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Last updated: July 19, 2018
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Our blog…

Addressing "inconvenient truths" about Learning and Development in your organisation will transform your bottom- line result

Why this article? I have been in and around organisational learning and development functions for a good number of years - from the inside as a Head of Function or number 2 in multiple leading organisations and latterly with Shifting Minds as an external partner. In recent years, I have been hired by the HRD's of a number of organisations to audit, analyse and improve the way they direct / influence employee capability building. So the purpose of this article is to do two things – firstly to explore some "inconvenient truths" around organisational learning and development and secondly (if that is your eventual choice) to explain how we work with organisations to help them make step change improvements.

Before I get to the detail, let me make one thing clear – how learning and development is delivered in your organisation is not a side issue; it is a critical factor that may well determine whether your organisation meets its strategic goals, profit targets or even survives…



Our research and modelling tools suggest that a full re-alignment of an organisation's Learning and Development approach can conservatively add 15% to bottom line profits!

Each "truth" outlines what we find and the associated implications before outlining what best practice looks like. As you read, feel free to wonder whether any of the inconvenient truths apply to your organisation?


Inconvenient truth 1 - Learning and Development activity is often not driven by business strategy

Business planning pays lip service to or fails to ask - "Do we have the in-house capability to deliver the strategy?" Implications - The business strategy cannot be delivered or becomes less profitable as additional external resources are brought in to fill capability gaps

Best Practice - People capability planning is "hard-wired" into Business Planning Process and treated as a critical enabler. Strategy deliverables include a Capability build plan.


Training needs analysis is absent or is largely centred on an aggregation of appraisal generated training requests - leading to typical questions such as - "how many people want to go on the presentation skills workshop this year?" Implications - Training "offers" (all of the courses available) become disconnected from business strategy (in terms of scope / content). Budgets are set using incremental approaches - rather than based on actual requirements.


Best Practice - A regular and formal top-down process to identify critical capability development needs at an organisational, functional and team/individual level. There is a "golden thread" linking all earning and development activity to the strategy. Budgets are zero-based each year depending on the demands of the overall strategy.


Work force planning processes are absent or weak - organisations do not have capability requirements to plan effectively. Work force planning processes are restricted to the annual budgeting process and are normally driven by cost rather than delivering the business strategy. There is also often a lack of joined up thinking between different sub-teams within the HR Community. Succession planning and talent development is often separate from Learning and Development and Recruitment. Implications - The impact of poor work force planning is serious; coupled with fragmented talent and succession planning leads to performance deficits.


Best Practice - Capability needs are fully identified - based on business strategy. Manpower planning processes are undertaken on a 6 monthly basis. Learning and Development team structures incorporate Talent Management and Succession Planning is jointly owned by HRBP's and Learning and Development.


Business Transformation Programmes are often at "arms length" from Learning and Development teams. Learning and development are concerned with "business as usual", whilst others drive through change! Little attention is also paid to building change capability within the organisation e.g. up skilling leaders to support change, or building communities of change agents / facilitators. Implications - The result of this split can be severe, including the failure to embed change e.g. systems, processes or culture change.


Best Practice - Learning and Development teams are fully integrated into Business Transformation via Programme/Project Management disciplines/templates and through active participation in change programmes. Change related training is also co-ordinated / managed by Learning and Development and they include the modules within ongoing induction programmes for new starters on a role by role basis. Learning and Development have a strong focus on building Change Related skill-sets.


Inconvenient truth 2 - Learning and Development teams are often ill-equipped to deliver success


Learning and development teams often overly focus on new learning methods and technologies...and much less on business performance or the costs of providing employee development. Implications - This lack of commercial thinking can result in Learning and Development interventions that are interesting, expensive and not strictly relevant to the business strategy.

Best Practice - Ensuring the entire Learning and Development team is commercially focused; both in terms of their mind-set but also in terms of understanding their vital role in driving business performance. Ensuring that Learning and Development professionals have well developed negotiation skills (to be used when hiring 3rd party training suppliers).


Learning and development teams often lack performance consulting skills and business knowledge. The prevailing mindset is that most (if not all) business problems can be solved by a training intervention. Implications - If you only have a "hammer" in your toolkit - then everything looks like a nail! A significant number of business performance issues remain present after a training intervention has been delivered.


Best Practice - Ensuring Learning and Development Professionals have well developed organisational diagnosis and development skills. Their mind-set is "performance problems" result from a complex interplay of factors and can be solved using lots of different interventions - of which one only is training! Learning and Development professionals need a much wider toolkit e.g. performance analysis, organisational design, lean thinking, change management and cultural acuity.


Learning and development teams often lack status within HR and meaningful embedding / partnering within the organisation at large. It is common to have to "go through" HRBP's before making direct contact with their internal clients. Often responsibilities within the team are shared / confused. Implications - The lack of status makes it harder for Learning and Development professionals to work effectively with / challenge senior management to partner on development challenges.


