How to Choose the Right Future for Your Enterprise Learning and Development Team?


Things are moving faster, and recognition is growing that organizations need to be both excellent in execution and in innovation.  What makes those happen are different, but they both benefit from the support of Learning & Development.  The question then becomes what does L&D look like in the new enterprise?

There are two major components. One is having employees being prepared and supported to do what needs to be done.  Given the rate of change and increasing automation, this may be a decreasing requirement for the organization, and what’s predicted to kick in is the ability to deal with new and ambiguous situations.  Situations will be less deterministic and require more flexibility. The pedagogy and topics will need to change, as will the ways to support organizational needs.

As a consequence, there is a suite of things that have to happen. As before, people need to be developed to be able to execute what’s known is needed to be done.  They also need the tools to hand: resources that put information in the world when it’s a large amount and/or changing frequently, tools that support for those things that our brains don’t do well like remembering arbitrary and complex steps, remembering all the factors in a decision, and more.

On the continual innovation side, people need to be able to work and play well together, collaborating, supporting one another, working out loud, and more.  There are both a set of skills to work, and skills to continue to learn to continually work better.  This is both preparation and ongoing facilitation.

These both will end up being served by a performance ecosystem that brings learning resources, performance support tools, mentoring & coaching, community resources, and communication and collaboration tools ‘to hand’. This, of need, is embedded in a culture of learning, where working out loud, asking questions, and offering support are expected and valued.

The point is that people will be working together in new ways, and we want to be supporting all the ways that we can to ensure that the organization is ‘working smart’.  So what does that look like, pragmatically?  It helps to see things from different perspectives to understand what the end goal should be.

The Employee View of Learning and Development

From an employee’s point of view, it may not be obvious what is being done by L&D.  Like IT, it could well be that L&D isn’t noticeable when done well.  Certainly, partnerships with IT will play a role, as will relationships with business units.  Some folks may be involved in determining the needs to be met, but others may simply be the beneficiaries of a working performance ecosystem. The role of L&D in the background will be the ‘invisible hand’.

Employees will need to be leveled up to a beginning standard with initial challenges supplemented with learning resources, and then steady development over time depending on their progress and needs.  This can include little challenges, updates, and similar distributed interventions that reactivate and challenge the learners within their reach but not immediately within their grasp. There will also be coaching and mentoring. These elements will be the visible role of L&D, but much more will be going on.

For one, the employee will find validated and ready tools to hand both at the desktop and on the go. L&D will be determining what needs to be in the learner’s heads, and what can be ‘in the world’, and then designing both.  This and the above development are part of the ‘optimal execution’ role.

An important component of this is developing employees’ ‘learning skills’ or meta-learning. These skills need to be made explicit, and then developed.  Increasingly, learners are ‘self-helping’, and that is an imperative for L&D to adapt to and support. From the employee perspective this will include coaching in group activities about how to work in a group, and challenges that don’t include all necessary resources and require the learner to find their own, with support (developing their self-learning skills). It will also include performance support about finding tools, creating them, and the tools to do so.

Ensuring effective coaching and mentoring is another role for L&D.  Again, being explicit about the associated skills is part of the role, and support tools and coaching come into play.  Employees will be assigned coaching and mentoring duties, and supported in developing the skills to do this effectively.

This social element will be important, and employees will see guides and receive mentoring about what a learning culture consists of and how to participate effectively.  Effective collaboration is necessary, and benefits from employing the right practices. The overall notion of culture will be explicit and developed.  Employees will find they’re expected to experiment and share the learnings.

Overall, employees will feel like they’re role-players in getting up to speed and then participating in developing the organization’s knowledge.  Employees will feel that L&D is all about understanding how they should ‘work smarter’, making it clear what that consists of, and then continually developing the skills and tools needed.

L&D’s View of the Future

To make this vision come true, the most important thing L&D needs to do is get (and stay) on top of the latest research on how people think, work, and learn.  Right now, many practices are contrary to what’s known. Information dumps as courses, learning styles, traditional brainstorming, no time for reflection, and more are practices that are contrary to the ultimate goal.  Knowing what’s real and what’s not is a professional obligation.

A second key role is experimenting with and practicing the skills that are being promoted. L&D needs to be the hotbed of experimentation to have credibility bringing it forward. Success internally is a foundation to be trusted to bring it outward.

What this entails are several business process changes that yield the necessary outcomes. For one, L&D has to become aware of organizational imperatives, and then do the research to find out what’s working and what needs help. That means that L&D is being more proactive with business units about their goals and barriers. When someone comes to the door with a request for training, L&D will execute a standard practice of performance consulting analyses to determine the gaps and the root causes, and determine appropriate interventions leveraging the full suite of resources including courses, performance support, and the community.

There will be still be courses (with a refined pedagogy), but they will be much more ‘challenge’ oriented, and distributed across time.  Courses will be coupled with coaching and work assignments that will be reviewed. And performance in the courses and tasks will be resourced with tools, media resources, and people to both reflect and develop the desired workplace practices. The design of this more holistic approach to learning will be a core role for L&D.

Note that one big shift is from creation to curation.  L&D should refrain from developing resources except as critical to proprietary processes. Ideally, when someone has a learning need, L&D points them to appropriate solutions rather than developing them, if they exist. There are better ways for L&D to be spending their time.

One of these new ways for effective use of time will be facilitating meetings and projects. Better brainstorming, agile processes, teaming, and more, are the work ways of the future.  L&D will need to develop and practice these skills internally, and then serve as the facilitator for these skills to be migrated outward. Overall, L&D needs to be as responsible for the organization working effectively as L&D is itself.

How Does the Organization View the Future of L&D?

The organization should start seeing L&D as a continual enabler of effectiveness, the champion of better outcomes. Certainly other units will have a role, including leadership and executive development, HR and Organizational Development, and IT, but the core responsibility for aligning efforts with cognition should rightly belong to L&D.  One way to think about it is that L&D moves to Performance & Development, with the focus of performance being on optimal execution (read: courses and performance support), and development being about continual improvement and innovation.  Or perhaps L&D becomes OE, organizational effectiveness.

The point here is that L&D cannot continue to be just about courses.  Courses are important, but they’re not all the ways that people need to be developed and supported in working smarter.  If L&D doesn’t step to the fore in this they will be sidelined, as people are already beginning to ‘self-serve’ learning.  Others will step in (the aforementioned IT and HR, as well as the individual business units). As people are empowered with knowledge creation tools, they will begin as communities to create their own resources. And L&D should be recognizing this and facilitating it as a natural transition to maximize the outcomes.

This isn’t necessarily easy, but it is inevitable.  While organizations that maintain a ‘command and control’ structure will expect traditional L&D, such organizations aren’t the future. Awareness is raising that agility is an increasing determinant of organizational success, and that a rigid hierarchy can’t be agile. Instead, the movement is to teams either alongside or replacing the old organizational chart.

The model for enterprise success has changed, and so too must the model for enterprise training. Training must move from an information event to a challenge process.  Solutions must move from courses to an ecosystem. And L&D must move from designers and presenters to consultants and facilitators.  L&D, at core, has to recognize and embrace the requirement to truly understand cognition: how people think, work, and learn. The opportunity is here, and the time is now.  L&D must, and can, get strategic. L&D has been, and can be, a noble profession, so it’s time to get professional!