Aligning L&D with business objectives and emerging practices
What is the return on investment of your leaning and development initiatives? Our speakers discuss how L&D can and should align their activities to the business and evaluate their impact.
Date: 07/07/15 Duration: 00:24:04
Recent research shows that just 7% of L&D professionals evaluate the impact of learning initiatives on the wider business but in these uncertain and evolving times it’s essential that L&D becomes all about alignment; with both business aims and with evolving ways of learning.
But what does alignment actually look like? In this podcast we speak to three experts to gain their insight. Laura Overton, founder of Towards Maturity, discusses what is holding alignment up and what L&D should really be measuring to assess value, while Julian Stodd, Founder and Captain at SeaSalt Learning describes the new world of learning, of social and community, and why L&D need to act as agile facilitators not controllers of learning. Andrew Jacobs, Talent Management and Organisational Development Manager at London Borough of Lewisham, agrees with the importance of embracing new ways of learning but stresses the need to challenge the use of certain methods and technology to ensure it’s what is needed for the business. Andrew also discusses his experience of stripping back his L&D offering to truly align with what people want and what they’re already using.
Do you feel that more needs to be done to align L&D with business objectives in your organisation? How are you embracing evolving learning methods? Join in the discussion on Twitter @CIPD using the hashtag #cipdpodcasts.
View the full podcast transcript
Laura Overton: There's a kind of conflict of understanding between an L&D leader and potentially their business leaders. We’ve kind of been boxed in a little bit by business I think and I think we sometimes deserve that because all we’ve done is been a ‘yes’ man or an order taker, it’s very difficult to actually break out of that.
Philippa Lamb: Yes man or order taker – it’s strong stuff but new research shows that just 7% of L&D professionals actually evaluate the impact their initiatives have on the wider business so it’s clear to see why there is often that deep chasm between the L&D function and the business’s leaders.
But for the L&D profession the days of isolating the learning experience from actual workplace activities are numbered. Nowadays L&D is all about alignment. But what does that mean in practice? Well to talk about that I'm joined by three guests and first up here’s Laura Overton. She's founder of Towards Maturity a not for profit research organisation that advises clients on how to modernise their learning.
LO: Really to cut to the chase alignment is where those teams are actually delivering the same outcomes as the business leaders that they’re serving and that's the focus of an aligned L&D team.
PL: A newcomer to L&D might ask why hasn’t this been happening all along?
LO: Indeed. There's a real passion for people to be aligned, absolutely, and I think the CIPD’s own research in the last couple of years has really shown that there's a hunger for L&D leaders now to kind of get more in tune.
PL: So if this passion is broadly there what’s holding up the process?
LO: I think one of the struggles that people have is that often we’re seen as a course provider. A number of my peers in the industry talk about the conspiracy of convenience and the conspiracy of convenience is where a business manager or a line manager will come to the L&D department and say, “I would like a course,” and the L&D department will say, “Oh thank goodness, somebody wants something that I do, so yes what kind of course would you like?” The line manager is seemingly satisfied, the L&D manager is happy that they’re still in a job and actually nobody challenges the status quo.
PL: The external environment for organisations of every kind is volatile, uncertain, complex, often ambiguous. Julian Stodd is Founder and Captain at SeaSalt Learning and he's very focused on the challenges businesses are facing.
Julian Stodd: Change is constant so any organisation which is relying on change programmes or viewing this change as something they can adapt to and then settle into is missing the point. Agility is about the ability to solve problems today and to solve them again differently tomorrow.
PL: So what does this mean for our expectations of L&D?
JS: We’re moving towards a place where learning is continuous, away from it being formally defined by time and place. So the old notion that you either learnt what you needed to at university and then went on to apply it or that you learn it in a few courses that you do over time is being transcended by the reality that we see in the real world where technology provides us with access to knowledge, expertise and community on an ongoing basis. Now what that means in terms of L&D as an organisation is if it’s able to reinvent itself as the facilitator of that with the trust of the community then it will become a driving force for change and success within the business. If it continues to do what it’s very often done then it will become redundant.