Best Practice - Learning and Development Professionals are highly skilled and therefore organised, paid and embedded in the same way as HRBP's. Senior Learning and Development professionals have responsibilities for x3 key areas:- a) direct account management of all learning needs within an internal client group; b) ownership of key sections of the learning offer and c) responsibility for key development projects.


Learning and development teams often have a transactional focus and are mostly concerned more about "attendance numbers" on workshops rather than learning outcomes. This focus results in evaluation data either not being collected or used effectively! Implications - Learning activities can be of poor learning quality with no or weak feedback loops to drive improvement!


Best Practice - The Learning and Development team utilise all four levels of evaluation when assessing outcomes. Because sponsors and SME's "own" the offer - they too are judged on learning outcomes. There is a persistent and systematic focus on understanding the "Return on Investment" level 4 for all training interventions.


Learning and development teams often do not like to formally check learning. One could speculate as to why this is so ...perhaps it is due to the prevailing "growth" mindset of Learning and development professionals. Where is occurs - it leads to a failure to include meaningful/robust assessment in learning activities (either Face-2-face or elearning). Implications - Attendance on training (without rigorous assessment) means that capability may have not been achieved. This can have profound impacts on business performance!


Best Practice - The starting premise is "we need verifiably, capable staff". Learning activities contain by default - robust and challenging assessment (multiple formats - created by sector experts / in-house SME's). Failure to reach the standard have consequences and requires learners to review learning materials and re-sit assessments.


Inconvenient truth 3 - Anti-blended, anti-social and often stuck in the 20th Century!

Learning and development teams often live in a binary world where all capability builds are solved by either elearning or classroom training. Implications - This results in a range of problems e.g. elearning used ineffectively to teach behavioural skills; high travel and accommodation costs where Face-2-face training is favoured; and often pre-and post workshop learning is not in place.

Best Practice - Learning and development intervention designers think about "blends" at all times. The outcome of this thinking is programmes containing elements of elearning (for knowledge requirements) plus where appropriate, shortened Face-2-face sessions to properly build behaviour capability. Increasingly Face-2-face being delivered by "Virtual Learning" technologies. Overall design is optimised to balance learning outcomes vs. costs.


Social learning has been promoted widely but has often failed to get traction and in some cases has been abandoned. Implications - This has resulted in lost opportunities for enriched learning and the sharing of vital best practice across organisations.


Best Practice - Social learning initiatives are owned from the top-down through senior sponsors and subject matter experts. The greatest successes are found where social learning has been "seeded" around existing informal networks. Social learning strategies are a "rich mix" of forums, blogs/wikis, external "curated" resources and "ask the guru" sessions. Learning and Development team are the facilitators, but not the drivers.


Prevailing mindset - organisational learning is an expensive activity - this is because traditional training activity is made up of externally purchased Face-2-face training or attendance at conferences. Personal development plans therefore have a small number of entries in anyone year and are constructed annually at appraisal time. Implications - This mindset limits the much wider range of possibilities that can make up an individual's Personal Development Plan (PDP). As a result, learning opportunities are not taken, training budgets remain stubbornly high and performance stays static!


Best Practice - Dominate mindset is that much learning activity can be largely free. Learning and development's role is to promoted "curated" learning and "social" learning.There are currently more than 50+ ways to develop an individual(many of which are free) - as a result PDP's should be updated continuously throughout the year and typically have between 6 and 20 lines of learning planned.


Trainers (in-house or external) often lack the tools to build capability (and do it at speed). There is a prevailing focus on what needs to be done (behaviourally) rather than addressing deeper issues of beliefs, values and sense of self. Implications - As a result, much of the training and indeed coaching delivered in organisations is ineffectual, lengthy and does not impact performance!


Best Practice - Ensure in-house teams or 3rd party partners are skilled in a range of leading edge learning technologies. NLP and Neuroscience allow trainers and coaches to work at a deeper level - helping learners to understand and in some cases re-define their own values and beliefs. Accelerated learning with its focus on how individuals learn allows training designers to maximise and deepen learning per hour.


Learning management systems are not used to their full potential. Organisations spend significant licence fees in implementing LMS systems, unfortunately they are often under utilised. Implications - Leads to wasted investment and a lost opportunity at an organisational level; and downgrades Learning and Development / HR reputation.


Best Practice - Leading organisations understand the work place challenges of fully utilising LMS systems. They work hard and in a sustained way to promote LMS usage. They aim to integrate LMS usage into their overall learning strategy and into daily working life. The realities of usage at any time are based on system generated KPI's.


Inconvenient truth 4 - So many missed opportunities!

The "Learning Organisation" concept is at best largely just an ideal. Senior level and expert support for the learning offers is limited or absent. At best, senor sponsors might open or close a workshop. Organisational subject matter experts are rarely encouraged or required to design and deliver effective in-house training. When they do attempt this - it's often perceived as being outside the scope of Learning and Development and therefore unsupported! Implications - The lack of support for any in-house capability development often leads to huge gaps in technical skills development; when isolated instances do occur they lead to valiant and somewhat amateurish training with poor results.

