Learning conference chair Robin Hoyle.

It’s time to rethink learning and development, to wean professionals off their addiction to courses and to start aligning learning with business outcomes. Martin Couzins returns from World of Learning 2019 with some challenging messages for L&D.

When the head of learning for the UK’s largest professional institute for L&D professionals, the CIPD, says that it is time to rethink L&D, then it might be worth hearing why.

Andy Lancaster told delegates to the World of Learning conference 2019, held at Birmigham’s NEC this week, that some of the fundamentals of L&D that many learning professionals have grown up with are no longer valid if learning is to positively impact business performance.

Soft skills are the really, really hard skills. But these are the skills that make the difference” – Helen Greening, Willmott Dixon

Lancaster said that approaches such as the learning needs analysis mean the profession creates learning interventions, even when the problem in hand could be better fixed by other means.

Reporting how many people attend training sessions is equally problematic as the data only tells you the volume of training delivered rather than the value it creates for the organisation.

Learning design approaches such as ADDIE – analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation – are top-down, meaning they inhibit learning teams from being more agile and responsive to business needs.

So what should the new direction for L&D look like? Robert Ashcroft, head of learning strategy and development at Santander UK, suggested looking outside the L&D sector for inspiration.

“I changed my way of thinking when I spent time with writers and TV producers. They helped me understand the psychology of stories and storytelling and how to produce quality content.”

Lancaster advised L&D professionals to create a personal learning network (PLN) of people who are within and outside of learning.

Ashcroft attributed his PLN to winning an award at the 2017 Cannes film festival with Santander’s short film Beyond Money. “We won a grand prix at Cannes all because my PLN of writers showed me that my e-learning was boring,” he says.

“Never ask about the impact of training, rather focus on whether the training had the desired impact” – Paul Matthews, People Alchemy

Ashcroft recommended understanding how marketing works in order to engage employees with learning. Focus on campaigns to get your message across and understand how influencers in the organisation can help amplify the work of the L&D team.

Asked what one thing he would do to help start doing things differently, Lancaster said be brave. “Bravery is so important because we have to break the cycle. It is time to break the mould.”

Helen Greening, L&D manager at Willmott Dixon Construction, echoed that sentiment. She shared the story of a construction project that started to go wrong because employees lacked the soft skills needed to manage difficult conversations with the client. “Soft skills are the really, really hard skills. But these are the skills that make the difference,” she said.

Greening relayed how her team had to “face up to their demons” and empower colleagues to have the right conversations with customers. She did this by developing a leadership programme that focused on accountability, courage, authenticity, trust, honesty and humility.

L&D also has a role in helping create what futurist Tom Cheesewright called “athletic organisations”. These are businesses that are able to adapt to change and are defined by three characteristics.

The first is to enhance the senses of the organisation by looking outside the sector to see how change is impacting other industries and to learn from that.

The second is to accelerate decisions by pushing power to the edge of the organisation. Cheesewright shared the example of the quick decision making of a social media manager and merchandiser at supermarket Lidl.

The retailer launched a batch of One Direction Easter eggs featuring a picture of all five band members on the wrapping at the same time as one of the band members, Zane, announced their departure.

The employee decided to drop the price of the egg by a fifth to mark Zane’s departure. They then promoted the offer and saw the eggs snapped up. The decision took 20 minutes. “People were given the trust and authority to make this quick merchandising decision,” Cheesewright says.

The third characteristic is get in shape for change. Cheesewright says organisations such as Amazon have been built to be adaptable. Amazon builds blocks of technology, that it uses for its different businesses. It cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services, is an example of a business that was created out of these blocks.

As well as being adaptable to change, Lancaster reminded delegates that they have expertise that is valuable for the business and that they need to ensure that that expertise is heard.

“We are learning experts but we let leaders tell us what they want. We have to be braver at standing our ground with middle and senior managers,” he explained.

Measuring training’s impact

Measuring the impact of training has always been a thorny issue for L&D and it continues to be so. Is L&D right in thinking evaluation is the holy grail? A panel of learning experts provided some answers… 

“Never ask about the impact of training,” says Paul Matthews, CEO at People Alchemy, “rather focus on whether the training had the desired impact.” The key is to understand what impact training is having on the business.

This sentiment was echoed by Andy Lancaster, head of learning at the CIPD. He says that L&D’s focus on courses and measuring how many people did the training makes it difficult to understand how training is impacting business goals. “We need to stop measuring volume and start measuring impact. That means using business metrics and aligning learning metrics to business outcomes.”

But learning teams still need to understand why learning interventions work, says Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel, head of the Institute for Transfer Effectiveness. “We need to understand why we have impact and who contributed to it.”

One reason to evaluate learning is to prove its impact to the wider business, says Anne-Marie Hearne, senior talent and learning consultant at Sprint Learning. “Because to be a vital function to the business we need to prove the impact of learning. We ask for a lot of investment and we must be able to justify that investment.”

So how can L&D teams ensure training has a greater impact? For Hearne, the answer is to ensure plenty of time for learning transfer as a part of any training programme. Matthews and Lancaster urged delegates to focus on qualitative data to help tell the story of the impact training has had on employees. Mathews suggested using Robert Brinkerhoff’s Success case method to do this.

Weinbauer-Heidel says it is important to establish who in the organisation is interested in evaluation and why. Find out what data they need and ask employees about the impact of the programme and any barriers to it being a success.

And start to develop hypotheses that you’d like the data to answer, says Lancaster. That can help ensure you are collecting the right kind of data in the first place.

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About Martin Couzins

Martin is an experienced business-to-business journalist who has spent many years covering the HR and L&D sectors. As well as writing and curating content on these topics, he runs Massive Open Online Courses through MOOC Pro as well as a digital content and communications agency Itsdevelopmental.
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