PL: Democratisation of learning and development and the empowerment of learners means that L&D has to reposition itself and in broad terms the most effective L&D teams now see connecting, collaborating and facilitating as really central to delivering learning.
JS: In the old world learning was something very much that we did to people and it was based on the premise that the organisation knew best. So we looked at people who were high performers, we codified what they did into courses and strategies to develop people and we then did that to people. But of course it never really delivered the results we want. In the new world, the world of social learning and co-created knowledge we work with people to use elements of formal learning but to use the sense-making functions of community to get people to work together to understand what it means in their reality. So the challenge for the organisation isn’t just to recognise that something’s not working, it’s to be bold enough to take the step. Because of course the biggest difference between a formal approach and a social approach is that in a formal approach the organisation owns the message but in a social approach the story is co-created with the audience.
PL: The latest CIPD research tells us there's already been a shift towards greater integration with the business and there's more awareness and recognition of the importance of evaluating business impact. But although nine out of ten L&D professionals do say they’re looking to improve performance and productivity only around half agree that there are more options than just running courses for building skills. Here’s Laura Overton.
LO: We’ve been doing a lot of work with modernising learning and organisations who are going on that journey of modernising their learning and it’s very clearly not just about a course. Equally it’s very clearly now not just about an e-learning course because I think a lot of people are now starting to say, “Okay well technology is the silver bullet, the magic key that will allow us to do so much more for the businesses that we’re working with.” And our research shows that that’s actually just not the case. What we need to do first and foremost is understand what the issue is and then design with the right tool. Now that may be a course but the definition of a formal course might be changed. It might be a series or a programme of events and interventions that are tied together that take people on a journey that lead to a particular outcome. That’s not a two day course but it is a different type of formal programme. Equally it might be an intervention like an app or a PDF or something that they can just download as a checklist to help them do that particular thing a little bit better. Now that’s a resource, that's not a typical course but all of that comes into the mix now within a modernised strategy and allows us to be more responsive to business needs and delivering what’s needed to support that business outcome, that business performance rather than just delivering out of a catalogue.
PL: So the business landscape has changed and L&D needs to evolve too but what then are the critical capabilities that L&D professionals must develop?
JS: A core skill for the L&D professional today is uninhibited curiosity. It’s the ability to look at the world around us and to see what inspires us, what gives us the best quality of experience. Because experience is what we’re getting now. It’s what we get from great retail, it’s what we get from kick starter campaigns, it’s what we get from effective technology companies. It’s not transactional it’s about relationship and community and experience. So the ability to say why are we doing this thing like this and to say that the answer, because we’ve always done it like this, is no longer good enough. We have to be facilitating people to be better. That should be the role of HR, it should be the role of IT to move away from being guardians of knowledge, from maintaining the status quo, to becoming agents of change, facilitating that change.
PL: What does that look like on the ground?
JS: So in really practical terms what it means is there are two aspects to any role. One is about compliance and safety and risk and doing all the things that we used to do. And the other part is creating spaces and permissions to learn. So for example it’s about saying, in this space we’re doing it in this way because we have to manage and contain this risk and we need to build this particular set of skills. But in this other space we can open it up, we can ask the community, we can work together and we can listen to that. So that's where the iterative nature of it comes in. So we are constantly learning and constantly changing. And it’s okay to be very clear about it, to say, in this space we don’t have a permission to challenge and question, we need to do this stuff, but in this space we absolutely can.
PL: From MOOCs to stimulation games, videos, apps, webinars and virtual classrooms, there's a glut of tools to help the learning process. The technology possibilities are impressive but are they going to help L&D raise business performance? Andrew Jacobs is Talent Management and Organisational Development Manager at London Borough of Lewisham.
