How L&D must change: report from our think tank

By John Helmer March 17, 2015

In a recent talk to the Towards Maturity Ambassadors Group, Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of the CIPD spoke of the changing face of Learning and Development, and how it needs to reshape itself for the future. On this very topic, we reached out to the L&D community to explore these issues in the earlier part of his year. We conducted a research exercise, the fruits of which we want to share with you now, over a series of linked blog posts covering:

  • L&D skills: is there a crisis? What skills does L&D need?
  • The supplier market: how well does it really serve L&D?
  • Problems and opportunities posed for L&D by technology

The results were fascinating, shedding real light on how L&D is changing right now, and painting a picture of what the future might look like.

To kick this off, we asked the following question:

  • Is there a technology skills crisis in L&D?

… And we asked it in two ways.

Firstly, we asked a wide sample of attendees at the Learning & Technologies show their views on whether they perceived a skills gap in the L&D sector as it becomes ever more technology focused.

Chart: is there a skills crisis in L&D

Source: Now Communications Fast 50


Over 53% of attendees polled felt the sector had a skills crisis, versus 32.7% who were comfortable with the current state of play, suggesting that for the majority of businesses there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Secondly, we posed a slightly wider question in the same vein to an invited group of L&D leaders in a ‘Think Tank’ facilitated discussion conducted under Chatham House rules.

‘Those who are most successful with technology aren’t necessarily those with the most technology skills … but the most business savvy’

Delegates were from organisations including Lloyds Banking Group, Mærsk, MOD, Pragma, Towards Maturity, Trafigura, TUI, and Vodafone.

This opened up a frank, no-holds-barred discussion that gave some clear pointers to the way forward-thinking L&D departments are reshaping themselves in order to maintain and increase their relevance to the business. Here’s what they had to say.

For the time-challenged … key points from our Think Tank discussion

  • Priority skills that L&D needs for the future might not be the obvious ones of technology and instructional design
  • More important could be knowing how to work with the business, listening to your learners and comms/marketing skills
  • It’s not just about a change of skillset, but a shift in underlying attitude too
  • 70:20:10 is an important concept (but probably not in the way that you think!)
  • Curation is a critical new skill to master
  • Coaching and mentoring, train-the-trainer also important
  • Some hard truths to accept: you can only fully control the 10%, a lot of learning belongs in the line – and L&D might shrink, but be focused more on innovation and consultancy

Crisis? What crisis?

Is there a skills crisis in L&D? The answer to this question came back fast from our delegates – yes.

The good news is that, compared to five years ago, say, there is greater awareness now of a gap. CIPD’s most recent Learning and Development survey showed a feeling that greater business and commercial awareness is the factor that will most contribute to the success of an L&D professional. However, other research, notably that by benchmarking group Towards Maturity, casts doubt on whether the skills exist to get there. ‘They want to be able to respond faster, to be able to support performance … [and] they’re no longer just saying, “my job is to do courses, and if I use technology, then it’s to be able to do those courses bigger and faster and quicker”. They’re now much more likely to be saying, “my job is to support business agility” … The issue is they’re absolutely not equipped to do that’.

So what are the skills that are missing? Technology skills? Skills for instructional design? Think again.

‘We’re three month in … where’s our learning programme?’

Research reveals a paradox. Those who are best at using technology for learning for learning programmes – those who achieve successes for their organizations through this means – are not necessarily those with the most advanced technology skills themselves. ‘They are those that are more business savvy, more aware of their audience, more able to engage with stakeholders, more able to think broader in design – so that their design strategy isn’t just about, how do I do a course online …’

You might also think that good instructional design skills would be an essential. However, anecdotal evidence from our panel (and quite a weight of it) suggests that ID is of declining importance. One of our delegates, an L&D leader for a global company, well experienced in getting results with technology, expressed his dissatisfaction with some his US colleagues who have learned instructional design at university and go ‘into role’ more or less as pure instructional designers. ‘They’ve got no business concepts and I think they do the industry a disservice. They might come out with the best instructionally sound solution, but actually the end result isn’t pragmatic’.

Designing learning by the book can take too long, given the accelerated business cycles of global companies, and by the time the programme arrives, it could already be redundant: ‘the business has moved on to the next agenda item’. What’s more important is for the L&D professionals to have good consulting skills, ‘get to the nub of the matter, and do just enough instructional design to get the right product’.

In one of this company’s territories, apparently, the ‘preferred learning style’ is now a three-minute video: ‘How much instructional design is there behind all those how-to videos on YouTube? And yet that is where we all go to learn now.’

So what’s the answer? ‘Deliver something short and sweet, that gets to the point straight away, and make sure you’re totally aligned with the needs of the business … that’s the skill, I think’.

Talk to the business

So it turns out that the key skills needed by L&D are the ability to talk to the business, and to translate that at pace into ‘action learning’, without leaning too heavily on traditional instructional design. In practice this means developing consultancy skills, and might call on a communications skills and capabilities more often seen within marketing and comms.

