What is a true L&D professional?

professionalAn important point of reflection for any field of endeavor, and members therein, is: where are we and where do we need to be?  The issue at stake is professionalism; what constitutes an appropriate basis for conducting ourselves as members of the L&D community?  It’s worth reflecting on what constitutes the necessary components of competent practitioners.

There are several extant definitions available. In Revolutionize Learning & Development, I included as appendices the Learning and Performance Institutes’ list, the Toward Maturity list, as well as the one from the Association for Talent Development (previously ASTD).  The overlap wasn’t surprising, but it provides a guide for reviewing what needs to be known.


The core elements are the basics behind training. The responsibilities transcend formal learning and include business aspects as well. Having a full suite of background knowledge is a starting point.

At core is what’s known about we learn and perform.  Now, this isn’t trivial: the human brain is arguably the most complex thing in the known universe. Achieving systematic changes in such a complex environment isn’t trivial. On the other hand, we have a wealth of theory grounded in empirical evidence that provides solid guidance.

And if you don’t know how we learn and think, you can’t design appropriate solutions. If you’re possessed of a view that lecture and a knowledge quiz is sufficient to achieve meaningful outcomes, you are underserving our industry.  You have to know better. This includes when to not try to put information in the head, but when it can (and should) be in the world.

In operation, this means you have to have a solid background in instructional design and performance consulting. If you only know the former, you’re liable to use courses when there are better solutions. (If you don’t know the former, you’re liable to commit learning malpractice!)  You should be creating solutions that address the observed gaps.

Further, technology is increasingly giving us the capability to do better across our activities. We can start delivering support where and when needed. Thus, understanding technology is another concomitant area of understanding. You need to know what technology can, and more importantly can’t, do.  

Which means another component is measurement. If you’re only measuring efficiency, such as cost per hour per student, you’re not providing a complete solution. If you’re only looking at smile sheets, you’re missing the actual impact. You have to understand what to measure, and how.

Measurement is part of the larger picture of management.  You need to be measuring what you’re doing to know if it’s working or whether it needs tuning. Given the complexity of people, it’s a fair assumption that some tuning is needed, but what?  Overall, this is about knowing how to manage your activities beyond just delivering learning and doing so on a predictable and continually improving basis.

Which is really just good business, but that’s another aspect. How can you be supporting the business if you don’t understand it? Beyond just management, you need to be able to plan, deliver, and document your contributions to the success of the organization. What are the drivers of success in your industry? You need to understand external as well as internal factors.

Ultimately, you have to look to the overall culture. For ultimate success at learning, you need to have an environment that’s facilitative, not a hindrance. Do you know what the role and importance of experimentation and psychological safety is?  You may not be able or expected to be the sole agent of change in the organization, but you should be advocating and facilitating change.


Putting all this knowledge into play gets into a second set of issues. What are your policies and processes? How are you applying the principles above to your own practices? This includes how you’re leveraging technology.  Are you practicing what you preach?  Your own processes should reflect the same bases that you’re trying to instill elsewhere. L&D can’t be the proverbial cobbler’s children!

Your systematic methodologies need to reflect what’s known. That includes starting by looking at requests for support with a systematic process and bringing in the appropriate resources at the right time. Do you have a knowledge, skill, motivation, or resource problem, and what’s the right solution?  

The processes you’re supporting need to be defensible on principled grounds. “Because that’s how we’ve always done it” isn’t going to cut it.  Can you state why you need collaboration here, and job aids there?  And that’s not just in your solutions for your clients/customers, it’s within your own operation.

Your own culture also plays a role. Are you experimenting within L&D?  Are you working out loud and showing your work? Is it safe to share?  What’s your R&D plan?

That naturally includes the use of technology. Are you getting the most from the tools you have?  Are you trying new things?  Are you leveraging technology to work smarter? With better odds than the lottery, “you have to be in it to win it”. How can you advise others if you aren’t trying it out yourself?  And similarly, using technology to track your own actions.

Continual Improvement

If you’re on top of that, of course, you’re not finished. While L&D may not have continuing education requirements like accounting, law, and medicine, your own sense of responsibility should not let you sit on your laurels. Learning may not be a dynamic field like semiconductor fabrication, but it certainly is continually changing. For instance, advances in technology are impacting our field: artificial intelligence, mobile, and more are areas that have recently or are currently in flux!

For one thing, you need to be keeping yourself current. How are you tracking changes in learning science understanding, technology, processes and tools, and more? Are you taking courses? Attending conferences or special symposia? And are you systematic about it? Are you a member of a relevant society in your country?

You certainly should regularly be reading new things. There is a regular stream of new books (I know, because I read and write them!) that have useful information. And many of those authors are writing in between their books, with blog posts or articles. Similarly, there are regular magazines, print and online, that are talking about the latest developments.

Of course, there are other media.  Many of the societies, and others, are regularly offering webinars. And individual organizations and people offer webcasts, podcasts, videocasts, and more.  (It’s even easy to be overwhelmed, so managing this is a skill as well!)

And last but not least, are you connecting with your peers?  There are LinkedIn groups of many sorts, at least one of which is likely relevant to you.  Besides conferences, you can and should be engaging with authors of posts via comments, participating in tweetchats like #lrnchat, and generally being active in helping define our practices as a collaborative enterprise.

Not all of the above may be relevant to you, but they are all things you should be on top of.  It’s a matter of professional ethics to be a knowledgeable practitioner.  There are lots of ways to gain, and maintain, this knowledge. It’s up to you to choose how, but it shouldn’t be an option to not.