Andrew Jacobs: The shiny, shiny is a really interesting question and from my perception I actually think that the tail is wagging the dog in some places. Providers are producing wonderful content, wonderful systems, wonderful processes and we buy them because we think it’s going to improve the nature of the learning. But arguably all learning is only Mexican food. It’s the same core ingredient that's just folded together differently.
PL: ((laughs)) Great.
AJ: And so what happens is that somebody comes along and says, “Look at this, you've got chicken within your fajita, and actually you want this improved chicken. This is corn fed and free range.” And so somebody comes along and says, “Isn’t this wonderful?” and we buy that chicken without actually challenging and saying, “Is that what we want in the first place?”
PL: To align with the business there clearly has to be a healthy level of interaction and conversation with business leaders. This can be a factor in holding L&D back, not least because shining a light on the effectiveness of the work you've been doing can be scary. Not so for Andrew Jacobs at the London Borough of Lewisham.
AJ: What I did was I cut all my courses, classes and workshops, I removed them all, took them all away and then went back to the business and said, “What is it that you need to help your people develop?” and found it wasn’t those formal environments it was about understanding the nature of how people were working and how they were learning as part of their work and then providing a different kind of offer.
PL: And what’s that offer?
AJ: Peer to peer learning. So who are the people in the organisation? Who are the experts? Who are the people who can help me learn stuff? What content is available? So curating and using subject matter experts (SMEs) within the business to curate relevant and appropriate content for people. So rather than the oracle of knowledge sitting within the L&D function we have hundreds of oracles spread about the organisation. Using peer assessment, so that somebody completes something, they would then be assessed but by somebody who has previously completed some learning. The benefit there is that it spaces the practice and it retains that organisational knowledge. And then that person who just completed an assessment would then assess the next person down the line. And just being creative in terms of content rather than sticking everything into a course actually saying, “What is without the course?” and then identifying just the core individual elements that would then sit within it.
PL: There's a whole industry trying to sell L&Ds impressive sounding kit and tech so how do you decide what to go for?
AJ: In the first instance find out what people are using. So a really interesting stat this week about more searches of Google take place on mobile than desktop, so if people are using mobile then what are the systems and processes and platforms that we can do to support that?
PL: It’s also worth noting that you can create tailor made tech in house.
AJ: I have a senior manager in our cleansing department and what he's done is he's gone and developed his own app for his people himself.
PL: If you’re providing platforms and encouraging people to create things like apps then of course your people must have access to those platforms in order to use them. Andrew uses a four point checklist to make sure that his are right, not just for the learners but for the organisation too.
AJ: The first one is can or can't. And that's a question of ability, do people have the ability, i.e. the technical ability to operate it? So that means making things relatively simple for them to work through. The second piece within that is will or won't, as in will people have the attitude to want to use this platform? And we need to understand that some people won't. So I'm standing at the scale of the work that's hit around us. We have the people who have and have not. So which people do have access to it? Do we have to provide the equipment? So it’s actually having the access piece within that. And lastly it’s should or shouldn’t. Should this be put onto a platform or shouldn’t it? Should we still retain it in some other traditional form? I think there's an issue of organisation maturity, depending on how mature the organisation is in terms of learning in different ways, its social aspect and how it works. That should or shouldn’t piece is really quite important.
PL: The L&D function needs a broader blend of skills than ever before and yet there's a big gap between the skills and capabilities L&Ds say they need, such as business planning or supporting online learning and what's actually available to them in house.
LO: You can't put new wine into old wine skins and expect the kind of results we’re all genuinely looking for now. So there is a requirement for reskilling. We find that perhaps only a third of L&D leaders actually know how their own teams keep their skills up to date.
PL: Surprising isn’t it?
