Starting as a Revolutionary
There are two obvious ways to be a revolutionary (Learning & Development) L&D manager: you’re hired to lead the change, or you decide to take on the charge internally. This could either be that there really hasn’t been an L&D group (maybe just a training group), or there’s a pre-existing group. Regardless, I think the steps are largely the same.
The premise here is that you’re recognizing the changing nature of the organizational context: things are moving faster, and organizations have to be agile. Even if they’re not feeling the pressure now, developing the abilities to be capable of adaptability and innovation is a sound strategic move.
What’s known about where you need to be is that you’ve got to move beyond courses, to where there’s a continual learning culture, and leveraging technology in effective ways. Of course, you have to shift in ways that will work in the organization’s existing structures and policies.
Let’s assume that, at least in principle, you’re hired because you argued for this new direction, which implies there’s at least lip-service to the ideas. That is, you’re not going into this with an explicit mandate to do that L&D stuff – training and maybe some eLearning – but to make the change. Which doesn’t mean you’ve an easy path; just because there’s been an acceptance doesn’t mean it’s a done deal.
Behind the approach has to be some principles that we adhere to. We need to have a view of what the big picture is, what are the things that have to get put in place, and how you transition from one place to another. These drive the steps to be taken.
The big picture is the performance ecosystem: an environment where people have the tools ‘to hand’ to get done what needs to be done. And increasingly, that thing is learning, or has been said “work is learning, and learning is the work”. We have things we need to do well, and that includes the ability to troubleshoot, problem-solve, research, design, and generally pivot as needed. In all those cases, we don’t know the answer when we start, so it’s learning, but it’s not formal learning. We need to couple formal learning with informal.
We have a good scientific basis for what supports formal learning, even if it’s not seen enough in practice. What we need is a sound conceptual basis for action, and sufficient contextualized opportunities to practice to acquire new skills. People need to be doing things! Technology can help here by providing new ways to design practice that are repeatable and immersive. Similarly, technology can support learners’ needs to learn and perform on their own, via resources. As they document those learnings and share, we make the transition to informal learning.
We similarly have learned what leads to the most effective informal learning, and this is more challenging. What’s needed, research has shown, is to be exposed to new ideas and to make it safe to experiment and to document and share the outcomes. There’s a continuum from the team assigned to address a particular issue up to the serendipitous outcome of people interacting in creative ways and bouncing ideas around.
Finally, we’ve learned that change doesn’t work best as a monolithic endeavor. Instead, we’ve found that change is best fostered by developing it in small scale and then gradually scaling it up or spreading it virally. Small perturbations are better absorbed than big changes.
These principles drive several necessary steps to start and proceed. These steps include ascertaining the status quo, prioritizing possible approaches, and making connections. The necessity is to figure out what are the leverage points for change.
The start is to practice what you preach. Internally, you need to create in L&D the environment you’re advocating. This will make it easier for the staff to follow through, and it also gives you an opportunity to advocate from a position of positive results. First, the new L&D leader has to be participatory in soliciting input, then transparent in developing the purpose and goals, and support people in accomplishing them without micromanaging. The new L&D leader also needs to “walk the walk” by sharing approaches, progress, and lessons learned, as well as encouraging the same. Finally, there needs to be a determined effort to document experiments and measure outcomes, working for results that demonstrate improvement.
In conjunction, a major leverage point is beginning to measure what matters. Too often, the measurements around L&D are around cost/time or people served/staff. These are efficiency measures. Or we see learner ratings of the experience, which aren’t correlated with actual outcomes. Instead, when we do create a learning experience, we should have a clear outcome in mind. We should be working to achieve an impact on business metrics.
To do this is going to require business discussions. That means stop taking orders and instead getting out of the silo and having conversations about gaps. When people ask for a course on X, the reply has to be along the lines of “what is not happening that needs to, that makes you ask?” This is easier if you’re not battling prior expectations, e.g. when you’re setting up L&D instead of modifying an existing department. This has to be let known at higher levels, so there are conversations with the executives to prepare for this eventuality.
This also requires an infrastructure that supports sharing and collaborating. People need to get in the habit of showing their work, and need the tools to do so. Similarly, they need tools to collaborate, both for conversations and representations that can progress over time. This requires having conversations with IT to document what exists, determine whether it’s sufficient and how it’s being used. Interestingly, the ownership of social media may be with marketing or communications, not IT, so there’re some silos to be bridged. The goal is to develop sharing internally, document the benefits, and work towards making it an organizational default.
The work on silos continues into developing the culture beyond the L&D group. Typically, the role of culture change is broader than the responsibility L&D has dominion over. Yet if organizational development or leadership aren’t aligned, the changes in culture can’t successfully occur. This requires ‘managing up’ to get the other elements to cooperate in creating an environment where it is psychologically safe to participate.
There’s a lot happening simultaneously up front: changing the culture within L&D, assessing the infrastructure, and culture, and finding an early adopter upon which to work on an informed approach. The early adopter project will include working on a real measurable problem and willing to take steps like doing the gap analysis, developing the formal solution (course and/or performance support), the coaching, and the ongoing development, piloting, measuring, and tuning until the desired outcome is achieved.
There may be some concern about how to do this under real world constraints. There are existing courses, compliance and otherwise that must be run, and limited resources. How does one develop these actions under those constraints? One important push is to recognize that the L&D department should move from provider to a facilitator role, supporting learners learning for themselves. Similarly, this is a ‘start small and scale’ approach that means tweaking things rather than an organizational change initiative. The point is to shift to a perspective of ‘least assistance’, doing the minimal to assist, not everything.
This isn’t easy, but it’s necessary and doable. With a successful implementation, and demonstrable outcomes within L&D as well, you’ve set the stage for a continuing revolution. So, are you ready to take up the charge?