Best Practice - Every learning activity has an allocated sponsor and in-house "Subject Matter Expert" (SME). Culturally, learning is owned by the organisation, not by the Learning and development team! Best practice organisations expect to see the following:- Learning academies for the business and professional communities of practice. Seniors / SME's are expected to contribute to Learning activity (e.g. a number of days per annum). All in-house training (and indeed externally sourced training) has a strong focus on content, quality, specific organisational challenges and capability builds. It is also delivered in a professional and engaging manner. Learning and development teams act as facilitators and expert guides in creating a learning organisation.


There is also a proliferation of concepts, frameworks and tools - brought into the organisation by various suppliers and new senior managers - each directorate, site or team has its own language. Implications - The result of multiple concepts, tools and language is a "Tower of Babel" - where few teams speak the same language leading to confusion, wasted time and poor productivity!


Best Practice - suggests arming the organisation with a defined set of shared concepts, tools and language. These are taught to all relevant populations during a joiners induction or in the first year.


Many organisations opt for revolution rather than evolution! A review of the last 8 - 10 years in many businesses will reveal a "rich fossil record" multiple programmes to develop the same employee populations. Each time a new MD or HRD is hired there is a strong likelihood that the Leadership or the Middle Managers Development Programmes will be re-designed, re-branded and re-launched. Implications - The outcome of this action is confusion as to who has completed what? It also leads to duplication of content and a sense of devaluing what went before!


Best Practice - Evolution under the same banner and broad has real power; every employee knows what programme they need to complete as part of their career journey; the structure becomes a cultural re-enforcement. Under "the bonnet" any programme content should be improved and fine tuned over time.


Many organisations HR / Learning and Development teams set-up good practice approaches to people development (e.g. appraisals, 121's and development planning) but fail to achieve compliance. Implications - As a result, implementation is patchy with no consequences for non-compliance. This has significant impact on the organisation's ability to build capability and the disappointment amongst staff is a major contributor to increase staff turnover.


Best Practice - Mandatory must mean 100% compliance, both in terms of completion but also with monitoring for quality. HR / Learning and Development teams can access LMS or HRIS systems to track completion and report this at senior levels. In addition to checking completion - it is equally important that the activity is quality assured e.g. how SMART are a sample of objectives set for employees or how comprehensive is an individual's Personal Development Plan. There must be significant consequences / re-training for recalcitrant managers or incompetent managers.


Qualifications not used to boost focus, commitment or funding - A lot of training activity is not coupled to a qualification. In particular some organisations appear slow to exploit opportunities present by Apprenticeship Levy and other previous funding schemes. Implications - this results in lost opportunities to provide (would- be motivated) employees with tangible qualifications and misses out on the extra funding that accompanies this approach.


Best Practice - Given the wide range of qualifications available - from accredited learning through to full-blown certification - best practice suggests that this route should always be up most in the learning intervention designers mind. Learning and Development teams need to understand their way around relevant qualification frameworks and funding and find lean approaches to support accredited learning.


Inconvenient truth 5 - No-one talks about the Business Case for Learning and Development

Learning and Development is too focused on the content and costs of learning interventions but not business benefits - Most organisations have a reasonable understanding on how much they spend on learning and development interventions overall. What is not at all well understood is what are the business benefits resulting from the spend. Implications - this unbalanced business case is that spending is viewed as a cost rather than an investment or catalyst to generate profits. This has a profound impact on future budgetary decisions and the ongoing health of the organisation.


Best Practice - All learning interventions include clearly defined statements as to what employees will be able to do (as a result) of their attendance on a training programme. The potential value of the new knowledge, skill or behaviour is then converted into measurable KPI's. "Time has an opportunity cost" - timesavings for tasks/processes are valued in monetary terms for both salaried and hourly paid staff. Predicted changes to overall productivity are valued in a similar way. Where learning interventions have a direct effect e.g. Sales training on overall sales performance these KPI's should be central to any business case. Where a learning intervention has an indirect impact - then learning and Development should use a smaller conservative percentage e.g. this Leadership programme will indirectly drive 0.5% improvement in overall.


How can I rapidly improve my own organisation's approach to Learning and Development?

The Shifting Minds Consultancy offers a Learning and Development Review Service (LDR). This process has starts with an informal discussion with us - exploring how the service works and what are the time scales / resources involved. If you are happy to proceed, we then work our way through a five-stage programme of work:-


Stage one - Scoping; what areas, teams, systems and learning activities are included?

Stage two - Review of AS IS - achieved via desk research, interviews, focus groups and surveys. We our own 150 question diagnostic tool to structure this activity

Stage three - Analysis of AS IS and recommended options for an improved TO BE plus financial business case

Stage four - Implementation; fine tuning of agreed proposals and planning

Stage five - Ongoing embedding and continuous improvement

Some organisations ask us to complete all five stages; others are happy to bring the change process in house after stage three


For all stages of the Learning and Development Review - Shifting Minds is able to utilise a team of highly experienced Learning and Development Consultants - whose experience and specialisms cover all aspects of Learning and Development strategy, operations and content.