LO: Absolutely. But we’re busy being busy and I think that's one of the challenges and times are changing there's a lot of new skills that are coming in. How do we help people make sense of the resources around them, skills of curation? How do we facilitate learning from within the business, skills for facilitating conversation and collaboration? How do we help people apply learning back into the workplace because that's where most of the learning is going on? What’s our role in supporting that learning? These are all those new skills and what’s interesting is that top performing learning teams are investing heavily in their own capability. The top performing organisations are investing more and more year on year. On average we’re doing less in all of those areas year on year. We’re not even standing still, Philippa, we’re actually moving back as a profession and I think there's a real call to action here that this is something we can do for ourselves let alone how to realign with the business and as we do we’ll be building our professional reputation.
PL: Laura Overton there. The collaborative alignment approach that we’re talking about demands that everyone speaks the same language and that means solid evaluation using metrics that speak to the business. Predicting the ways that L&D will evolve over the next few years is of course difficult but evaluation is going to be crucial in helping everyone to understand which initiatives are working and which just aren’t. And as it turns out most organisations don’t measure really fundamental factors like the impact of their initiatives on productivity. In other words they’re not measuring the stuff that business leaders really want to know. Here’s Laura again.
LO: One of the things that's held us back is what we’ve been measuring because we have a real desire in our profession to be able to demonstrate that we’re adding value. So what we tend to measure are all the numbers of things that we are doing, the days of training that we’re offering, how much we’re spending on each person. When it comes down to compliance rates what completion rates are we getting for our compliance courses? How much money are we saving? How many more people we’re reaching? And one of the issues of actually looking at efficiency as a measurement of our value is that it all focuses in on cost. And so if we want to be seen as adding value rather than just removing cost from the organisation then we have to start moving away from those kinds of metrics. And certainly in the research that we’ve been looking at over the last ten years we’ve been looking at things like attrition rates, speed to competency, employer engagement, external customer engagement, the sorts of things that are really hot at the board level at the moment.
PL: For Andrew Jacobs the challenge of finding that common language between business leaders and L&D falls away if you’re properly aligned in the first place.
AJ: Aligning ourselves to an organisation or to the organisational requirements need to be wiped out, the metrics piece, businesses don’t want to know how many people turned up on a course. I don’t want to know how many people thought the room was hot or cold.
PL: Do they want to know what happened?
AJ: Exactly. So what I did is I removed all counting because what we do is we count, we don’t measure. So I stopped counting everything. All I counted was just how many people were engaging on new content and I did no other measurement. For me the measurement sat within the workplace by the manager of the performance. So as part of the one to one on a regular feedback session with an individual, what have you learnt in the last month? What are you now doing differently as a result of it? And how are you applying it? So the measurement happens in situ, in the workplace by the manager and it changes the nature of what we do in L&D, we’re not the counting piece, we create the situation where the manager can then measure it.
PL: So that all makes excellent sense. You immediately think if your line manager is going to do that then you’ve got to think about training your line managers to do that well haven’t you? And of course taking it a step further back the people within the L&D function themselves. So I think there's a sense that there hasn’t been enough focus on their skills and learning. Do you have a strong focus on your L&D team in terms of making them fit for purpose?
AJ: Absolutely. It’s all about them understanding the nature of how L&D will sit now. One of the first things I did in my role now was to sit with my team and say, “How do you learn stuff?” and we then get feedback about it is going to Twitter, it is going to LinkedIn, it is going to YouTube, and it’s not about sitting in training rooms on courses and it is about repositioning what we do. There's an attitudinal shift. That has to happen. And if people can make the attitudinal shift then it’s about the skills that they need to support underneath it.
PL: Julian Stodd has a completely different take on how we should assess.
JS: So my sense is that any measurement should be triangulated. It should be a combination of a self-reported narrative of learning. So I'm very much in favour of personal narratives of learning where people chart their journey over time. It’s very much a working out loud approach. This is what I'm doing, this is what I'm trying differently, this is what works, this is what’s different. And working with the community to understand it. A second measure of learning may well be still a formal assessment but we can do that by more than just multi-choice questions and never with drag and drop exercises. We should be using scenarios where we’re asking people to carry out diagnostic behaviours, to make decisions, to explain the reasoning behind their decisions, to understand the consequences of their decisions. So we can still have a formal layer of assessment. And then the third part of that triangulated assessment should be a measure of performance by other people within your team or within the organisation saying, I think that this person provides me with the best support. This person provides me with the best new knowledge. This person provides me with the best challenge. It’s a mistake to think that we can't make it hard data and quantitative, we need to get a balance between qualitative and quantitative methods of assessment but recognise that simple knowledge checks don’t tell us anything other than people remember the stuff that we’ve just told them.