However the problem, as seen by our delegates, is not necessarily just about about skills gaps you can identify with a competency matrix – it goes deeper than that, into attitudinal, cultural and conceptual areas. It’s about how L&D relates to the business under the traditional model, and how that has to change.

‘This new-fangled thing that we’ve been doing for 20 years’

On this point, one of our delegates said: ‘I still think there’s a level of nervousness in L&D about this new-fangled thing that we’ve been doing for 20 years called digital learning’. Instructor-led training still gets more credence, and it’s a battle to make people believe that digital is now just as important a component of the learning mix. Meanwhile people are working so globally in many organisations (including this delegate’s) that ‘there is simply no other way for us to cope without thinking more digitally’.

L&D needs to take this on board and to proselytize for a change of attitude in the rest of the business, because as things stand, senior leaders will still reflexively come to L&D and request a course, because they are stuck in a very traditional mindset. Meanwhile when you survey what people in the organisation are actually doing to get the knowledge they need to do their jobs: ‘they use their mobiles, they’re downloading apps, they’re doing all kinds of stuff for themselves,’ but these learning behaviours are simply not seen as being in the same conceptual ‘bucket’.

70:20:10 is seen by our delegate as having been a useful tool in bringing about a change in understanding here – despite the cringe-factor associated with what has become a very over-used and often misunderstood buzzword: ‘the ghastly 70:20:10 thing!

The real significance of 70:20:10

Some of these misunderstandings come from failing to see that 70:20:10 is an observation, not a model, and therefore represents a parameter to what L&D actually has the power to control or affect. ‘70:20:10 is happening whether we want it or not … there was this trend about 4 years ago to say, “how can we get into the 70%?” Actually no, stay out of the 70% … it’s happening on its own: don’t break it!’

The new skill of content curation is a key one in the 70%: providing relevant resources in a way that can support self-directed learners within their workflow, accessible via the channels and devices they have readily to hand.

L&D can have a more direct influence in the ‘20%’ – and needs to learn coaching and mentoring skills accordingly. The 10% is the only part of the mix that L&D can completely control – and even there, things are changing.

Seeing knowledge as a capability

A trend that several of our delegates either mentioned or supported in their comments was for training budget (and therefore ownership of learning) to migrate away from L&D into the line of business. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

There is a solid logic for it happening, which one of our delegates, from the defence sector, characterised in military terms: ‘if I’m in an organisation and I have responsibility for, and the authority to deliver, an output, why would I not want to own all of the capability, including the people – and including how they learn and develop?’ Where L&D has final responsibility, ‘I can chuck it over the fence at them, instead of owning the responsibility appropriately’. In some ways it is better for learning to be in the line.

An understanding which supports this point of view is to look at the knowledge within a given team or member of staff, in so far as it is the result of training, as a capability. Again, in the military context: ‘It’s dead easy when somebody builds a new weapon system: we all get it – it’s capability. When somebody builds a new piece of knowledge, however …’ it’s less easy to see in that way.

The future shape of L&D

So what is the role for L&D, if budget and responsibility for learning sit within the line, or with particular functional heads?

We can see this by looking at the way many forward-thinking heads of L&D (we had several around the table) are already operating – as consultants and enablers of learning. Says one of our delegates, a noted ‘leader and bleeder’: ‘I’m pretty hands-off …

‘We have three new projects out to tender at the moment, and where in the old days I might have managed all of them, now I say: here’s three providers you might use, set up the meetings and so forth – but then stand away. It’s the business talking directly to [vendors]’. This is not to say he doesn’t maintain contact with projects. If a particular aspect of it becomes particularly troublesome – or if the vendor is (perish the thought), ‘trying to bamboozle us with science’ he might be called back in. ‘But I’m not making final decisions … I’ve got too much on my plate, anyway.

So L&D becomes the guide on the side, saying to the business: ‘you own it, you know exactly what you want, all I’d end up doing is to translate, and then I [might] get the translation wrong and end up recommending the wrong solution for you. It’s a big change and I welcome it because I think it is Learning listening to the business’.

And what is the ‘too much on my plate’ that crowds out his day?

Spearheading innovation, and doing the strategic vision thing, seems to be the answer. ‘What does L&D look like in the future?’ muses another delegate. ‘In my mind the person heading up that L&D capability has to have real imagination about the business and what L&D can do for it, with a team of real deep specialists who can exploit for the future; but the actual responsibility for ‘what do I need at the moment?’ is absolutely in line management … So, while L&D may get smaller, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, provided it’s focused on the right things’.

To put it simply, L&D needs to focus on innovation and consultancy.

The skinny on L&D skills

So to sum up the key skills that it would be advantageous for L&D to hone, hire in or acquire:

  • Talking to the business / commercial acumen
  • Listening to learners
  • Consultancy
  • Marketing/communications
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Train the trainer
  • Content curation

In our next report from the Think Tank we’ll be talking about the supplier market; the people L&D have to buy from, partner with and outsource to. What are their strengths and weaknesses, and how do you get the best from them? Don’t miss it!

Comments 1

  1. Loved the message around 70-20-10 and not breaking the 70, as well as content curation. Plenty of things here that got me thinking which is great when you are starting out in a new company!

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