Towards Maturity points the way forward for L&D

By John Helmer

Knob labelled risk turned to minimumIn an industry that tends to lapse into inspirational memes at the drop of a hat, we too often spout motherhood statements about innovation while conveniently ignoring its more troubling flip side, risk.

There is no innovation without risk. And this, one could argue, is the nub of the problem faced currently by L&D in the UK as revealed within the pages of Embracing Change, the industry benchmark report released this week by Towards Maturity. The risky business of learning innovation seems just too rich for the blood of many in training, a branch of the enterprise that, historically, has not had that much to do with the sort of high-stakes investments that digital transformation often requires.

Partly in consequence of its back story, training has lagged in adoption of digital technology when compared to its swankier cousins, marketing and finance. By comparison, training comes across in the numbers (if not in the rhetoric) as unadventurous and risk-averse. Course-based, stand-up training is still massively dominant in UK organisations, and training continues to be seen as a cost centre, rather than as the engine of growth and competitive advantage.

However. While the headline result of this year’s benchmark research – ‘70% of L&D teams fail to improve business productivity’ – might seem dispiriting; and Clive Shepherd, for one, pulled no punches in pointing out exactly how ‘stuck’ the report shows L&D to be, there are clear indications in the report of what L&D should do to improve this situation, and a growing evidence base on which it can draw in doing so.

Many years ago, when I first encountered the world of learning consultancy, I found it difficult to get my head around what practical use a maturity model might be. It seemed a bit abstract – and to have only bad news in store for most people. So OK, it’s an interesting thing to know how you rate against other companies doing the same thing, and exactly where you are on the adoption curve for new ideas. Interesting – but surely not essential?

But learning more about benchmarking, and in particular the work done by Towards Maturity, opened my eyes. This year’s report contains a wealth of useful information, as ever, but one chart in particular captured my attention (see below).

Chart form Towards Maturity Report showing benefits achieved

Source: Towards Maturity

It shows the benefits people are seeking to achieve through technology innovation, and how likely they are to achieve those benefits. Once you’ve got over the shock of how hard it seems to be to achieve any sort of benefit – the majority it seems, just don’t get there – the next, rather obvious thing that strikes you is that some benefits are harder to achieve than others. But that’s quite a useful piece of information to have, especially when you can see it statistically quantified.

This chart tells you that if you are fairly new to learning technologies and looking to do your first major programme, and your top team is saying they want you to focus on fostering a culture of self-directed learning … then you are probably best advised to spread a bit of realism. Rome wasn’t built in a day, you tell them, and you are twice as likely to get results if you focus your programme instead on something more basic, such as extending the reach of learning or increasing volume.

However if you are a bit further down the path of innovation, you might use this chart differently. Say your organisation routinely uses technology for compliance learning and you’ve had some successes getting your induction e-enabled; now might be the time for something a bit more stretching, such as improving productivity, or staff motivation.

Wherever you happen to be on the scale, you could probably do with a bit of help to get where you want to be, and in this regard it is really useful that Towards Maturity have focused even more strongly this year on their ‘Top Deck’ companies; those in the top 10% of the TMI. Another version of the chart above compares Top Deck respondents to the average figures.

Towards Maturity chart showing benefits achieved by Top Deck respondents

Source: Towards Maturity

This shows that the Top Deck pull away from the rest of the field quite markedly when it comes to the more difficult-to-achieve benefits towards the top of the chart. All of this reinforces how useful it can be to study the information Towards Maturity provides about how Top Deck organisations get these results in order to know what you have to do next.

Not all of the Top Deck are keen to be identified as such in the public domain. In my view, Towards Maturity’s work would become all the more valuable if a few more of those organisations would step forward and open up some of their methodologies and learnings to other companies that need to learn from them – to become more visible champions for innovation in learning.

Snapshot of an industry

So far so great, but this pair of charts also has another big point of interest for me, as someone who in the past has done work on analyzing the learning technologies industry. As I have often said before, our industry suffers from a lack of analyst oversight, and although industry analysis is not really Towards Maturity’s bag, you can see in the figures that underlie this particular chart a picture of where our industry is right now that confirms a lot of anecdotal evidence and my own subjective impressions.

The growth of learning technologies has been strongly driven by demonstrating compliance to date, something this data confirms, but I have also seen a change in recent years where induction (which sits in the second box up, labeled ‘Individual Processes’) has become almost a second-line staple for bespoke content development companies. Somewhere between box 2 and 3 is probably where most regular clients of companies like Lumesse are right now, but we also have our Top Deck customers who are trying the more adventurous things.

A maturity model such as this allows risk to be calibrated with greater precision, to the benefit of all concerned. That is no mean thing. All innovation involves risk, and the leadership experts tell us that great leaders live cheek by jowl with risk; they understand risk, know how to quantify and mitigate risk, and are not afraid to take a risk – as long as it is a calculated risk. The real value of Towards Maturity’s benchmarking work is that supports a whole industry in innovating boldly but at lower risk. (Looked at in this light, not getting yourself benchmarked begins to look like recklessness!)

There is a lot of hope in these figures: we can see achievement of desired benefits becoming a more likely thing, as the maturity of both practioners and providers increases, and organisations beginning to value the learning function more highly as a result.

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