PL: And that brings us to the crunch. When L&D aligns with business should it then be held accountable for business outcomes? I put that one to Laura, Julian and first up Andrew.
AJ: It’s entirely appropriate, finance are accountable for business outcomes, IMT are accountable for business outcomes and why shouldn’t learning be accountable for business outcomes? We can't sit and say, “Give us a seat at the table, make us important but no actually if the business doesn’t succeed that's not our fault.” We can't do that. If you want the responsibility of being there you have to take the accountability of achieving results.
PL: But for that to work well you do need to have a lot of clarity with management, for want of a better word, around exactly what you’re providing in terms of responsibility and function and what they’re doing with it, because clearly you can't raise performance in isolation?
AJ: Yeah absolutely. And that comes back again to the organisational maturity. Does the organisation understand that yeah putting people into a classroom isn’t going to be the best way for them to learn and accepting that people will learn in other ways, that they will learn through their work, they will learn through doing their job and that the manager’s role will be to measure how that performance improves.
PL: So the alignment’s almost two-way? You’re aligning with management but management do need to align with you?
AJ: It’s a trade-off. It is a trade-off, it’s expecting, it’s about changing the perception of what the function is, changing the expectations of what they expect from it, from how learning will be delivered and the reality will then follow on from that. People won't buy into it if they still perceive learning and development to be a function that sells content.
PL: So should L&D be held just as responsible for business outcomes as say the finance team as Andrew Jacobs suggests? Here’s Julian Stodd.
JS: If an entity such as L&D should be facilitating, its purpose is to help people to be effective and if for any reason it’s not doing that of course it should be accountable for doing that, so the ultimate measure of success will be the success of the organisation and I think that multiple entities from the leadership to the infrastructure, the technology, the learning function, the legal function, all carry a burden of responsibility to get to that place but equally carry the burden of blame if we fail to get there.
PL: So if we’re taking the view that L&D is all about assisting in growing the business, aligning with the business, should L&D be held accountable for business outcomes?
LO: You know what I don't think they should. I've been saying all the way through that this two-way accountability, business leaders and L&D leaders need to be working in partnership, each contributing what they need to contribute, working towards a joint goal. And I think that's the essence for me about successful alignment. It’s not about the fact that I am helping you to deliver your goals but we are working together. Learning isn’t just about what an L&D professional can do it’s also about what happens in the workplace, how the managers support the initiatives that are going on, how people are being encouraged to apply what they’ve learnt to their new job, how they’re being encouraged to feedback to their colleagues to share what’s with it. Well that's a work culture issue, L&D can support that work culture, they can facilitate it, they can certainly make life easier for the line managers who are in there but it’s a joint initiative and they need to be working together to achieve those goals.
PL: Henry Ford once said if you always do what you’ve always done you'll always get what you've always got. Food for thought for L&Ds maybe!
And finally Laura’s main message – lean in, be proactive.
LO: It’s unsurprising that 87% of business leaders are saying that L&D are lacking adding value into their organisation, it’s because we’re not asked to add value and therefore we haven’t necessarily been given permission to add value. Now we have to ask for that permission, we cannot just sit there, we have to, as L&D professionals ask for that level of permission, to say, “Look we can add more value, will you allow us to do that?” but again it comes back to confidence, courage and the skill to do that.
PL: What do you think, do you think it’s right to say that L&D should be held accountable for the bottom line? Tweet us @CIPD with the usual hashtag #CIPDpodcasts. Thanks for listening join me next time.